My initial interest in Marlene Dietrich comes from a life-long study of WWII. Documentaries describe her heroism and exploits while entertaining Allied troops in the European campaign. That she was a German invariably depicted ‘leading her troops’ intrigued even more. I put her biography on my Christmas wish-list causing its appearance under the tree. What a great Christmas gift!
Surveying the book, Marlene Dietrich by Her Daughter Maria Riva, I tried to judge how much time I’d have to devote to this 800 page monster and then resolutely dug in, leery of reading bios written by boosters; rarely does one get the unvarnished truth. After only a few pages I knew I was gripped by a page turner written by a master communicator. I commend Maria Riva for an excellent effort which peels back layers of shellac make-up behind one of Hollywood’s enduring illusions. Maria’s talent lies in taking us backstage to show us the magician’s tricks without diminishing our love of the show. She does it with skill at great personal cost.
Notwithstanding the author’s life-long struggle to be free of her mother’s meddlesome and egocentric self-worship, she survived to become a gifted writer and luminary in her own right. It must have been a painful cathartic process – and what cathos she endured! Maria documents without exaggeration her mother’s manifold idiosyncrasies, unraveling a jumbled ball of neurotic twine that would have given Freud nightmares, and backs it up deftly with letters both from and to her famous mother. Maria gives us a front row seat in the grand theatre of life, meticulously revealing and documenting what went on in the creation of a world-renowned sex symbol – and fasten your seat belts, it’s not pretty.
There are times when the book becomes more about Maria than it is about ‘The Dietrich” as she likes to call her mother, but it cleverly reveals the impact Dietrich’s twisted personality had on those closest to her. The telling is painful to witness, much like a gory traffic accident, since we voyeuristically see and feel the utter emotional destruction of anyone coming into close contact with The Dietrich. Near the end Maria says she left her mother’s apartment at a run while crying – obviously a run to freedom. Regrettably, Maria didn’t protect herself at an earlier age; she suffered through 70 years of devotion to the least deserving person simply because she was a blood relative. But since she stuck it out, we now have a thorough first-hand account of what it’s like to live with a ‘star’.
For people who expect only hero worship, this book will disappoint. It will dissect intimate details of a woman’s very curious sexuality, and show through Marlene’s own missives and statements that she had one ulterior motive for everything she did in every waking hour – self promotion. It’s sad to hear it from her own daughter, and when you live it through Maria’s eyes and ears, you’ll cringe in sympathy. It’s a great tribute to her that she emerged from this experience balanced – just being able to throw off a wobbly parent is tribute enough, but living her entire life in the gravitational field of an eccentric celestial body while maintaining her own orbit and perspective is something of a miracle.
Marlene’s many sexual encounters are recounted factually, because curiously, for posterity, she sent off every love letter (some quite explicit) to her estranged husband to be indexed and filed like Little League Baseball trophies. Ohhh kay! Marlene appears to have been bisexual, having had liaisons with about five women and perhaps one hundred men. She admits near the end of her life, to her daughter, that she never felt anything for any of them, yet her letters are dripping with ever-lasting devotion and outpourings of love. One can only conclude then that her love is opportunistic in nature, that it’s possible she was not truly bisexual, lesbian, nor heterosexual, that she had sex with humanoids in order to achieve or obtain what she needed. That she quite openly communicates details of her exploits with her estranged husband and her very young daughter is evidence of her pretzel mind, seeking to have her rationalizations reinforced by bouncing them off unwilling confidants. It’s a sure sign that she knows what she’s doing is wrong, much like an alcoholic who begs the company of strangers to get hammered.
Another indicator to her self-worshiping motivation is the fact that never, not once in all her affairs, does she give an old lover the heave-ho. She never tells them “it’s over, we’re through”. She keeps them all hoping, and even services them sexually if they drift back into her life, prolonging their misery. Marlene Dietrich is a sociopathic manipulator. She has paramours sending gifts and love letters, expressing their undying devotion but has to be reminded who they are. We discover that at one point she has four or five unsuspecting lovers on the boil simultaneously and juggles them like so many plates in a carnival act. Occasionally one gets dropped and smashes to pieces but this affects the Dietrich not at all since the world is an endless China cabinet.
Every private peek into this woman’s life belies her self-crafted heroic image. For instance, one lover, Jean Gabin, went off to fight with the Free French. Marlene joins the USO to entertain the troops of her newly adopted country (which she privately accuses of having no culture) and is soon at the head of troops. Her gallantry is self-serving – she wished to be at the front lines so that she can re-connect with her lost lover, she wishes to be the first into Germany to re-connect with her mother and sister. It was easier to manipulate the press in the Forties, and Dietrich does it with ease. Nowhere do they mention her ulterior motives, and had they been known, it’s likely she wouldn’t have received her laudable decorations for service during the war.
Today, the image of Marlene Dietrich is one that can be portrayed by a campy cross-dresser in slit skirt, sequins and boas. It’s a sad testament to human sexuality that she learned her craft of seduction from Berlin transvestites. Enticed by a flashy fishing lure, her many lovers would have been wise to learn the lyrics to a song made famous during her Las Vegas days – ‘When will they ever learn?’ Somewhere in her learning process, and it’s not clear where since there are forgivably few details of her formative years, that campy, sexual audience manipulation crossed over to every other aspect of her life and became its ultimate goal. It became her philosophy and her raison d’etre, the means and the end in one, locked in a feedback loop. As a manipulator, her talent excelled, beguiling everyone of every sexual persuasion. If there were accolades for wide-screen, pan-gender seduction, she gets the Oscar. But was that transition merely a sign that Dietrich was emotionally unprepared to handle her own success? Deep down she must have known that she was neither a gifted actress nor good singer, so she grabbed the brass ring of a leg-show vamp. Unable to compartmentalize, she clung to that image with the tenacity of a Titanic survivor in the freezing ocean. To contemplate letting go, to be normal, to consider any self doubt, would be to countenance an anonymous death in oblivion, so her grip on the illusion remained tight to the bitter end out of perceived necessity. What created this abnormal perception we never learn due to the narrator’s later appearance on the scene, and Marlene has locked the vault tight from psychoanalysis, throwing away the key.
There are few books of this length where I actually got out of bed in the morning in thirsty anticipation of reading more. Maria never loses sight of her perspective – witness the many examples of humor she sees in her mother’s bizarre personality. For example, in her later years Dietrich is in hospital with a broken femur and her daughter enters the room for a visit. She’s told, “The food here isn’t fit for human consumption – so I saved it for you and your family.” I’m paraphrasing for brevity, but it’s one example of many in this excellent book where the author has managed to maintain an unbiased observer’s eye while explaining what it was like to grow up with a pathological egomaniac for a mother. Perhaps my own lack of exposure to the rarified air of elegant society held me back when hearing about taffeta, filigree, scalloped, or dirndl outfits, but like a well-behaved imposter at a white-tie soiree I kept quiet in order to conceal my weakness, muddling through with help from online references.
The book also reveals much about Dietrich’s shocking personality by what it does not say. For example, most of this exposé is painted on the backdrop of the Thirties during which the world’s worst economic reversal took place. More than twenty-five percent of Americans were out of work and whole tent cities occupied by hobos sprang up around railroad tracks. About them we hear nothing, not a whit, only how Dietrich traveled in first class luxury to Europe aboard the Normandie with twenty trunks and thirty suitcases full of dresses and jewelry. In an era when one quarter of men struggled to eat, we hear only of shopping expeditions for thirty pairs of kid leather gloves. If there’s any mention of soup-kitchen lines it’s only in relation to how it impeded her progress down the boulevard to buy Cartier or Philippe Patek jewelry.
The press is partly to blame for this creation of myths. I can distinctly remember seeing news clips of Dietrich singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ in German to an appreciative Israeli audience, but it takes the daughter’s honesty to reveal that Dietrich almost always referred to Jews or Blacks in a denigrating way. The press is her handmaiden and we’re the unsuspecting dupes. We have the truthfulness, the decency and the clarity of thought of Maria Riva for setting us straight. Ironically, Maria deserves those medals for bravery infinitely more than her mother but the question nags ‘why did she not throw in the towel on such a destructive relationship many years before?’
Was Maria driven by a sense of familial guilt? Maybe she hoped that change might eventually come as the ages destroyed the ancient stone columns supporting the myths, eroding over time like buckling legs under the oppressive strain of a gown made of glittering falsehoods. Would reality eventually poke a hole in that over-inflated balloon and bring the whole edifice down? In the end, Maria realized it would never happen. Marlene Dietrich lived out her last days bedridden, entombed in a Paris apartment for a decade, her legs withered, the bed sheets covered in feces, buckets of un-flushed urine by the bed, alcohol and drugs reachable by mechanical grippers. The true sign of a psychotic, she built castles in the sky and simply moved in.
Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t allow Maria to bathe her or clean up the feces-smeared squalor in the apartment. Why? Perhaps she didn’t want the world to get a peek in the magician’s wardrobe, to see past the layers of yellowed varnish. Perhaps she was creating yet another lie for posterity that she was abandoned by all to die of starvation, completely alone. Perhaps she believed in her own myth so fiercely she couldn’t smell reality in her drug-induced, alcoholic stupor. Be my guest and read this fascinating psychological thriller to come to your own conclusions about the mystery of Marlene Dietrich.
The dictionary describes a Chimera as an illusory, fire-breathing mythological she-monster, having lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail. I will never again watch a classic movie with the same awe for the era. Many thanks, Maria Riva.