News, Culture & Society

Marlene Dietrich’s daughter reveals star hid an ugly truth

Book of the week


by Maria Riva (Pegasus Books £27.99) 

Maria Riva, the only child of Marlene Dietrich, describes the all-consuming monstrousness required to be a great star in this overwhelmingly brilliant and unflinching memoir, re-released 25 years after her mother’s death.

Maria’s mother went out of her way to suppress any feelings of common humanity and kindness. Dietrich was never spontaneously warm. She never laughed. Glacial stares were more her speciality.

‘My mother was like royalty. When she spoke, people listened. When she moved, people watched.’ She never once stood in a queue, ‘not even passport control’, and was ‘always amazed’, when seeing normal people in crowded places such as airports or hotel lobbies, at how ugly they were.

Dietrich was a terrible egotist, who ‘rarely talked with anyone. That would have required a certain interest in another’s opinion’.

Maria Riva, the only child of actress Marlene Dietrich (pictured) recalls her mother in her re-released memoir 25 years after her death

Her daughter is, nevertheless, still commendably able to appreciate the unique artistry, the legend of Marlene that remains: ‘The shimmering look, the incredible body, the hypnotic gaze from beneath those famous hooded lids,’ in films such as The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express and The Devil Is A Woman.

Riva is right to describe the effect as a ‘manufactured flamboyance’ — the beads and sequins, egret feathers, silk stockings, white chiffon and full-length ermine coats. Dietrich’s hair would be backlit, to give it a halo. None who heard it forgot the world-weary, lisping Teutonic voice, ‘so sad, so full of yearning’.

In her films and, latterly, concerts, she embodied an erotic languor, a moody exasperation. Often dressed up in a top hat, white tie, tails and trousers, ‘Dietrich achieved the look of hybrid sexuality long before it became acceptable’.

Today she remains a stalwart of the female impersonators and transvestites, when they drawl: ‘Falling in love again, what am I to do?’ in a German accent.

She was born in 1901 in Berlin, the daughter of a Prussian officer, Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, killed on the Eastern Front in World War I. Her mother Josephine was, says Riva, ‘a cold woman, set in her ways, given to commands, dictums’.

Marlene was to be little different temperamentally, though she was more artistic. She went to the Max Reinhardt Acting Academy, determined to become ‘a famous actress of the theatre’. She flashed her long legs in plays and cabarets, and particularly enjoyed the elaborate costumes — a fantasy world to be contrasted with the prevailing poverty and inflation of the Weimar Republic.

Marlene married assistant director Rudolf Sieber in 1923 aged 22. He condoned her innumerable affairs and collected the love letters she received 

Marlene married assistant director Rudolf Sieber in 1923 aged 22. He condoned her innumerable affairs and collected the love letters she received 

Marlene took walk-on roles in films, and though her mother deemed everyone working in showbusiness ‘shiftless, tambourine-playing thieves’, the 22-year-old actress married assistant director Rudolf Sieber in 1923. Rudi took an immediate back seat, condoning his wife’s innumerable affairs, collecting the love letters she received — a cuckold and manager.

Though they never divorced, he was eventually exiled to a chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley. His long-term secret companion, Tamara Matul, was compelled to undergo abortions ‘to ensure no scandal sullied the purity of my mother’s marriage’. When Tamara attempted suicide, Dietrich ‘blamed the victim for what she herself had manipulated’.

In the Berlin studios Marlene met Josef von Sternberg, her chief mentor who directed her in several films, starting with The Blue Angel. ‘He had found the woman he had been searching for’, says Riva.

Von Sternberg whipped Dietrich through dozens of exhausting takes, and they formed a sado-masochistic bond.

‘As though his overcoat had magic powers’, recalls Riva, her mother ‘fondled it before hanging it up’.

Von Sternberg was openly at the family home. Rudi was, by now, a sort of butler.

In 1953, Dietrich began her career as a nightclub singer. Behind the scenes, however, her health broke down due to smoking

In 1953, Dietrich began her career as a nightclub singer. Behind the scenes, however, her health broke down due to smoking

Such is the candour of this great book, Dietrich’s sexual frustration and nymphomania receive lavish attention. The list of lovers is extensive — Maurice Chevalier, Frank Sinatra, Michael Wilding, numerous Kennedys, Yul Brynner, and the Prince of Wales. ‘I can do it better than Wallis Simpson,’ Marlene boasted.

The knickers JFK had ripped off her she kept as a souvenir. Her ‘most guarded and precious possession’, we learn, was a do-it-yourself abortion kit called the Ice Water And Vinegar Douche. Dietrich was an object lesson in promiscuity, blossoming into outright depravity.

After the success of The Blue Angel, in 1930 Dietrich was invited to Hollywood by Paramount.

Riva magnificently evokes the lost luxury of the first-class travel by Pullman car and ocean liner, the marble lobbies encrusted with golden scallop shells, state rooms of shining chrome and tablecloths of Chantilly lace. Dietrich was unimpressed. ‘She accepted all trappings of wealth as the normal accompaniments to fame.’

Nevertheless, she had her quirky little ways. Marlene was phobic about germs, for example, and scoured lavatories and sinks herself with powerful detergents and antiseptics.

MARLENE DIETRICH: THE LIFE by Maria Riva (Pegasus Books £27.99)

MARLENE DIETRICH: THE LIFE by Maria Riva (Pegasus Books £27.99)

Though she became an American citizen in 1939, Dietrich’s manner was always that of a Nazi; Ernest Hemingway (another admirer) called her ‘The Kraut’. She was appallingly racist and ‘did not like the colour black, except in clothes’. When in hospital, she refused to be treated by black nurses. She was also anti-Semitic. ‘I gave up my country for them, and now what do I get?’ she said. ‘The stores are closed for Yom Kippur.’

During the war she entertained the U.S. troops — all too literally. She slept with the GIs and caught crabs.

As a mother, she was a predictable nightmare. Marlene didn’t like Maria to have friends, or even to get close to a pet dog. Attention had to be focused on Marlene and her alone — to the extent that Maria, in early adulthood, went through painful phases of alcoholism, zero self-esteem and despair.

In 1953, Dietrich began her career as a nightclub singer. Behind the scenes, however, her health broke down. Smoking gave her advanced arteriosclerosis and she became crippled from a series of falls, exacerbated by increasing alcoholism and a dependence on painkillers.

The public never knew of the treatments she underwent. ‘No human flaw must ever be permitted to mar the perfection of the legend that was Marlene Dietrich.’

Maria exacts her revenge now in spades, as she lifts the lid on her mother’s final decades as a bedridden recluse in Paris, ‘her legs withered, her hair chopped short haphazardly in drunken frenzies, her teeth blackened and cracked’.

You feel she relishes describing Marlene Dietrich as ‘a pathetic creature’. It’s as if ‘the basic nastiness of my mother’ was finally revealed.

The star, who died in 1992, aged 90, had become a squalid being, ‘exuding an odour of booze and decay’.

This is less of a movie memoir than a pungent gothic novel.