Ich bin, Gott sei Dank, Berlinerin (“I Am, Thank God, a Berliner”)
Her skillfully executed films, her mesmerizing voice, her many affairs with men and women, her ability to wear manly clothes, and her personal magnetism – all made Marlene Dietrich a timeless legend. On December 27, she would have turned 120.
Photo by: Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel
Marlene Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in a Prussian military family in Berlin-Schöneberg in 1901. Her father, Louis Dietrich, was a police lieutenant, and her mother, Josephine, was the daughter of a jeweler who owned a luxury shop on the famous Unter den Linden boulevard. Her mother invested what she could in her daughter’s education, providing for every sort of lesson, from violin and piano to English and French.
Who knows what Marie would have become if there was no war? Her life was affected by it from an early age. Her father died before she was old enough to remember him beyond some vague memories, her uncle Otto was shot in the neck, and some years after her mother remarried, her stepfather, too, was killed at the front. A man’s figure was very much needed but its absence prompted Marie to experiment with her gender image, adding touches of masculinity to her outfits and developing her intense character guided by self-determination and a strong will.
Performing was seeded in her from birth. She always wanted to be on stage. As she was entering adolescence, Marie Magdalene decided she would be called by the more stage-worthy Marlene. Her first attempt at it was as a violinist, and her first job in 1922 was playing soundtracks for silent films. Sadly, her career lasted only four weeks, because of the wrist injury. If she couldn’t be a concert violinist, she could still perform, in a sense. In her diary, she wrote about dreams of attending a “real cinema” and becoming an actress. She failed her audition in drama academy of Max Reinhardt, but eventually took on minor roles in his theaters.
Photo by: Marlene Dietrich in Jerusalem, Fritz Shlezingel
Dietrich embodied a special aura around her, an image of glam yet indifferent, feminine yet virile. It was exactly this impression of her that captivated a Hollywood director Josef Von Sternberg, who needed a leading actress for a film he was set to direct in Germany. The first full sound film The Blue Angel made her a star overnight. Paramount signed Dietrich to other two pictures, weeks before the release, and had her promise to move to Hollywood.
By this time, Dietrich was already separated from her husband Rudolf Sieber (in her character, supporting his extramarital affair and engaging in her own, while staying legally married), left her family behind and stepped into the world of life in Hollywood. It’s unclear whether Dietrich and Von Sternberg ever had an affair, but their collaboration was utterly intense, which, probably, was essential to their filming success as his camera was masterfully loving on Marlene through the lens.
But, perhaps, two people she passionately and truly loved in her life were her daughter and actor John Gilbert. She raised her daughter Maria quiet unconventionally for that time. She referred to her in a gender-neutral tone as “a child” and brought her to work, having Maria assist her in different ways, like arranging flowers, autographing fan mail, and dressing her mother. When Dietrich met actor John Gilbert, he was a depressed alcoholic, mostly because of his professional and personal failures, including an instance where Greta Garbo left him at the altar. Marlene Dietrich persuaded him to stop drinking and helped him get the role opposite her in Desire. The love story didn’t last long. Sadly, GIlbert suffered a heart attack and died, leaving Dietrich in deep grief.
By this time, everyone was in love with Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood’s hottest actors, famous writers (Ernst Hemingway was one of her friends), millionaires, politicians. Hitler was in the prime of his Reich and was knocking on Dietrich’s door to come back to Germany and serve their homeland. But the side she picked was clear. Not only did she reject the Nazis outright, but she also officially renounced her German citizenship in 1939. Throughout the 30s, she was fundraising for Jewish dissidents and other German refugees, and by the time the WWII started, she intensified her efforts. She joined the USO and began travelling to war zones to entertain the troops, sleeping in tents and giving several concerts a day.
Photo by: Marlene Dietrich, Bundesarchiv
Despite her patriotic efforts during the war, her acting career in late 40s has never rebounded. In Dietrich’s style, it didn’t stop her from having fun, of course. Her wild personal life, her passionate affairs with men and women, her what she called a “sewing circle,” a group of bisexual and lesbian Hollywood figures, her breaking up families – her lifestyle then was well described by the words of the critic Kenneth Tynan: “She has sex, but no particular gender. She has the bearing of a man; the characters she plays love power and wear trousers. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.”
From the 50s to the 70s, she had steady stage appearances and extended engagements as a cabaret artist in Las Vegas, Paris, and London. But she never took her hometown Berlin out of her heart. It wasn’t a smooth comeback, however. She returned in 1960 with many hopes and aspirations, but West Berlin greeted her with negative press, two bomb threats and protestors carrying slogans “Marlene, go home!” She had better luck in East Berlin.
In 1976, Marlene Dietrich faced the most excruciating heartbreak of her life. Her husband of 53 years, Rudolf Sieber, passed after a battle with cancer. Despite their unconventional marriage, they stayed married and best friends. She mourned his loss so deeply, that she decided to withdraw from a public life. She isolated herself in her Paris apartment and was socializing only through long phone calls and letters, including on one occasion with a fan in California, whom, in her eccentric manner, she advised sparing his psychotherapy bill in exchange for her singing on the phone (which she did after he sent her a hefty payment).
She was away from a public view for more than a decade. At the age of 90, after a kidney failure, she died in 1991 in her longtime home in Paris. She hasn’t seen Berlin in over 30 years, but she had a will to be buried here, in a city which was just newly unified. Her body rests in Berlin-Friedenau, at the Friedhof Stubenrauchstraße cemetery.
“I'm worth more dead than alive. Don't cry for me after I'm gone; cry for me now.” – Marlene Dietrich.