Be Careful, Warns Marlene Dietrich
The murmur of voices in the lobby of the Lancaster Hotel, in Paris, stopped abruptly as Marlene Dietrich walked in. An American tourist, just signing the register, nudged his wife and the dapper hotel manager, with years of catering to the world’s most elegant people, emitted a deep, heartfelt “Ahhhhh.” Dressed in a stunning, haze-colored mink coat, a matching mink cloche hat pulled down at a rakish angle over the shining blond hair, Marlene swept past them, the click of her high, narrow heels hushed in the deep pile of carpeting, and entered the adjoining reception room where a group of reporters were waiting to talk to her. She sank into an armchair, crossed those famous legs, smiled and said simply, “Bon jour.”
The reporters had chosen a leader for the conference and now, blushing furiously and evidently terribly ill at ease, he walked over to her and bowed deeply. It was as though her very presence commanded such attention, and no empress ever appeared more royal than she as she gave him her hand to be kissed.
In just a few minutes, those usually cynical reporters had been converted into ardent slaves, tripping over each other to fetch cigarettes for her, light them, and bring her tea.
The alluring mystery that is Marlene Dietrich had fascinated them as it does most men who meet her.
Recently, on the eve of her fifty-fifth birthday, an item in the gossip columns of a New York newspaper read: “Two men have actually threatened to kill themselves unless Marlene Dietrich decides which one she really loves.”
When she was told about this, Marlene laughed, tossed back her blond hair, and said, in her low, husky romantic voice, “How can I decide? They are both so charming. And, of course, you understand, they are both just very good friends.”
Love has always been a dominant force in Marlene’s life and she thinks it should be in every woman’s. “If I didn’t have to earn my living,” she has often said, “I’d have more time to live. And my idea of living is to make a man happy. It’s a task that leaves little time for leisure.”
And when asked what makes a successful, lasting love, she said, “Give of yourself unconditionally and completely. There is no compromise in love.”
The men in her life
Jean Pierre Aumont, an old friend who has known Marlene since 1942, says she is a devoted friend, especially in time of sickness or need, and this is an essential part of her charm. “Marlene will drop everything to keep a sick friend company,” he says. “She runs herself ragged, doing errands, consulting doctors, finding the best medicines.
“When she was in Paris, I happened to mention that I had a slight cold. I arrived at my dressing room at the Madeleine Theater that same night to find a tremendous package on my table. It contained every medicine imaginable to combat a cold!”
Another amazing and favorite story of those who know Marlene is one that goes back to the days in Hollywood when Jean Gabin was the man in her life. One night, very late, Marlene received a phone call from him. “Marlene,” Gabin pleaded with a frantic note in his voice, “please come over immediately. I must see you.”
She dashed to his apartment, as any woman in love would have done. Gabin greeted her effusively. “Marlene,” he cried, “I woke up and had a terrific urge for some of your French fried potatoes. Would you please cook me some?” Without a word, Marlene donned an apron, went to the kitchen and, in a few minutes, the magnificent aroma of Gabin’s favorite dish was circulating in the room. He sighed, the sigh of a contented man.
“Her own physical stamina is amazing, too,” a friend remarked after visiting her in Paris. “During her entire engagement in Paris, she never had a day off.”
She rarely ever slept more than four hours. “How can one sleep in Paris?” she asked. Her routine seldom varied. She was awake at noon and breakfasted on eggs, toast and cheese—she has always had a passion for French cheeses. Since she is always on the hunt for new songs, she devoted her spare time to listening to records sent her by French composers.
Although she didn’t have to be on stage for the early evening show until eight, she was usually at the theater at 6:30. In a tiny, almost bare dressing room, she put on her own makeup and, very often as not, pressed her dress herself. Bruno Coquatrix, the showman, had asked her if she had wanted her dressing room re-decorated. She replied, “I need only a chair, washbowl and mirror.” And when she was almost barred from her dressing room the first day of rehearsals—because Paul Anka, her predecessor at the Etoile Theater, had left for a weekend in the country with the key in his pocket—she took it without a harsh word.
After her first show, she either grabbed a snack in her dressing room—large ham sandwiches and tea—or else she went to a restaurant across the street. At eleven o’clock, she was back on the stage for the last evening show.
As a performer, she was a perfectionist. “People pay to see and hear me,” she says, “so they have the right to expect the maximum I can give.” One evening, when a photographer, standing just below the stage, kept disturbing her act by continually taking pictures, she stopped singing to say icily, “Would you please stop taking photographs while I’m on stage. It disturbs the audience as well as me.”
And when he refused, she slowly and gracefully, without a hurried movement, walked down the steps of the stage, took him by the shoulders and gently pushed him up the aisle, up the stage steps, and out by a side stage exit. He was so astonished that he didn’t even try to resist. And that was the last anyone saw of him.
Marlene then continued her act with just a few words of apology.
Her love of perfection as a performer is carried right down to the smallest detail in her clothes. Ginette Spanier, directrix of the Balmain fashion house, says, “She once made us do a seam over six times because she didn’t like it. While we were fitting her, she stood straight as a rod for hours, incredibly beautiful, watching and verifying everything down to the last detail.”
And Bruno Coquatrix, though he has presented some of the world’s biggest stars on his Paris stage, was in such awe of her when he booked her for a recent singing engagement that he spent the day before her arrival in Paris conferring with her old friend, Edith Piaf, for hints on how to handle her. After her engagement, he closed down the Etoile for three weeks, in an unprecedented move, confiding to friends, “I adore that woman, but after this I need a rest.”
After her late night shows in Paris, she was usually free to taste the pleasures of the city she has always loved. Accompanied either by Maurice Chevalier, Orson Welles, Noel Coward, Jean Sablon or any of her other faithful admirers, she would go on a tour of her favorite Paris night clubs, where she danced, and laughed, and quite unconsciously put all the other women in a shadow.
The first rays of dawn usually coincided with pangs of hunger, so Marlene would often end the evening at a restaurant in “Les Halles,” the picturesque wholesale food market. Then she would go back to her hotel anywhere between seven and eight in the morning, with a hearty, cheerful word for the night porter and not even a suspicion of a yawn on her lovely face.
How does she do it?
“I love every minute of life,” she says. “And I live with my times. How can you grow old if you keep pace with today and never look back to yesterday?”
One of the qualities which friends admire is her essential simplicity—so unlike the Marlene of the legend. Many stories have been told about her housewifely gifts. A favorite one is often repeated by Jean Pierre Aumont.
One night last year in New York, he and his wife, Marisa Pavan, and actor Daniel Gelin ran into Marlene at a play and invited her to come with them to Sardi’s for dinner.
“But why go to a restaurant?” asked Marlene. “Let’s go to my apartment, and I’ll cook you something.”
“We hardly saw Marlene for the rest of the evening,” Aumont recalls. “She sat us down with drinks and then disappeared into the kitchen. The only glimpse we had of her all that night was when she brought us platters of delicacies. I remember she prepared a Boeuf Strogonoff, and what a Boeuf Strogonoff that was!” He looked nostalgic as he spoke.
The floor maid of Paris’ Hotel Lancaster still hasn’t recovered from the sight that greeted her one morning when she went in to clean Marlene’s apartment. There was the glamorous star running the vacuum cleaner over the rug. “It was a little dusty,” Marlene commented smiling as she continued her chore.
“None of this is a pose,” explains Aumont. “She runs her home impeccably, and she really enjoys doing housework. The Marlene that her friends know and love is a devoted mother and grandmother, whose whole life is centered around her family and her home. She bears little resemblance to the public’s conception of her. Yet, even armed with a dust mop, Marlene remains the essence of glamor.”
The Dietrich legend
Such earthly qualities as domesticity, warmth and generosity are difficult to reconcile with the Dietrich legend as the unapproachable and ageless symbol of sex and seductive charm, who has haunted two generations of men.
Asked how she perpetuates this legend, Marlene replied, “I live by the law of supply and demand. I give them what they want.” The public doesn’t want to see Marlene dressed in an apron, cooking savory dishes at her kitchen stove. They want glamor, so glamor is what they get. They get it in the form of a svelte, ageless Dietrich appearing on stage, molded in her sequined sheath, carelessly kicking back her full-length coat of white fox, and whispering songs in French, German and English.
“I have never taken what they call the ‘Dietrich Legend’ seriously,” she confesses frankly. “I used to joke about it with my friends; those who really know me. But I am aware that it is useful to me, as well as others. So why should I destroy it? Too many people have gambled too much of themselves and their fortunes on this legend.”
Yet, it is still miraculous how this legend has lasted and how Marlene has lasted as a star far longer than almost anyone in Hollywood. Giving her own explanation, Marlene attributes it to
“discipline, duty and work.”
“I was disciplined from the time I was a very little child,” Marlene remembers.
Born in Berlin at the turn of the century and named Maria Magdalene von Losch, she was the daughter of an engineering officer in the German Army. “My mother implanted in me, at a very early age, the importance of self-control and the mastery of my thoughts and actions. I have never forgotten those lessons,” she says thoughtfully. “They have guided my entire life.”
She probably would have led an ordinary middle-class life if her father hadn’t been killed on the Russian front in 1917. Obliged to earn her own living, after finishing her convent studies, she began violin lessons. A weak wrist discouraged her from pursuing a planned concert career, so she turned to thoughts of the stage, enrolling in Max Reinhardt’s School of Drama in her native Berlin. “If things don’t go as I had planned,” she explains, “I never let myself be dominated by a contrariness. I discipline myself to the new situation and retain complete control of it. Friends often marvel at my apparent lack of problems. I do have problems. It is just that I have learned to master them and not inflict them on others.
“I was motivated less by a burning desire to be a film actress than a need for pocket money,” Marlene confesses of the days she frequented the local studios in the hope of picking up a small role. She didn’t get much work but she did meet the man who was to become her husband and the father of her only child. A few months after their meeting, Marlene and a young assistant director, Rudolf Sieber, were married.
The husband nobody ever sees
The one trait Marlene has always admired in men is intelligence. “I don’t care how old a man is as long as he is intelligent.” And perhaps this is what’s made their marriage last so long. They have never been divorced and are the best of friends although they now live apart. But, whenever she can, Marlene will go to visit him on the chicken farm in California where, because of poor health, he lives almost all year round.
As a young bride, Marlene was swept into show business. She would have preferred to stay at home and, later, to take care of her new-born daughter, but she and her husband needed money. So she accepted a tiny role offered her by Alexander Korda, which led to engagements as a singer in Berlin theaters and night clubs.
It was when she was singing in a Berlin music hall that Josef von Sternberg, the director, first saw her and was so fascinated by her deep voice and the strange mixture of provocative coquetry and innocent purity of her face and gestures that he asked to meet her.
“I am making a movie of the Heinrich Mann novel, ‘Professor Unrat,’ ” he told her. “There is a small part in it that I think you’d be ideal for.”
“Professor Unrat” became the famous film, “The Blue Angel,” and the small part grew into the pivot role of a picture that caught the imagination of the world.
“From then on,” as Marlene says today, “I was motivated by circumstances more than choice. Josef begged me to go to Hollywood, so I went.”
In Hollywood, where Josef von Sternberg carefully nursed the Dietrich legend of the eternal Eve, the dangerous irresistible vamp who broke men’s hearts at will, the real Marlene Dietrich became lonely in her big Hollywood mansion and longed for her child, Maria, whom she had left with her mother in Berlin.
The child was six when she finally sent for her. Then, to the great despair of her press agent, Marlene showed herself off to the world as a mother.
Today, some friends say that Maria, protected at home by guards and nurses, longed for more personal attention from a mother she rarely saw. But then Marlene was, again, pushed by circumstances into a life of receptions, parties, a parade of her sumptuous jewels and clothes, and a constant exploitation of the Dietrich myth. And as Maria grew older, the adoration she had had for this beautiful, glamorous creature, who had the world at her feet, was marred by a feeling of inferiority. Her mother, she felt, was more beautiful, more desirable than she could ever be. To stifle an unconscious resentment, Maria stuffed herself with chocolates and grew fatter and fatter.
The end of a conflict
As time passed, Maria took drama lessons, trying to make a career, under a different name, on the radio and on Broadway, but she was obsessed with the shadow of her mother’s glory. She felt she could never emerge from this shadow.
In 1941, Marlene, to whom her family is more important than anything in her life, seriously contemplated abandoning her career to concentrate her life completely on her daughter. But, then, in the classes of the Max Reinhardt Academy, where Maria was working as a teacher, the girl met a young scenic designer, William Riva. They were married a few months later. Maria’s marriage to Riva is a happy one and has ended once and for all, any silent conflict between daughter and mother.
Marlene now has three grandchildren who are a very important part of her life. If one of them isn’t feeling well, a phone call from her daughter, in the middle of the night, will rout her out of bed in an instant. When she is away, she phones them every night.
What might have been
Marlene wears the title of “Grandma Dietrich” as proudly as the red ribbon of her Legion of Honor. She would never dream of trying to push her grandchildren’s existence into the background or attempt to conceal her age. That would be foolishly trying to turn the clock back. Marlene has never looked backward, and she has no respect for women who talk about “what might have been.” She calls this emotional cowardice.
“Most people spend their time regretting the past and blaming others for their failures, instead of admitting their own responsibilities,” she says. “It’s all a matter of principles. If you have a basic philosophy and discipline yourself to follow it all your life, you can have no regrets.” That holds just as true for love, too, she feels.
“There is no such thing as an unsolvable love problem,” she insists. “Look into your heart. Ask yourself, ‘Am I really making my man happy?’ Then analyze your own emotions. Are they the same as when you first met and everything going as you had dreamed? If not, then perhaps it is you who have changed and not your man, as you think. As we get a little older, many of us tend to live in the past, over-looking the problems of today. This is wrong. To be happy you must always live for the present and give—give of yourself to every new situation. And have you ever wondered if the boredom you may sometimes suffer may not be something that is within yourself instead of the fault of others?
“And remember,” she says, her eyes narrowing in emphasis or perhaps in warning, “the only true lasting success in love is when you give of yourself unconditionally and completely.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1960