Marie Magdalene Dietrich, nicknamed "Leni," was born in Schoneberg, Germany just outside Berlin on December 27, 1901. From the beginning, it was clear that the child was special, if only because of her exceptional beauty, which every passer-by seemed to comment on. But there was something else to Leni. She was not studious and obedient like her elder sister "Liesel". While she did adhere to her parents' rules and learned early about responsibility and cleanliness, there was too a bit of mischief brewing within that was just waiting to erupt. Leni never connected with her father, Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, who was an imperial officer, but rather watched him curiously from afar. She bonded more with her mother, Josefine Felsing-- of the clockmaker family-- from whom she learned a love of cooking. One piece of education that Leni did not grasp was this concept of "gender roles." Her mother's need to keep up the household and her undeterred respect for her husband-- despite his philandering and slow decent from public dignity-- was at once embraced and refused by her youngest daughter. Leni could accept the duty but shirked the lack of freedom. After her father died-- probably from syphilis, though the girls were told it was from a heart attack-- Leni was parted even more from her understanding of male authority. She never completely learned to open herself up emotionally to any man. There was always a distance, a misconception, and a space she needed to live in to feel safe. She was eternally conflicted. Her need to adhere and rebel would be forever ingrained in her subconscious.
While sister Liesel excelled at school and went on to become a teacher, Marlene-- as Leni was now more glamorously calling herself-- was not so inclined. She received good marks, but had no use for education outside of violin lessons and French class, which she loved. When her favorite French teacher was forced to leave the country when WWI commenced, Marlene had her first taste of war, her first taste of the prejudice it brings, and her first taste of poverty. Her single mother worked hard to keep her girls clothed and fed, but eating potatoes and turnips day after day was unbearable, though as a well-behaved child, Marlene knew never to complain, even when every one in town's skin started turning yellow from the forced diet. Marlene insisted that her skin alone maintained its glorious, porcelain glow-- already she was building a legend for herself. The lack of dairy products also led an older Marlene to believe that the continuous bone breaks she suffered were due to her poor childhood nourishment and lack of calcium. She would never forget these days: not for their want nor for her mother's courage in pulling them all through. Thankfully, Josefine was able to attract the attention of a new husband, another army officer, Lt. Eduard von Losch, who gave the new family firmer legs to stand on and plenty of money to survive. He would too die early, leaving Marlene fatherless yet again, but he did not leave his grieving widow destitute, thank heavens.
As a teen, Marlene decided that she was going to be an artist: a musician. She studied music in Weimar, however, she suffered a tendon inflammation in her wrist that brought her dreams of playing the violin to an end. Her next idea was to become an actress. When she wasn't accepted at the Max Reinhardt Drama School, Josefine must have breathed a sigh of relief, but that wasn't going to stop her Leni. Unlike Liesel, Marlene liked attention. Despite her mother's protestations that she should be more ladylike and demure, Marlene could not deny that she enjoyed capturing male glances and dressing a bit more colorfully. Her ability to put clothes together came from her grandmother, who passed on her own talent for fashion composition. Living in a country that was bereft of the majority of its men only instigated Marlene further in her independence. Weimar women learned to fend for themselves: and Marlene was not going to give that up when the boys came home. She enjoyed engaging in romances with them, though. Her intense sexual passions were born early, and she honestly penned her attraction to both sexes in her diary. While she may have been nursing a crush on screen hero Henny Porten, it would be Rudolf Seiber aka "Rudi" who earned her love and loyalty. After doing some modeling, scoring some small roles in plays and silent films-- such as her debut, The Little Napoleon-- Marlene met her soul mate when auditioning for an extra job on Tragedy of Love. With so many beautiful girls in attendance, she nearly went unnoticed until Rudi caught a glimpse of her bright, green gloves. He cast her in the small role of Lucie, wherein she stole the show-- with her monocle an boa-- and Rudi's heart.
After the duo was married on May 17, 1923, Marlene quickly became pregnant with their first and only child. She took to mothering like a duck to water, and at first thought of giving up the stage to nurture her little Maria. This is symptomatic of much in Marlene's character-- there was always a divide between her natural sense of duty to the ideals of her mother and her own desires. Needless to say, the state of domestic bliss did not remain entrancing. Submission was never in the cards for Marlene, particularly to a man. Thus began one of the most unconventional families in Hollywood history. Marlene and Rudi's physical relationship came to an end, though they remained husband and wife until his dying day. Their mutual love and respect remained, they were best friends, but Marlene needed her freedom, and Rudi was forced to give it to her. While both enjoyed sexual relationships outside the marriage, with Rudi taking in his permanent mistress, dancer Tamara Matul, and Marlene accruing a great number of her own lovers, it seems that it was the absence of sex with each other that was the saving grace of their marriage. They were friends, business partners, and parents. Maria thus grew up with three parents, including Tami, and whatever random "Uncle" or "Aunt" Marlene brought around. While Marlene continued pursuing her career, taking roles on stage and in films-- most of which she would refuse to remember in her later years-- Rudi supported her decision and acted as a business advisor to her. Yet, it would be another man who would truly advance her career.
Josef von Sternberg was commissioned to make Germany's first talking picture in 1929, quite the compliment. The Jewish filmmaker from Vienna actually came to Berlin from the United States, where he had been working and building up experience from the editing room to finally the director's chair. While not initially ecstatic about being re-teamed with the ornery Emil Jannings for The Blue Angel-- having worked with him previously on his Academy Award winning performance in The Last Command-- Josef could not turn down this career coup. Finding the girl to portray the desirous and dangerous Lola Lola from the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat (The End of a Tyrant) was another problem all together. With many actresses coming at him for the plum role, Josef was dissatisfied with all of them. Then he happened to catch a glimpse of Marlene on stage in "Two Bow Ties," ironically when sizing up co-star Hans Albers. He would indeed cast matinee idol Hans in the film, but it was a surprise when he called Marlene in for a screen test. She was so certain that she had no chance, due to the disinterest Josef had shown her in their past meeting, that she came to set unprepared and without costume. Her indifference and outright antipathy worked to her benefit, because Josef was completely fascinated with her. Her devious and sensual quality came through in her test wherein she sang, "You're the Cream in My Coffee." Her attitude, allure, and ability to speak fluent English (which was needed, as they would be filming two versions of the film for universal release), in addition to her legs, won her the coveted role. She became a sensation in Germany overnight, though the United States would not catch a glimpse of Lola Lola until after Marlene made her first American film.
The Paramount scouts came calling, after it became apparent that Marlene-- an unknown-- had stolen the film from the incomparable Emil Jannings. She and Josef were brought to Hollywood, and she was forced to temporarily leave Rudi and Maria behind. She was put to work on Morocco opposite Gary Cooper where she strolled on camera in a top and tails and sent shock waves through the nation. Audiences loved it: her beauty, her ambivalence, her modernity. Women started wearing trousers and copying Marlene's in-control swagger. The English version of The Blue Angel soon debuted in the US, and shortly thereafter the German version was re-released to rave reviews. Marlene was a star, and a star of her own variety. At first, she was pegged as the German answer to Greta Garbo. No, no. She was "Dietrich," and there was no other. Morocco would earn her her first and only Oscar nomination, and she would continue teaming with Josef von Sternberg on the films that would establish her early Hollywood identity. Josef was hard on her, demanding, insulting, tyrannical, but-- at least at first-- Marlene did not argue or stand up to him. She could not deny the results. She studied the way she was lighted and perfected her makeup to give her the soft and ethereal beauty that wonderfully contrasted the morally questionable characters she portrayed. She was both beauty and the beast; unable to be trusted but unable to be resisted. Androgynous, mysterious, warm, yet detached. From Morocco to Blonde Venus, to The Shanghai Express, to The Devil is a Woman... while Josef's films were often lacking in interesting plot, they were rich in scenery. His mise en scene, frame compositions, and the beauty with which he filmed his favorite actress made his movies aphrodisiacs to a hungry, salivating public. They too made Marlene Dietrich a star.
However, in time, Marlene outgrew Josef and his controlling tantrums. She had learned all she needed to know and could control her image without him. Josef returned mistakenly to Europe, and Marlene remained in America. However, despite her savvy business sense, she had sticky fingers, and often spent money she didn't have on herself and family, basically becoming the breadwinner after Rudi, Tami, and Maria joined her in the U.S. This forced her hand, and she had to accept less than stellar roles in films that weakened her appeal and reputation. Yet, she stuck with it, even after she was labeled box-office poison. The faith of Joe Pasternak brought her back to the limelight in Destry Rides Again, and she reached the closest she would come to acting genius when friend Billy Wilder cast her in Witness for the Prosecution. Through it all, whether her films were flops or not, she maintained audience loyalty, and her public appearances brought out crowds in droves. Her bed was never cold either, and her list of lovers allegedly included everyone from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, John Wayne, Mercedes de Acosta, Jimmy Stewart, and Jean Gabin-- the only man who came close to stealing her from Rudi. To her lovers and friends, she was part vixen and part mother hen, cooking her mother's favorite recipes for those she took a liking to and making her special soup for anyone who seemed ill. She too had a knack for re-arranging closets. Her crews loved her, for despite her growing fame and her need to control her own lighting and wardrobe, she was friendly and accommodating. She was a pro who came to set knowing her lines and ready to work with the team. When she felt one of her co-stars or someone on crew was being mistreated, she would simply walk off until things were set right.
This heroic part of her nature is her most compelling feature. Though her acting is something to behold-- at times brilliant, at times hammily overdone-- it is not her film work so much as her persona that makes her a lasting fascination. Marlene time and again lent her strength to those in need, to those weaker than herself, or to those who did not possess her same go-get-it attitude. While men like Ernest Hemingway and Noel Coward were drawn to her beauty and intellect, they were enveloped by her warmth, which was far-reaching. She made a direct point to try to save the life of John Gilbert after his career had plummeted, and in addition to being a guiding force that reunited him with his daughter, a grateful Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, she too took him out in public and tried to get him working again. It was a valiant effort sadly failed. She would mourn his passing deeply but remained a caring mother figure to Leatrice. Most noteworthy are her efforts during the war. Marlene was vocal from the beginning that her home country was being enveloped by madness, and she forsook her homeland to become a grateful American citizen. She pressured America to get invested in WWII before anyone would admit such horrors could touch us, and after we did, she became one of the soldiers' favorite entertainers. She would generally enter on stage by slipping one of her famous legs through the curtain, then use her musical talents to sing a wartime favorite, such as "Lili Marleen," or play the musical saw. She went uncomplainingly without her usual glamour to bring peace to men fighting a battle she found all too familiar to that of her youth. When she traveled in a one woman show in her later years, many of these boys returned to see her back stage and thank her for what she had done.
Whatever personal pains or torments Marlene possessed, she always kept hidden behind her exquisite mask of professionalism and personality. As she aged, the softness of her beauty gave way to a hardened look-- the result of pulling her skin back beneath her wig-- that turned her into somewhat of a caricature of her former self, yet a still beloved one. After scoring in Stage Fright, A Foreign Affair, and Judgment at Nuremberg-- for which she had to give the painful "we did not know" speech that she did not agree with-- Marlene slowly faded from the silver screen. She embraced the stage of her youth, touring with Burt Bacharach or playing to packed houses in Las Vegas. However, despite the fact that she defied her own age, she could not escape it. Repeated falls and broken bones, which she always ignored in order to continue the show, caught up with her. A dependence on pain pills and alcohol too took their toll. After her husband Rudi died, Marlene became further despondent, especially as her always loving but complicated relationship with her daughter suffered. She ended her days alone, hiding from the world, and bedridden, too ashamed to show the world that the beauty they had so long counted on had faded. Friends like Billy Wilder or Doug Fairbanks, Jr. would try to call and cheer her only to be met with a fake French accent insisting that she wasn't there. Marlene had always insisted that she would die young. She would live to be 90, passing away on May 6, 1992. She wanted to be buried in her beloved Paris and, always conscientious, wanted to be placed in a cemetery next to a nice restaurant, so her visitors would have somewhere to eat. She was instead sent home to lie near her mother Josefine in Berlin. Her homecoming was warmly welcomed by locals, some of whom during the war years had shunned her and had even spat at her when she returned post WWII to perform. Time had healed those wounds; she re-emerged as an international hero. After spending a life away from her native soil, Marlene was finally home.
Marlene's last screen appearance was in Just a Gigolo, an error in judgement perhaps, but a necessary one considering the spending habits that had left her a bit destitute. She demanded to appear with a veil covering her face to mute her age. She was reluctant, nervous about appearing on camera in less than her usual top form. Members of the crew were surprised at first to see the frail, 75-year-old woman exiting her dressing room-- they had spent their lives worshipping a much more vibrant Marlene on the screen. But, as always, she did not disappoint. After taking one look at herself in a full length mirror, Dietrich emerged. Her confidence and poise in tact, she went to set and belted her heart out one last time for the cameras, leaving not a dry eye in the male-packed house. That was Marlene, and that is the Marlene we still see. She refused to ever disappoint her audiences, but doing so required her to forever meld with the image of a tempting, unattainable siren. Never a great "actress," she still leaves us in awe. Never a great singer, she still lures us to dangerous yet inviting waters. Josefine once called her, "my little soldier." So she was. So she remains.