Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich; 27 December 1901 – 6 May 1992)was a German-born American actress and singer.
Dietrich remained popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself, professionally and characteristically. In the Berlin of the 1920s, she acted on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as “Lola-Lola” in The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, brought her international fame and provided her a contract with Paramount Pictures in the US. Hollywood films such as Shanghai Express and Desire capitalised on her glamour and exotic looks, cementing her stardom and making her one of the highest-paid actresses of the era. Dietrich became a U.S. citizen in 1939, and throughout World War II she was a high-profile frontline entertainer. Although she still made occasional films in the post-war years, Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a successful show performer.
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Dietrich the ninth-greatest female star of all time.
Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born on 27 December 1901 in Leberstrasse 65 on the Rote Insel in Schöneberg, now a district of Berlin, Germany. She was the younger of two daughters (her sister Elisabeth was a year older) of Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine (née Felsing) and Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, who married in December 1898. Dietrich’s mother was from a well-to-do Berlin family who owned a clockmaking firm and her father was a police lieutenant who died in 1907. His best friend Eduard von Losch, an aristocrat first lieutenant in the Grenadiers, courted Wilhelmina and married her in 1916, but he died soon after as a result of injuries sustained during World War I. Eduard von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich girls, so Dietrich’s surname was never von Losch, as has sometimes been claimed. She was nicknamed “Lena” and “Lene” (pronounced Lay-neh) within the family. Around age 11, she contracted her two first names to form the name “Marlene”.
Dietrich attended the Auguste-Viktoria girls school from 1907 to 1917 and graduated from the Victoria-Luise-Schule (today Goethe-Gymnasium Berlin-Wilmersdorf) in 1918. She studied the violin and became interested in theatre and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were curtailed when she injured her wrist, but by 1922 she had her first job, playing violin in a pit band that accompanied silent films at a cinema in Berlin. However, she was fired after only 4 weeks.
Her earliest professional stage appearances were as a chorus girl on tour with Guido Thielscher’s Girl-Kabarett, vaudeville-style entertainments, and in Rudolf Nelson revues in Berlin. In 1922, Dietrich auditioned unsuccessfully for theatrical director and impresario Max Reinhardt’s drama academy; however, she soon found herself working in his theaters as a chorus girl and playing small roles in dramas, without attracting any special attention at first. She made her film debut playing a bit part in the 1923 film, The Little Napoleon.
She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of another film made that year, Tragödie der Liebe. Dietrich and Sieber were married in a civil ceremony in Berlin on 17 May 1923. Her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born on 13 December 1924.
Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. On stage, she had roles of varying importance in Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as George Bernard Shaw’sBack to Methuselah and Misalliance. It was in musicals and revues, such as Broadway, Es Liegt in der Luft and Zwei Krawatten, however, that she attracted the most attention. By the late 1920s, Dietrich was also playing sizable parts on screen, including Café Elektric (1927), Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame(1928) and Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929).
Breakthrough in The Blue Angel
In 1929, Dietrich landed the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a hitherto respected schoolmaster, in UFA’s productionThe Blue Angel (1930). The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who thereafter took credit for having “discovered” Dietrich. The film is also noteworthy for having introduced Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again”, which Dietrich recorded for Electrola. She made further recordings in the 1930s for Polydor and Decca.
On the strength of The Blue Angel’s international success, and with encouragement and promotion from von Sternberg, who was already established inHollywood, Dietrich then moved to the U.S. under contract to Paramount Pictures. The studio sought to market Dietrich as a German answer to MGM’s Swedish sensation, Greta Garbo.
Dietrich starred in six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount between 1930 and 1935: von Sternberg worked very effectively with Dietrich to create the image of a glamorous femme fatale. He encouraged her to lose weight and coached her intensively as an actress—she, in turn, was willing to trust him and follow his sometimes imperious direction in a way that a number of other performers resisted.
Their first American collaboration, Morocco, again cast her as a cabaret singer; the film is best remembered for the sequence in which she performs a song dressed in a man’s white tie and kisses another woman, both provocative for the era. The film earned Dietrich her only Oscar nomination.
Morocco was followed by Dishonored (with Dietrich as a Mata Hari-like spy) and Blonde Venus. Shanghai Express was von Sternberg and Dietrich’s biggest box office hit. Their last two films, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman—the most stylized of their collaborations—were their least commercial ventures. Dietrich later remarked that she was at her most beautiful in The Devil Is a Woman.
A crucial part of the overall effect was created by von Sternberg’s exceptional skill in lighting and photographing Dietrich to optimum effect—the use of light and shadow, including the impact of light passed through a veil or slatted blinds (as for example in Shanghai Express)—which, when combined with scrupulous attention to all aspects of set design and costumes, make this series of films among the most visually stylish in cinema history. Critics still vigorously debate how much of the credit belonged to von Sternberg and how much to Dietrich, but most would agree that neither consistently reached such heights again after Paramount fired von Sternberg and the two ceased working together.
Dietrich’s first film after the end of her partnership with von Sternberg was Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), a commercial success that gave Dietrich an opportunity to try her hand at romantic comedy. Her next project, I Loved a Soldier (1936) ended in a shambles when the film was scrapped several weeks into production due to script problems and disagreements between the star and her director.
Box Office Poison
Extravagant offers lured Dietrich away from Paramount to make The Garden of Allah (1936) for independent producer David O. Selznick (she received $200,000) and to Britain for Alexander Korda’s production, Knight Without Armour (1937) (at a salary of $450,000). Although she was now one of the best paid film stars, her vehicles were costly to produce and neither of the latter two films was financially successful. By this time, Dietrich ranked 126th at the box office and exhibitors labelled her “Box Office Poison” (alongside others like Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río, Mae West and Katharine Hepburn).
While she was in London, officials of the Nazi Party approached Dietrich and offered her lucrative contracts, should she agree to return to Germany as a foremost film star in the Third Reich. She refused their offers and applied for US citizenship in 1937.
She returned to Paramount to make another romantic comedy, Angel (directed by Ernst Lubitsch): reception to the film was so lukewarm that Paramount bought out the remainder of Dietrich’s contract. When film projects at other studios fell through, Dietrich and her family set sail for an extended holiday in Europe.
Comeback in Destry Rides Again
In 1939, she accepted producer Joe Pasternak’s offer (and a pay cut) to play against type in her first film in two years: that of the cowboy saloon girl, Frenchie, in the light-hearted western Destry Rides Again, opposite James Stewart. The bawdy role revived her career and “The Boys in the Back Room”, a song she introduced in the film, became a hit when she recorded it for Decca. She played similar types in Seven Sinners (1940) and The Spoilers (1942), both oppositeJohn Wayne.
While Dietrich arguably never fully regained her former screen glory, she continued performing in the movies, including appearances for such distinguished directors as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, in films that included A Foreign Affair (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Rancho Notorious(1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958).
World War II
Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. In interviews, Dietrich stated that she had been approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany, but had turned them down flat. Dietrich, a staunch anti-Nazi, became an American citizen in 1939.
During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops on the front lines in Algeria, Italy, Britain and France and went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometres of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand”—”out of decency”.
Her revue, with future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act, included songs from her films, performances on her musical saw (a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in Berlin in the 1920s), and a pretend “mindreading” act. Dietrich would inform the audience that she could read minds, and ask them to concentrate on whatever came into their minds. Then she would walk over to a soldier and earnestly tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!” American church papers reportedly published stories complaining about this part of Dietrich’s act.
In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) initiated the Musak project, musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Dietrich, the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use, recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including Lili Marleen, a favorite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Major General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, wrote to Dietrich, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us.”
At war’s end in Europe, Dietrich reunited with her sister Elisabeth and her sister’s husband and son. The family resided in the German city of Belsen throughout the war years running a movie theatre for Nazi officers and officials who oversaw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Dietrich interceded with Allied officials on behalf of her relatives, sheltering them from possible prosecution as Nazi collaborators.
Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in 1945. She said this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government as recognition for her wartime work.
From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, Dietrich worked almost exclusively as a highly paid cabaret artist, performing live in large theaters in major cities worldwide.
In 1953, Dietrich was offered a then-substantial $30,000 per week to appear live at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The show was short, consisting only of a few songs associated with her. Her daringly sheer “nude dress”—a heavily beaded evening gown of silk soufflé, which gave the illusion of transparency—designed by Jean Louis, attracted a lot of publicity. This engagement was so successful that she was signed to appear at the Café de Paris in London the following year, and her Las Vegas contracts were also renewed.
Dietrich employed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger starting in the mid-1950s; together they refined her nightclub act into a more ambitious theatrical one-woman show with an expanded repertoire. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Bacharach’s arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich’s limited vocal range—she was a contralto—and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect; together, they recorded four albums and several singles between 1957 and 1964. In a TV interview in 1971, she credited Bacharach with giving her the “inspiration” to perform during those years.
She would often perform the first part of her show in one of her body-hugging dresses and a swansdown coat, and change to top hat and tails for the second half of the performance. This allowed her to sing songs usually associated with male singers, like “One for My Baby” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”.
“She … transcends her material,” according to Peter Bogdanovich. “Whether it’s a flighty old tune like ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’ … a schmaltzy German love song, ‘Das Lied ist Aus’ or a French one ‘La Vie en Rose’, she lends each an air of the aristocrat, yet she never patronises … A folk song, ‘Go ‘Way From My Window’ has never been sung with such passion, and in her hands ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ is not just another anti-war lament but a tragic accusation against us all.”
Francis Wyndham offered a more critical appraisal of the phenomenon of Dietrich in concert. He wrote in 1964: “What she does is neither difficult nor diverting, but the fact that she does it at all fills the onlookers with wonder … It takes two to make a conjuring trick: the illusionist’s sleight of hand and the stooge’s desire to be deceived. To these necessary elements (her own technical competence and her audience’s sentimentality) Marlene Dietrich adds a third—the mysterious force of her belief in her own magic. Those who find themselves unable to share this belief tend to blame themselves rather than her.”
Her use of body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts, expert makeup and wigs, combined with careful stage lighting helped to preserve Dietrich’s glamorous image as she grew older.
Dietrich’s return to Germany in 1960 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin’s Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, “Marlene Go Home!” On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who was, like Dietrich, an opponent of the Nazis who had lived in exile during their rule. The tour was an artistic triumph, but a financial failure. She also undertook a tour ofIsrael around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, including, from 1962, a German version of Pete Seeger’s anti-war anthem “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel. Dietrich in London, a concert album, was recorded during the run of her 1964 engagement at the Queen’s Theatre.
She performed on Broadway twice (in 1967 and 1968) and won a special Tony Award in 1968. In November 1972 I Wish You Love, a version of Dietrich’s Broadway show, was filmed in London. She was paid $250,000 for her cooperation, but was unhappy with the result. The show was broadcast in the UK on the BBC and in the US on CBS in January 1973.
In her sixties and seventies, Dietrich’s health declined: she survived cervical cancer in 1965 and suffered from poor circulation in her legs. Dietrich became increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol. A stage fall at the Shady Grove Music Fair in Maryland in 1973 injured her left thigh, necessitating skin grafts to allow the wound to heal. She fractured her right leg in August 1974. “Do you think this is glamorous? That it’s a great life and that I do it for my health? Well it isn’t. Maybe once, but not now,” Dietrich told Clive Hirschorn in 1973, explaining that she continued performing only for the money.
Dietrich’s show business career largely ended on 29 September 1975, when she fell off the stage and broke her thigh during a performance in Sydney, Australia. The following year, her husband, Rudolf Sieber, died of cancer on 24 June 1976.
In 1982, Dietrich agreed to participate in a documentary film about her life, Marlene (1984), but refused to be filmed. The film’s director, Maximilian Schell, was allowed only to record her voice. He used his interviews with her as the basis for the film, set to a collage of film clips from her career. The final film won several European film prizes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1984. Newsweek named it “a unique film, perhaps the most fascinating and affecting documentary ever made about a great movie star”.
In 1988, Dietrich recorded spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, Dietrich’s daughter and grandson claim that Dietrich was politically active during these years. She kept in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000. In 1989, her appeal to save the Babelsberg studios from closure was broadcast on BBC Radio, and she spoke on television via telephone on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year.
On 7 May 1992, Dietrich died of renal failure at her apartment in Paris at age 90. Her funeral ceremony was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris, a Roman Catholic church (despite Dietrich being an atheist) on 14 May 1992.
Dietrich’s funeral service had approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself–including several ambassadors from the US, UK, Germany, Russia and other countries – with thousands more outside. Her closed coffin rested beneath the altar draped in the French flag and adorned with a simple bouquet of white wildflowers and roses from the French President, François Mitterrand. Three medals, including France’s Legion of Honor and the US Medal of Freedom, were displayed at the foot of the coffin, military style, for a ceremony symbolizing the sense of duty Dietrich embodied in her career as an actress, and in her personal fight against Nazism. Her daughter placed a wooden crucifix, a St. Christopher’s medal and a locket enclosing photos of Dietrich’s grandsons in the coffin. The officiating priest remarked: “Everyone knew her life as an artist of film and song, and everyone knew her tough stands… She lived like a soldier and would like to be buried like a soldier.”.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dietrich instructed in her legal will that she was to be buried in her birthplace, Berlin, near her family; on 16 May her body was flown there to fulfill her wish. Dietrich was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43–45, in Friedenau Cemetery, next to the grave of her mother, Josefine von Loschand, and near the house where she was born.
- Director Billy Wilder talks about Dietrich
- No Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich Documentary
- Marlene Dietrich’s Audition for “The Blue Angel”
- Mysteries & Scandals: Marlene Dietrich
- “The Child” Radio play featuring Marlene Dietrich
- An Evening with Marlene Dietrich Live Concert
- Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film “The Blue Angel” starring Marlene Dietrich
- Mitchell Liesen’s 1947 film “Golden Earrings” starring Marlene Dietrich
- The Marketability of Marlene Dietrich in post-war Germany
- Albert de Courville’s 1940 film “Seven Sinners” with Marlene Dietrich
- Marlene Dietrich official website