Marie Magdalene "Marlene" Dietrich(27 December 1901 – 6 May 1992) was a German-born American actress and singer. Her career spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s.
In 1920s Berlin, Dietrich performed on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as Lola-Lola in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international acclaim and a contract with Paramount Pictures. Dietrich starred in many Hollywood films including, most iconically, the six vehicles directed by Josef von Sternberg: Morocco (1930) (her only Academy Award nomination), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus (both 1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935) – plus Desire (1936) and Destry Rides Again (1939). She successfully traded on her glamorous persona and "exotic" looks, and became one of the highest-paid actresses of the era. Throughout World War II she was a high-profile entertainer in the United States. And then Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a marquee live-show performer.
Dietrich was known for her humanitarian efforts during the war, housing German and French exiles, providing financial support and even advocating their American citizenship. For her work on improving morale on the front lines during the war, she received several honors from the United States, France, Belgium and Israel. In 1999 the American Film Institute named Dietrich the ninth greatest female screen legend of classic Hollywood cinema.
Dietrich was born on 27 December 1901 at Leberstraße 65 in the neighborhood of Rote Insel in Schöneberg, now a district of Berlin. Her mother, Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josefine, was from an affluent Berlin family who owned a jewelry and clock-making firm. Her father, Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, was a police lieutenant. Dietrich had one sibling, Elisabeth, who was one year older. Dietrich's father died in 1907. His best friend, Eduard von Losch, an aristocratic first lieutenant in the Grenadiers, courted Wilhelmina and married her in 1914, but he died in July 1916. Von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich sisters, so Dietrich's surname was never von Losch, as has sometimes been claimed.
Aged about 11, she combined her first two 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 [de]) in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, in 1918.
She studied the violin as a teenager, but a wrist injury curtailed her dreams of becoming a concert violinist.
Dietrich was raised in the German Lutheran tradition of Christianity, but she abandoned it as a result of her experiences as a teenager during World War I, after hearing preachers from both sides invoking God as their support. "I lost my faith during the war and can't believe they are all up there, flying around or sitting at tables, all those I've lost."
The earliest professional stage appearances by Dietrich 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 theatres as a chorus girl and playing small roles in dramas.
Dietrich's film debut was a small part in the film The Little Napoleon (1923). She met her future husband, assistant director Rudolf Sieber, on the set of Tragedy of Love in 1923. 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. Rudolf Sieber later became an assistant director at Paramount Pictures in France, responsible for foreign language dubbing.
Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s.
In 1929, Dietrich landed her breakthrough role of Lola Lola, a cabaret singer who caused the downfall of a hitherto respectable schoolmaster (played by Emil Jannings), in the UFA production of The Blue Angel (1930). Josef von Sternberg directed the film and thereafter took credit for having "discovered" Dietrich. The film introduced Dietrich's signature song "Falling in Love Again".
In 1930, on the strength of The Blue Angel's international success, and with encouragement and promotion from Josef von Sternberg, who was established in Hollywood, Dietrich moved to the United States under contract to Paramount Pictures, the U.S. film distributor of The Blue Angel. The studio sought to market Dietrich as a German answer to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Swedish-born star, Greta Garbo.
Dietrich starred in six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount between 1930 and 1935. Von Sternberg worked effectively with Dietrich to create the image of a glamorous and mysterious femme fatale. He encouraged her to lose weight and coached her intensively as an actress. She willingly followed his sometimes imperious direction in a way that a number of other performers resisted.
In Morocco (1930) with Gary Cooper, Dietrich was again cast 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 Academy Award nomination.
Morocco was followed by Dishonored (1931) a major success with Dietrich cast as a Mata Hari-like spy. Shanghai Express (1932) was von Sternberg and Dietrich's biggest box office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1932. Dietrich and von Sternberg again collaborated on the romance Blonde Venus (1932) with Cary Grant. Dietrich and Sternberg's last two films, The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—the most stylized of their collaborations—were their lowest-grossing films. Dietrich later remarked that she was at her most beautiful in The Devil Is a Woman.
Von Sternberg is known for his exceptional skill in lighting and photographing Dietrich to optimum effect. He had a signature use of light and shadow, including the impact of light passed through a veil or slatted window blinds (as for example in Shanghai Express). This combined with the scrupulous attention to set design and costumes makes the films they made together among cinema's most visually stylish. The collaboration of one actress and director creating seven films is still unmatched in motion pictures, with the possible exception of Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor, who made ten films together over a much longer period but which were not created for Hepburn the way the last six von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations were.
Dietrich's first film after the end of her partnership with von Sternberg was Frank Borzage's Desire (1936) with Gary Cooper, a commercial success that gave Dietrich an opportunity to try her hand at romantic comedy.
Extravagant offers lured Dietrich away from Paramount to make her first color film The Garden of Allah (1936) for independent producer David O. Selznick, for which she received $200,000, and to Britain for Alexander Korda's production, Knight Without Armor (1937), at a salary of $450,000, which made her one of the best paid film stars of the time.
In the late 1930s, Dietrich created a fund with Billy Wilder and several other exiles to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany. In 1937, her entire salary for Knight Without Armor ($450,000) was put into escrow to help the refugees.
While in London, Dietrich later said in interviews, she was approached by Nazi Party officials and offered 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 U.S. citizenship in 1937.
In 1939, she became an American citizen and renounced her German citizenship.
In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first public figures to help sell war bonds. She toured the U.S. from January 1942 to September 1943 and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star.
At the war's end in Europe, Dietrich reunited with her sister Elisabeth and her sister's husband and son. Dietrich vouched for her sister and her sister's husband, sheltering them from possible prosecution as Nazi collaborators. But she would later omit the existence of her sister and her sister's son from all accounts of her life, completely disowning them and claiming to be an only child.
She also moved her husband and his mistress from Europe to a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, near Hollywood.
Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in November 1947, for her "extraordinary record entertaining troops overseas during the war". She said this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Légion d'honneur by the French government for her wartime work.
While Dietrich never fully regained her former screen profile, she continued performing in motion pictures, including appearances for directors such as Mitchell Leisen in Golden Earrings (1947), Billy Wilder in A Foreign Affair (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock in Stage Fright (1950). Her appearances in the 1950s, included films such as Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious, (1952) and Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957). She also appeared in Touch of Evil (1958) of Orson Welles for whom she had a kind of platonic love. Her last substantial film role was in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) directed by Stanley Kramer; she also presented the narrative for the documentary Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1962.
From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, Dietrich, who was fluent in German, English, and French, worked almost exclusively as a cabaret artist, performing live in large theatres 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; 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. 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.
Bacharach then felt he needed to devote his full-time to songwriting and left her. Dietrich wrote in her memoir:
“From that fateful day on, I have worked like a robot, trying to recapture the wonderful woman he helped make out of me. I even succeeded in this effort for years, because I always thought of him, always longed for him, always looked for him in the wings, and always fought against self-pity ... He had become so indispensable to me that, without him, I no longer took much joy in singing. When he left me, I felt like giving everything up. I had lost my director, my support, my teacher, my maestro.”
Dietrich's return to West Germany in 1960 for a concert tour was met with mixed reception— despite a consistently negative press, vociferous protest by chauvinistic Germans who felt she had betrayed her homeland, and two bomb threats, her performance attracted huge crowds. She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received. She would become the first woman and German to receive the Israeli Medallion of Valor in 1965, "in recognition for her courageous adherence to principle and consistent record of friendship for the Jewish people".
She performed on Broadway twice (in 1967 and 1968) and won a special Tony Award in 1968 and continued with a busy performance schedule
As she grew older, Dietrich’s use of body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts (like tape), expert makeup and wigs, combined with careful stage lighting, helped to preserve her glamorous image.
In an interview with The Observer in 1960, she said, "I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. If I dressed for myself I wouldn't bother at all. Clothes bore me. I'd wear jeans. I adore jeans. I get them in a public store – men's, of course; I can't wear women's trousers. But I dress for the profession."
Her public image included openly defying sexual norms, and she was known for her androgynous film roles and her bisexuality.
Throughout her career, Dietrich, although married in 1923, had numerous affairs, with both men and women, some short-lived, some lasting decades, often overlapping and almost all known to her husband, to whom she was in the habit of passing the intimate letters from her lovers, sometimes with biting comments. When Dietrich arrived in Hollywood and filmed Morocco (1930), she had an affair with Gary Cooper, even though he was having another affair with Mexican actress Lupe Vélez. Another one of her affairs was with actor John Gilbert, known for his professional and personal connection to Greta Garbo. Gilbert's untimely death was one of the most painful events of her life. Dietrich also had a brief affair with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., even though he was married to Joan Crawford at the time. During the production of Destry Rides Again, Dietrich started a love affair with co-star James Stewart, which ended after filming stopped. According to writer/director Peter Bogdanovich, Marlene Dietrich told him during an aircraft flight that she became pregnant as a result of the affair but had a surreptitious abortion without telling Stewart. In 1938, Dietrich met and began a relationship with writer Erich Maria Remarque, and in 1941, the French actor Jean Gabin. The relationship ended in 1948.
In Paris, Dietrich had an affair with Suzanne Baulé, known as Frede, a coach and cabaret hostess whom she met in 1936 at the Monocle, a women's nightclub on Boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Paris. The two women remained friends until the 1970s, as can be seen in the correspondence kept in the Marlene Dietrich archives in Berlin. In the early 1940s, Dietrich also had an affair with Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, who claimed to be Greta Garbo's lover.
When Dietrich was in her 50s, she had a relationship with actor Yul Brynner, which lasted more than a decade. Dietrich's love life continued into her 70s. She counted Errol Flynn, George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Michael Todd, Michael Wilding, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra among her conquests.
In her 60s and 70s, 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.
Dietrich's show business career largely ended on 29 September 1975, when she fell from the stage and broke a thigh bone during a performance in Sydney, Australia. The following year, her husband, Rudolf Sieber, died of cancer on 24 June 1976. Dietrich's final on-camera film appearance was a brief appearance in Just a Gigolo (1979), starring David Bowie and directed by David Hemmings, in which she sang the title song.
Dietrich withdrew to her apartment at 12 Avenue Montaigne in Paris where spent the final 13 years of her life mostly bedridden, allowing only a select few—including family and employees—to enter the apartment. During this time, she was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. She kept in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000, according to her daughter Maria Riva.
Her autobiography Nehmt nur mein Leben (Take Just My Life), was published in 1979.
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. Schell used his interviews with her as the basis for the film, set to a collage of film clips from her career. The 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".
On 6 May 1992, Dietrich died of kidney failure at her flat in Paris at age 90. Her funeral was a requiem mass conducted at the Roman Catholic church of La Madeleine in Paris on 14 May 1992.
Dietrich's funeral service was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself—including several ambassadors from Germany, Russia, the US, the UK and other countries—with thousands more outside. Her closed coffin, draped in the French flag, rested beneath the altar and was adorned with a simple bouquet of white wildflowers and roses from the French President François Mitterrand. Three medals, including France's Legion of Honour and the U.S. Medal of Freedom, were displayed at the foot of the coffin, military style, for a ceremony symbolising the sense of duty Dietrich embodied in her career as an actress, and in her personal fight against Nazism.
In her will Dietrich expressed the wish to be buried in her birthplace Berlin, near her family. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall her body was flown there to fulfill her wish on 16 May. Her coffin was draped in an American flag befitting her status as an American. As her coffin traveled through Berlin bystanders threw flowers onto it, a fitting tribute because Dietrich loved flowers, even saving the flowers thrown to her at the end of her performances for use in subsequent shows. Dietrich was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Schöneberg, close by the grave of her mother Josefine von Losch, and near the house where she was born.
The same year, a plaque was unveiled at Leberstraße 65 in Berlin-Schöneberg, the site of Dietrich's birth.
Dietrich was made an honorary citizen of Berlin on 16 May 2002.
A few months after Marlene Dietrich's death, her daughter Maria Riva published a candid biography of her mother, titled Marlene Dietrich.
On 24 October 1993, the largest portion of Dietrich's estate was sold by Dietrich's heirs to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek for US$5 million, where it became the core of the exhibition at the Filmmuseum Berlin. The collection includes: over 3,000 textile items from the 1920s to the 1990s, including film and stage costumes as well as over a thousand items from Dietrich's personal wardrobe; 15,000 photographs, by Sir Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hurrell, Lord Snowdon and Edward Steichen; 300,000 pages of documents, including correspondence with Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner, Maurice Chevalier, Noël Coward, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Lagerfeld, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Erich Maria Remarque, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder; as well as other items like film posters and sound recordings.
The contents of Dietrich's Manhattan apartment, along with other personal effects such as jewelry and items of clothing, were sold by public auction by Sotheby's in Los Angeles in November 1997. Her former apartment located at 993 Park Avenue was sold for $615,000 in 1998.
Dietrich was an icon to fashion designers and screen stars. Hollywood costume designer Edith Head remarked that Dietrich knew more about fashion than any other actress. Marlene Dietrich favoured Christian Dior.
In 2017, Swarovski commissioned a $60,000 Art Deco-styled dress in the style of her famous "nude dress", from Berlin-based fashion tech company ElektroCouture to honor Dietrich 25 years after her death. It contains 2,000 crystals in addition to 150 LED lights. ElektroCouture owner Lisa Lang said that the dress was inspired by electrical diagrams and correspondence that took place between the actress and fashion designer Jean Louis in 1958: "She wanted a dress that glows, she wanted to be able to control it herself from the stage and she knew she could have died of an electric stroke had it ever been realized." The dress created by Lang's company was featured in French-German broadcaster Arte's documentary Das letzte Kleid der Marlene Dietrich (The Last Dress of Marlene Dietrich).
On 27 December 2017, she was given a Google Doodle on the 116th anniversary of her birth.