Today is the birthday (1901) of Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich, a German actress and singer who held both German and US citizenship. Throughout her unusually long career, which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s, she maintained popularity by continually reinventing herself. She was one of my teenage loves in the 1960s which made me something of an oddity among my friends who thought of her music as well past its prime by that time. I think of her singing of the 1930s and ‘40s as enduring classics although the love affair is long past. The more I know about her life, the less inclined I am to be enamored, but I still admire her war efforts and her screen presence. I saw her once in performance in 1972 when I was still in love, but she was rather a faded bloom by that time. You can read her autobiography as well as the biography by her daughter if you want all the details. I’ll just hit some key spots for me.
Dietrich was born on Leberstraße 65 in the neighborhood of Rote Insel in Schöneberg, now a district of Berlin. Dietrich’s mother was from an affluent Berlin family who owned a jewelry and clock making firm. Her father was a police lieutenant who died in 1907. His best friend, Eduard von Losch, an aristocratic first lieutenant in the Grenadiers, married Wilhelmina in 1916, but he died soon afterwards from injuries sustained during the First World War. Von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich girls, so Dietrich’s surname was never von Losch, as has sometimes been claimed.
Dietrich studied the violin and became interested in theater and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were dashed by a wrist injury, but by 1922 she had her first job, playing violin in a pit orchestra that accompanied silent films at a cinema in Berlin. She was fired after only four 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, but he hired her as a chorus girl and to play small roles in dramas. She made her film debut playing a bit part in the film The Little Napoleon (1923).
She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of Tragödie der Liebe in 1923. They were married in a civil ceremony in Berlin on 17 May 1923 and her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born on 13 December 1924. They never divorced but separated after 5 years, yet appeared to remain close until his death. After separating (and even before) Dietrich had a string of affairs with both men and women, many of them simultaneously, the list reading like a Who’s Who of the celebrity world. She also developed into an alcoholic. All of this was carefully shielded from the public until after her death when her daughter published a frank biography. Mostly I find this sad and disappointing, suggesting that deep happiness eluded her and that her screen persona of the superficial femme fatale is more than a little accurate.
Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. By the late 1920s, she was also playing sizable parts on screen, including roles in Café Elektric (1927), Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (1928), and Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929). Also in 1929 she landed the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a sexy cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a respectable