On May 6, Marlene Dietrich, 90, died "of old age," according to her grandson Peter Riva, in the Paris apartment where she had lived in seclusion for almost two decades. The woman who had rebuffed the advances of Adolf Hitler "was sharp as a tack to the end," said Riva.
A child of privilege, Maria Magdalene Dietrich was born Dec. 27, 1901, in Berlin to Louis Dietrich, a cavalry major who died when she was 9, and his wife, Josephine. A onetime violin student, she owed her film career to two men: German casting director Rudolf Sieber, who married her in 1924 (they had a daughter, former actress Maria Riva, now 67, the following year but led separate lives thereafter), and Josef Von Sternberg, the director who cast her in Blue Angel and transformed her from chubby Frau to femme fatale. He was "the only person I allowed to control me," she once said. "Otherwise I remained my independent self."
Indeed she did. Before it was a political statement, she wore trousers. She took lovers, including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jean Gabin and writer Erich Maria Remarque. (She reportedly had affairs with women as well.) She dismissed her career of 35 American films—her last significant roles were in Witness for the Prosecution (1958) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)—and insisted that entertaining Allied troops during World War II was "the only important thing I've done." Fans disagree. Says French film director Marcel Carné: "She is one of the few actresses who will never be forgotten."
IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYHOOD STARS, she transcended the category. This was an Eternal Woman, the embodiment of an enchantress, irreverent and intelligent, alluring yet remote, seductive yet ever dangerous. Captured on film, Marlene Dietrich's smoky presence made classics out of The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930)—in which the tuxedo-clad star-shocked audiences by kissing another woman full on the lips—and Blonde Venus (1932). "Her voice casually winds itself around our most vulnerable fantasies," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan. Her drinking friend Ernest Hemingway kidded her as "the Kraut" while extolling "the timeless beauty of her face."