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- June 01, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 21
A Legend's Last Years
To the Very End, Marlene Dietrich Lived Out Her Life a Daring Original
Shortly after Dietrich died in Paris at 90 on May 6, her family honored her wish to be buried not in France, which had been her home off and on since 1968, but next to her mother in Berlin, the city she had forsaken at the dawn of the Third Reich in 1932. But before the flag-draped casket arrived—via a black '50s Cadillac—at the Friedenau Cemetery on May 16, it was clear that Germans were divided over the star's final homecoming.
Newspapers printed blistering comments about the woman who had rejected Germany during World War II to entertain Allied troops at the front. City officials, fearful of a riot, canceled a planned homage to the actress, and the service itself was disrupted by leather-clad neo-Nazis distributing anti-Dietrich pamphlets. Among the mourners were strangers bearing wreaths, film students, fans (including gays waving pink banners and transvestites in Dietrich drag), family (Dietrich's only daughter, Maria Riva, 67, her husband and four sons) and such friends as actor Maximilian Schell, who spoke at the graveside. "Dear Marlene," he said quietly, "welcome home."
And what a journey it had been for the woman whose screen image bespoke glamor so dazzling and mystery so provocative that no other compared. Her face, with the arched brows and world-weary blue eyes, could exude spoiled insolence, frosty indifference or smoldering lust. Her whiskey voice and fabulous legs could only belong to characters with names like Lola-Lola (The Blue Angel), Shanghai Lily (Shanghai Express) or Frenchy (Destry Rides Again). The late critic Kenneth Tynan once described her appeal as "sex with no positive gender.... Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men."
Yet in the end Dietrich was betrayed by the very image she had created. Growing older and ever more frail, she was increasingly burdened by the public "Marlene," to whom she always referred in the third person. She claimed never to have undergone cosmetic surgery—if the surgeon's knife slipped, she once mused, "there would be no more Dietrich"—but an upcoming biography lists at least two face tucks.
In addition she devised her own methods of recalling youth. When she gave concerts in her 70s, Dietrich would tighten her facial skin by pulling her hair back into tight braids, securing them with tape and covering the work with a blond wig. Beneath her slinky gowns, she would wear an elastic-lace "second skin" to bolster her sagging contours. During a curtain call at London's Queen's Theatre in 1972, Dietrich fell and gashed her leg—as well as her pride, when it was reported that her rigid foundation had contributed to the accident.
In 1978, after several more falls and fractures prompted her decision to retire, Dietrich gave one of her last shows in Ottawa. "She was standing in (rout of the mirror in her dressing room wearing the $30,000 Jean-Louis dress and the $8,000 white swansdown coat," recalls her longtime friend and manager, Hugh Pickett. "She never turned to me. She just stared at herself in the mirror and said, 'Look at her. Isn't she frightening?' She was 78 years old, and the woman in the mirror looked 30. Marlene was really two people," Pickett adds. "She could be imperious and impossible, but there were times when she was just plain scared."
By the time she was 80, Dietrich had retreated from the public, but on her own terms. She had lived in Beverly Hills and New York City but bad finally settled in a two-room apartment overlooking a courtyard garden at 12 Avenue Montaigne in Paris, just across the street from the elegant Plaza Athénée Hotel. There she would putter around in a man's shirt beneath a tattered Cadolle dressing gown. Her second grandson, Peter, 42, a New York City literary agent, dismisses the notion that his grandmother, "Mussy," was a recluse. "She was on the phone for hours every day, gossiping, giggling and being flirtatious right down to the last moment," he says. "Until the very end she was her own creation, keeping out what she called the wolves at the door"—snoopy fans, sensation seekers and tabloid exploiters.
Dietrich often stiff-armed celebrities as well. Former Destry costar Jimmy Stewart and close pal Billy Wilder both remember being turned away at the door by the mercurial Marlene. She discouraged another friend from visiting by telling him simply, "You wouldn't like what you saw."
But Dietrich was not above playing pranks to enhance her image. She fabricated a tale for one of her would-be biographers that Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp had dropped by her apartment to see her and that she had informed the doorman, "I do not know any Mr. Jackson—and I do not give interviews to monkeys."
Actors Tony Perkins and Mitzi Gaynor claim to have been victims of her "phony tweatment" (she had difficulty with her r's). According to Perkins, he'd call and Marlene would answer, pretending to be her own maid: "Miss Dietrich has gone to the country." "She was so intensely the master of her own ship," says Perkins. "She didn't like to receive calls. She liked to make them. It was her way of reaching out."
Up until the last few years, the local oyster man was one of the few for whom Dietrich relaxed her rigid code of privacy. He would shuck his wares in her kitchen, according to Odette Miron-Boire, a former housekeeping companion. "Her breakfast often consisted of a dozen oysters," says Odette, "and a glass of champagne"—until serious health problems caused her to dispense with such indulgences.
Confined to her bed for her final five years, she organized her days with the Prussian discipline that she had learned as a promising young violin student back home in Berlin. Rising at 6 each morning, she would read the newspapers in three languages, delivered daily along with a baguette and fresh milk by a Plaza Althénée bellman. By 10:30 she had ordered her midday meal—fish, vegetables, Earl Grey tea—from Monsieur Vignon's shop nearby. In the afternoons she tended to her correspondence. Before dusk she would savor one glass of Dom Perignon.
Her old, battered telephone and her television, usually tuned to CNN, became Dietrich's lifelines to the world. Friends in New York City and Los Angeles were accustomed to sometimes-chatty, sometimes-acid nocturnal calls. "Marlene would call every Sunday around 3 A.M.," says actor Van Johnson, her former neighbor in Beverly Hills in the '40s. "She talked about God. recipes, politics. She loved to read. Every time I went to Paris, I would bring a bag of books to her doorman and say, 'Give these to Miss Dietrich.' And he'd say, 'Miss Dietrich doesn't live here,' and I'd say, 'I know, I know'...and I'd leave them."
Also on her $5,000 monthly phone bill were calls to strangers. When Steven Spielberg did not win an Oscar for The Color Purple, a film for which her grandson Michael, 44, had been nominated for his set design, Dietrich placed dozens of transatlantic calls until she reached the director to offer her condolences. She reserved flintier sentiments for others, like Madonna: When Dietrich read that the singer wanted to star in a remake of The Blue Angel, she sent the newspaper article to her grandson Peter with the scrawled comment, "Oh pul-lease."
Among her letters and telegrams to and from assorted lovers ("No matter what happens to us, please remain an active alive animal. I love you"—from silent-film star John Gilbert), scribbled musings ("To forget and live, better than to die. Or shall I fry in Hell? What the Hell.") and diaries was a memo to herself that noted, "Brando called. He said I shouldn't perform in South Africa because blacks aren't allowed to attend. I told him I'd heard blacks weren't allowed into a concert in Texas. That he should go to work on that first."
When novelist Erich Maria Remarque—author of All Quiet on the Western Front, and in the '30s and '40s one of Dietrich's ardent lovers—died, he bequeathed her nothing but a cigarette case. Nonplussed, Dietrich wrote in her diary, "He left me a cigarette case! And he left that dreadful woman [his wife, actress Paulette Godard] all that money."
In fact Dietrich remained on warm terms with most of her paramours and most extraordinarily with her husband. Rudolf Sieber, whom she met when she was a young actress and he a film casting director in Berlin. They married in 1924, and their daughter, Maria, was born the following year. In 1928 Dietrich met her second and most important mentor and lover: Josef von Sternberg, the brilliant Viennese-born director, who cast her in The Blue Angel and made her a star.
Though Dietrich and Sieber mainly lived apart, and each continued to have affairs (his longtime mistress, Tamara Matul, was Marlene's old friend), they remained deeply attached. She phoned him regularly and on every one of her opening nights until his death in 1976 on his Sylmar, Calif., chicken ranch, and he, in turn, kept a diary of her whereabouts. On several occasions she would fly in from Paris, stop for cases of Pouilly-Fuissé, caviar, shrimp, veal and other comestibles in Beverly Mills, then take up residence at Rudi's ranch, cook for several days and fly home. Her husband often said that there were two people living in Marlene's body—"one strong, strong like a man, the other soft like a woman."
Dietrich was a woman who loved to be loved, and she collected an impressive life list. There was French actor Jean Gabin. (When he died in 1976, shortly after Sieber, she said, "Now I am a widow for the second time.") There were the passionate flings: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier (whom she defended against accusations of wartime collaboration), U.S. generals George Patton and James Gavin, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Michael Wilding, Mike Todd and Italian actor Raf Vallone. And the reported affairs with women, including writer Mercedes de Acosta, who was also the lover of Dietrich's archrival, Garbo. "In Europe it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman," Dietrich once said. "We make love with anyone we find attractive."
Not even Hitler was immune to the Dietrich allure. She often boasted that she turned down his offers, sexual and otherwise. "If I'd gone back to Germany and married Hitler," she once said to her husband, "there would have been no war." According to Pickett, "Rudi looked at Marlene and replied, 'No, there would have been a suicide in three weeks instead of at the end of the war.' "
If Dietrich seemed like a free spirit, shockingly avant-garde for her times, that is only part of the story. Born in 1901 at the brink of a new century, she was caught between daring modernity and old-fashioned expectations, and so she became a paradox. The egoistic career woman who had little time to nurture her young daughter was also at her best nursing sick friends and needy lovers. The free thinker in the tweed suits, who caused a Parisian scandal when she walked into the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles wearing trousers in 1946, was just as comfortable donning an apron or doing the laundry. Burt Bacharach, who toured with Dietrich in 1967, remembers, "She always wanted to do things for you." Once in Las Vegas he returned to his room from a tennis match to find that she had squeezed the blood from eight steaks for him to drink. While he showered, she washed his clothes. "I felt very odd," he says, "but that's the way she was."
Marlene loved to cook. Over the years, many a guest was treated to her special Stroganoff. "She was a mama to everyone," says Van Johnson, to whom she once declared, "I'm a hausfrau, a cook—not that sequined clown you see on the stage."
Yet the hausfrau metamorphosed into the femme fatale whenever she was recognized in public. Her grandson Peter recalls, "When she was in my home in London in the '60s, making doughnuts, she was Mussy. But if you were out with her and someone in show business came over to the table, she became Marlene."
Vain in her dotage, Dietrich could also be disarmingly unpretentious. In private, says film critic Rex Reed, "she hated makeup. She would say, 'I don't bother much with myself. I wash and I go.' She would shampoo her hair with carpet cleaner." Miron-Boire has said, "You would have thought that the subject of age might have been taboo, but she often mentioned it with irony. She'd get out of the bathtub and say, 'I look like a wrinkled old chicken with breasts like cow's udders.' "
Perhaps she was too harsh on herself. French actor Sacha Briquet, one of the few people permitted an audience with the diva in her twilight years, has recalled, "Even bedridden, she was the most beautiful old lady I'd ever seen. There she was with no makeup but still beautiful skin, big blue eyes and little hands fluttering like small birds in the air. She smelled beautiful too, like roses."
In the last few months it seemed to many of Dietrich's friends that she was faltering. "I received my last call from her in January," says Bacharach, "and her voice was the saddest I'd ever heard her." Three weeks before her death, she called Pickett in Canada and lamented, "Oh, Hugh, it's not good. It's not good." Says Pickett: "When I hung up, I was in tears."
Dietrich spoke daily with her daughter, Maria, who flew from her home in New York City to Paris last March when her mother had a stroke. Then in early May, when Dietrich stopped eating, Peter few to his grandmother's side. When he arrived, he found the 70-lb. Dietrich dressed in a white nightgown and pink bed jacket. He asked if she'd like to go into the living room—her first time there in five years. She nodded yes. He carried her to the sofa, where Dietrich gazed at the display of photos on the wall, images of such dear friends as Ernest Hemingway and Charles de Gaulle. She smiled. Later she spoke softly to her daughter by phone, obediently swallowing a spoonful of soup at Maria's instructions. "She looked relaxed, saying simply, 'Maria,' " recalls Peter. "Then she closed her eyes, as if she wanted to have her afternoon nap. And she was gone."
Before the simple memorial service at the Madeleine in Paris on May 14, Maria placed a wooden crucifix, a St. Christopher's medal, a star of David and a locket enclosing photos of Dietrich's grandsons in the casket beside her mother. Then the lid was sealed, the French flag was draped across its glossy mahogany surface, and Marlene was sent home to Berlin. A wreath from German director Wim Wenders, waiting for her at her grave, bore three words: ANGELS DONT DIE.
PETER MIKELBANK in Paris JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London
- Peter Mikelbank,
- Joyce Wagner,
- Laura Sanderson Healy.
November 23, 2015
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