“You can’t live without illusions, even if you must fight for them.”
TRQ: Marlene Dietrich, Born December 27, 1901
Legendary actor and singer on screen and stage, Marlene Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901. Glamorous and sophisticated, confident and audacious, Dietrich subverted gender expectations in her iconic femme-fatale roles and stage performances that scandalised and titillated audiences.
In a career that spanned 70 years, she transformed herself from violinist to chorus girl, to one of cinema’s highest paid actors, to wartime humanitarian recipient of the Medal of Freedom and Légion d’honneur, to cabaret artist. Dietrich made her mark through questioning and reconstructing the female image.
Dietrich was born Maria Magdalene von Losch into a bourgeois family in Berlin, a city with which she would have a complicated relationship. Nicknamed “Lena” by her family, Dietrich combined her two first names into “Marlene” when she was 11 years old.
Interested in theatre and poetry, she studied violin at the Auguste-Viktoria Girls’ School and Victoria-Luise-Schule, and graduated in 1918. Though a wrist injury ended her ambitions as a concert violinist, Dietrich temporarily played in an orchestra for silent film cinema in 1922. Around this time, Dietrich failed her audition for Max Reinhardt’s theatre drama school, and settled for chorus girl roles.
In the theatre culture, and the gay bars and drag balls of 1920s Berlin, Dietrich crafted her enduring persona. Aside from roles in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she captured notice in musicals like Broadway and Es Liegt in der Luft. Dietrich debuted on screen in The Little Napoleon (1923).
Cast in the film Tragedy of Love (1923), Dietrich married director Rudolf Sieber on May 17. They gave birth to daughter Maria Riva on December 13, 1924. For the next several years, she would take on more significant screen roles in Café Elektric (1927), I Kiss Your Hand, Madame (1928), and The Ship of Lost Souls (1929).
Dietrich’s breakthrough role came in 1929, when she took on the role of cabaret singer Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). If Sieber introduced Dietrich to acting in film, it was von Sternberg who was her most influential collaborator. Von Sternberg deployed his renowned mastery of lighting, set design and costume to capture Dietrich’s cinematic presence. In the first of seven films together, Dietrich and von Sternberg present Lola as a scorching symbol of dangerous decadence bent on ruining the innocent and respectable.
In other words, Dietrich set the tone and course of her career through her portrayal of sardonic Lola. She rerecorded and performed the film’s song “Falling in Love Again,” for decades.
Fleeing the rising Nazi party, Dietrich joined von Sternberg in relocating to the United States, and Paramount Pictures positioned their new German star as a rival to Metro-Goldwyn’s Swedish star, Greta Garbo.
With Morocco (1930), her first American film with von Sternberg, Dietrich increasingly manipulated her controversial image through fashion. Ever more the femme fatale, she plays the role of a cabaret singer performing in a man’s white tie, tails and top hat, while kissing another woman’s lips. With von Sternberg’s coaching, Dietrich crafted a provocative intensity that earned her only Oscar nomination. During this time, Dietrich was romantically involved with Gary Cooper.
“Glamour is assurance. It is a kind of knowing that you are all right in every way, mentally and physically and in appearance, and that, whatever the occasion or the situation, you are equal to it.”
— Marlene Dietrich
Following Morocco, Dietrich worked with von Sternberg on increasingly stylish films. Two of their biggest successes were Dishonored (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932), which was 1932’s highest-grossing film. She starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Song of Songs (1933), but returned to working with von Sternberg for The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Their last two films were their least commercially successful.
After Paramount fired von Sternberg and with Dietrich forced to work with other directors, her film career stumbled. She was cast in Frank Borzage’s commercially successful Desire in 1936. However, this was followed by I Loved a Soldier (1936), which never completed production.
That same year, Dietrich earned a salary that rivalled all other film stars when she accepted lucrative offers to leave Paramount. For her first color film, The Garden of Allah (1936) she earned $200,000. For Knight Without Armour (1937) she earned $450,000.
By this time, however, her films were too costly to produce and her popularity was declining. Dietrich was deemed box office poison alongside Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, and Fred Astaire.
While in Paris during this time, Dietrich had an affair with Frede, the cabaret hostess. Dietrich referred to the underground lesbian relationships in Hollywood as sewing circles. “Marlene’s Sewing Circle” is said to have included Edith Piaf, Claudette Colbert, and Dolores del Rio. She also had affairs with John F. Kennedy, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Errol Flynn.
After her next film Angel (1937) flopped, she joined James Stewart to star in Destry Rides Again (1939) in a successful relaunch of her film career that included Seven Sinners (1940) and The Spoilers (1942) with John Wayne. While filming their movie, Dietrich had an affair with Stewart.
Early on, Dietrich spoke out against the growing Nazi regime. In 1937, while filming Knight Without Armour, she refused the Nazis’ lucrative offer to transform herself into the Third Reich’s premier film star, and instead applied for U.S. citizenship. She joined Billy Wilder in forming a financial support fund enabling those persecuted by the Nazi regime to escape Germany.
Once the U.S. entered World War II, Dietrich lead the way in selling war bonds as she toured the States for nine months between January 1942 to September 1943. In 1944 and 1945, she toured for the USO to entertain the troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK, France and the Netherlands. Dietrich also came very close to enemy lines when she accompanied Generals George S. Patton and James M. Gavin into Germany. After the war, Dietrich won the Medal of Freedom and Légion d’honneur.
“I do not think we have a ‘right’ to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.”
— Marlene Dietrich
After the war, Dietrich’s return to film included working with directors Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Fritz Lang. She starred in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958, and the documentary she narrated, Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1962), won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Unfortunately, Dietrich’s screen career had not returned to the heights of her years with von Sternberg, and she turned to performing cabaret into the 1970s. Earning $30.000 a week, she performed music arranged by Burt Bacharach in cities across the world: London, New York, Las Vegas, Paris, Tokyo and Tel Aviv. In 1960, she even performed in Berlin.
Just as she had on screen, Dietrich would use fashion to titillate and beguile her audiences. She would spend half the night in elegant, body-hugging gowns, and the other half in tails and top hat. Dietrich obsessed over concealing the effects of age on her body. Her appearance on stage was elaborately supported through makeup, wigs, stage lighting, tape for temporary facelifts.
In 1975, Dietrich retired from performing after falling from the stage in Sydney, Australia and breaking her thigh. In June 1976, Sieber, her husband with whom she had an open marriage, died of cancer. Dietrich lived the last decade of her life bedridden in Paris.
In 1979 she published her autobiography Nehmt nur mein Leben (Take Just My Life). In 1982 she took part in Marlene (1984), an Oscar-nominated documentary about her life and career, but allowed only her voice to be recorded.
While she remained in physical retreat from nearly everyone, she accumulated a monthly phone bill of $3,000 from staying in touch with political leaders like Ronald Reagan, François Mitterrand and Mikhail Gorbachev, and speaking on television about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On May 6, 1992, Dietrich died of kidney failure and was buried next to her mother in Berlin. 1,500 mourners filled the church.
Dietrich’s cultural impact continues to resonate. In 1990, Madonna referred to Dietrich in “Vogue” (1990) and sang lines from “Falling in Love Again” while wearing a tux and top hat in her Girlie Show concert tour. In 2000, Joseph Vilsmaier directed Marlene, a biopic starring Katja Flint. In December 2017, drag artist Sasha Velour designed a Google Doodle for Dietrich’s birthday. In May 2020, Entertainment Weekly celebrated Dietrich as LBGTQ celebrity.
About the Authors:
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and he is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.