The life story of Marlene Dietrich

Every May 6, the day she passed away, her grave is visited by thousands of fans.

In a career of more than half a century, Marlene has made about forty films and was nominated for an Oscar only once, but she has achieved much more than actresses who have won numerous world awards.

In 1999, the American Film Institute named her one of the ten most famous actresses in the history of film, the German Post issued a stamp with her image in 1997, the American government awarded her the prestigious Medal of Freedom, France, Legion of Honor, and five years after her hometown. She got her own square in Berlin, and in 2002 the mayor declared her an honorary citizen.

These are just the most important of a series of recognition’s to the actress who, even when it was not easy at all, defied the rigid moral stereotypes that the film, and especially the Hollywood world, abounded in. Namely, although she was formally married to only one man, she never hid turbulent relationships with many famous actors, but also with women. Recognizing bisexuality about sixty years ago meant having a lot of courage and faith in yourself, and Marlene Dietrich had the strength and even the audacity to do so.

– Love is love, with a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter. It is important that someone truly attracts you. Europe is much freer in that than America – she stated almost half a century ago and stoically endured avalanches of moral condemnation.

In the following text, I will present you the life story of Marlene Dietrich, one of the most famous actresses in the world!

Earlier years

Marlene Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, the most beautiful part of Berlin, as Marie Magdalena Dietrich. Her father, Luis Erich Otto Dietrich, was a police lieutenant, and Wilhelm’s mother was Elizabeth Josefina Felsing, the daughter of a wealthy Berlin family who for decades ran a well-established custom-made clothing business. Marlene was a pet in the family and everyone called her Lena, which resulted in a variant that was a combination of both names and nicknames – Marlene. The couple also had a one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, but their happiness in marriage did not last long.

Otto Dietrich died suddenly in 1911, when Marlene was only ten years old. Left alone with two children, the mother married Eduard von Losk, the best friend of her late husband, in 1916, but the stars were not in her favor again. Her second husband was seriously injured on the battlefield during the First World War and died soon after, and she no longer had the strength to decide on a new marriage. Despite the hard blows of fate, she successfully raised her daughters and encouraged them in education, so as a little girl, Marlene started going to violin and piano classes. When she graduated, she chose to continue her education at a music school, dreaming of one day becoming a concert violinist. For a start, she started playing in cinemas as a musical accompaniment for silent films, but it didn’t last.


After one injury to the wrist, tendinitis became more frequent and the dream of a music career vanished forever. But Marlene was not a person to give up easily! A few weeks of playing in cinemas intrigued her for film, a medium that was becoming increasingly popular, so in 1922 she applied to the Academy of Theater Arts, whose director, Max Reinhard, also had his own theater. Although she failed to enroll in her studies, she convinced the director to allow her to show what she knows in his theater. Although he was completely uninterested at first, he eventually relented and gave her a few supporting roles, and in 1922 Marlene managed to push herself to a small role in the film “So sind die Männer”.

Despite the fact that the role was completely unimportant, she proved to be crucial in Dietrich’s life: on the set, she met the assistant director, four-year-old Rudolf Siber, with whom she married a few months later, on May 17, 1923, in Berlin City Hall. She had to neglect her career as an actress for a while, because on December 13, 1924, she gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter, Maria Elizabeth Siber. And that the apple does not fall far from the tree, Maria proved at the age of twenty, when she started her career as an actress under the stage name Maria Riva and turned to television in the middle of the last century. In 1992, she published a book about her mother, with whom she had an extremely close and quality relationship all her life, which was a great success.

Moving to Hollywood

Marlene Dietrich’s acting beginnings were not glamorous: until the end of the 1920s, she performed in theaters in Berlin and occasionally in Vienna, but the real springboard for her career was only the role of a cabaret dancer in the film “Blue Angel” (1930). When as Lola-Lola she took the breath away of both the audience and the critics. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who, due to the incredible success of the film, liked to take credit for the discovery of Marlene Dietrich. To a certain extent, he was right: even though she had been acting until then, Sternberg opened the door for her, and the most important one, Hollywood. As he already had business connections in the world film metropolis, he persuaded Marlene to move to Los Angeles and provided her with a lucrative contract with the film studio “Paramount Pictures”.

It turned out that he was right, because the first film she made in the USA, “Morocco” (1930), brought her the first and only Oscar nomination. For that film, she learned the text of the role by heart, because she only spoke English. However, her success motivated her so much that she quickly learned it and accepted engagements in five more Sternberg films, and her effort paid off because she was paid $125,000 per achievement. Critics claim that Sternberg is the most deserving of her meteoric success, because with specific lighting and framing of Marlena’s face, he managed to get the maximum, at the same time paving the way for the importance of lighting and the skill of shooting close-ups.

All this was expressed in the film “Shanghai Express” (1932), which was nominated for film of the year, and Marlene Dietrich doubled her fees. However, Paramount Pictures came into sharp conflict with Sternberg in 1933, so he stopped working for the studio, and Marlene Dietrich’s career plummeted. Although she continued to record, by 1940 she had made several major financial failures, so it seemed that her career ended ingloriously. However, she managed to somehow survive in that thorny period, mostly due to perseverance.

World War II

When the Second World War began, she confirmed her charm of a fatal woman outside of film studios. Although she was German (with American citizenship she received in 1937), she never hid how repulsive the Nazi regime was to her. Moreover, with disgust, she rejected the Führer’s offer to return to her homeland and, with her popularity and charisma, helped build the Third Reich. Part of the German public condemned her for that, they even called her a traitor, but the actress did not hesitate. Moreover, like many colleagues, she performed as a singer and dancer in military camps and raised the morale of American soldiers. After returning from one such tour, the US Department of Defense announced that Marlene Dietrich sold more government bonds than any other American citizen, and thus earned the high state recognition of the Medal of Freedom, which she received in 1947.

It is estimated that during the war, she performed in front of more than 250,000 American soldiers, and during 1944 and 1945 alone, she traveled thousands of kilometers and sang in front of Allied soldiers in Algeria, Italy, France and Great Britain. As part of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) project, Marlene Dietrich recorded a series of songs in 1944 that raised the fighting morale of soldiers, among which “Lily Marlene” achieved the greatest popularity. It is interesting that she was accepted with equal enthusiasm by the soldiers of all the warring parties.

And when the war was finally over, Marlene Dietrich breathed a sigh of relief and entered the German city of Aachen with the allied forces in the victorious column, where she was recognized in large numbers by a German and greeted with great enthusiasm. According to her daughter’s book, on that occasion, the women from the crowd that welcomed them immediately organized and quickly made a welcome cake, which Marlene said many times was “the most delicious bite she has ever eaten”.

Private life

Although she arrived in Hollywood as a married woman, Dietrich often entered into short-term relationships with the actors on the set, and the press, with the greatest curiosity, followed the adventure with Hollywood beauty James Stewart, and especially with the then big star, John Wayne. It has even been speculated that Wayne could have been the reason for ending her marriage, because during that relationship, he divorced his wife, who was tired of reading where her husband spent his free time with Marlene Dietrich.

However, that did not happen, and insiders believe that their passionate relationship was destroyed – politics. Wayne, in fact, was of conservative views, a supporter of the right-wing political option, an advocate of gun ownership and racially intolerant, all of which were complete opposites to Marlene’s value system. And when she continued to maintain parallel ties with him, Wayne could not stand it. Marlene was not particularly affected, considering that she had already found a replacement for him: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and occasionally the German writer, Erich Maria Remarque, and the French film great, Jean Gaben.

And as if all of them, along with her existing husband, were not enough, she occasionally maintained a tumultuous relationship with the American poet and writer, Mercedes de Acosta, who in the upper social strata was known for affair with the famous Greta Garbo and ballerina. Isadora Duncan.

After the end of World War II, Marlene Dietrich enjoyed the status of a big star for some time and filmed with prestigious directors, such as Billy Wilder (“A Foreign Affair”, 1948), Alfred Hitchcock (“Stage Fright”, 1950) and Fritz Lang (Rancho Notorious, 1952). But as time went on, it ceased to be an icon for Hollywood as it used to be. The fact that she was in her fifth decade was enough of a weight in itself, but that didn’t particularly bother the famous actress.

Another career and return

ing the absence of major film engagements, she turned to cabaret and, performing in major US cities, achieved tremendous success. For example, for a visit to the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas in 1953, she received an astronomical $30,000 a week, at a time when the average annual income of a well-paid middle-class American was only about $30,000.

Her performances filled the halls to the last seat, mostly because of the specific and, at that time, extremely bold stage costume: she often appeared in front of the audience dressed as a man, in suits and with a top hat, and the obligatory long mouthpiece. Although it seems unthinkable from today’s perspective, such performances provoked a lot of violent reactions and condemnation, but Marlene reacted to them with another extreme: in part of the play she regularly appeared in the legendary “naked dress”, created by Jean Louis. The dress, in fact, was sewn from transparent, but crumpled beige silk on which hundreds of sequins were sewn. It was certainly harder to “justify” the choreographic fantasies of Marlene Dietrich, who, despite her age, often exposed her legs, so in that period, given that her daughter gave birth to a son Michael in 1948, she was given the epithet “grandmother with the most beautiful” feet in the world ”.

– Honestly, I don’t see what kind of beauty men find in their legs. To me, it is a part of the body that I would never “fall” on. According to my criteria, the sexiest on a man, a man or a woman, are the eyes and everything behind them – she said.

As a result of the huge success of her cabaret performances, engagements in the cult “Cafè de Paris” in London and a few more in Las Vegas followed in 1954, and Marlene still had a great motive in the late fifties to show the world how not even on the threshold of the sixties, does not intend to retire. With the American composer, Bart Bakarak, she embarked on, as many estimated, a real adventure: together they conceived and refined her performances, which until then had knocked the audience off their feet all over the USA and Europe, and released four albums. At the promotion of one of them, Marlene was a guest in Berlin and Dusseldorf in 1962, where her compatriots reacted completely differently: while some shouted at her “Traitors, return to America!” and rebuked her for being a sinner and an atheist, others enthusiastically applauded her and stood in lines for hours to get tickets for her performance.

– I am not interested in such comments at all. I don’t believe in God anymore, he took care of it himself. I saw too much horror during the war and I can’t believe that, if someone is so good and omnipotent, he can afford so much torment and suffering for anyone – said Marlene Dietrich.

And among her supporters was the then mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brant, later German chancellor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971, who received her in a private audience after her performance.

The villains claim that her connection with politics was much more intense, considering that during the presidential term of John F. Kennedy, it was whispered like the charms of the “sleepy eyes” of the famous actress. Not even two generations of the promiscuous Kennedy family could resist, nor could several other high-ranking officials in the administration of the most popular American president.

After successful European tours in the 1960s, Marlene Dietrich reaped another great success, this time on Broadway. For the play “I Wish You Love”, shown in front of packed halls in 1967 and 1968, she received a special Tony Award, and four years later, the BBC made a documentary about the play, for which she received a fee of $3050,000.

Ten years later, in 1982, when she rarely appeared in public, Maximilian Shell made another documentary about her, but the audience could only hear her voice. The film won dozens of awards and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category in 1983.

But that was already the time when there was very little left of the former Marlene Dietrich. Namely, the actress had her uterus removed in 1965 due to cancer, and after that, she began to suffer from increasingly serious health problems. First, difficulties due to difficult circulation, especially in the legs, then arthritis, in 1973 she broke her hip, and then in 1975, on a tour of Australia, she awkwardly fell and broke her leg.

Wheelchair attachment, so contrary to her nature, greatly encouraged severe addiction to painkillers and alcohol, and she made her last film, “Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo”, in 1978 – in it, playing a motionless baroness.

Last year

She spent the last twelve years tied to the bed, but she did not lose heart.

Although she did not leave her Paris apartment, she corresponded with many famous people – among others, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, actor and director Orson Welles, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld… The narrow circle of people who dared to visit her testifies that, despite her severely impaired health, she still liked to communicate with people, so she spent her days by phone.

Her daughter claims that until her death on May 6, 1992, she spent more than $7,000 on phone bills. At the farewell in the Parisian church of Saint-Marie-Madeleine on May 9, 1992, more than three thousand of her admirers gathered, and the coffin, covered with the American flag and a bouquet of wildflowers, was transported to Berlin the next day, where the actress was buried at her mother’s grave.

Marlene Dietrich’s legacy, which consisted of fifteen thousand photographs, several thousand dresses, costumes, hats and other clothing, and hundreds of personal items of lesser value, was bought at a public auction on October 24, 1993, by the German Cinematheque. He showed no interest in those things.

– Acting is a job that I did because I had to make a living from something. But what I really enjoyed was the dressing and makeup. I never dressed for men or women, always only for myself – she claimed.

According to her daughter Maria Riva, who last saw her alive, that passion did not leave her until the last day of her life.

As for make-up, the best Hollywood “partners in the crime of deceiving the audience”, as she called the make-up artists, admitted that Marlene Dietrich was an actress from whom even the most experienced had something to learn.


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