WOMEN CRUSH WEDNESDAY: Marlene Dietrich
The infallible Marlene Dietrich was not one of the most glamerous and highest-paid actresses of her era, she was also vehemently opposed to the Nazi regime and recognized for her humanitarian efforts.
Born in what is now Berlin on December 27, 1901, Marlene Dietrich had taken an early interest in poetry, theatre, and music. She originally had hopes of becoming a concert violinist, but suffered a setback after a wrist injury. Dietrich began taking small roles in dramas and taking chorus girl parts in local theatres. By the early 1920's, she had made her film debut with a small part in Little Napoleon and met (and later married) Rudolf Sieber on the set of one her silent films. They had one child together - Maria Elizabeth Sieber (now Maria Riva). Throughout the decade she continued working in Vienna and Berlin taking parts both on stage and in film. By 1929 received her big break with her femme fatal role as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, Germany's first feature-length full-talkie directed by Josef von Sternberg.
Dietrich and von Sternberg would continue to work together for seven films (a record still to this day in the film industry) and he was key in her decision to make the move to Hollywood after the international success of The Blue Angel. Because of her glamorous demeanor, stunning beauty, and non-conforming sexual appeal, Dietrich was almost always cast as the sultry, mysterious femme fatal. With more successful films such as Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). She did expand her appeal by starring with James Stewart in the western comedy Desinty Rides Again (1939) and went on to appear in two films with John Wayne. She also worked with other very prestigious directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. Between film, stage, and vocal recordings, Marlene Dietrich and an impressive 70-year long career.
Aside from films, Dietrich was also a very involved humanitarian. When asked by people associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to return to Germany to make films there, she turned them down (it was rumored she was a favorite of Hitler, a title that she despised). As a result, her films were banned in Germany. That did not deter Dietrich though, who immediately applied for citizenship in the US and renounced her German citizenship. She worked closely with Billy Wilder and other German film starts to set up funds to help Jews escape Germany, donated all of her earnings ($450,000) from Knight Without Armor to assist refugees, and was one of the very first stars to tour, promote, and sell war bonds (it's reported that she sold more than any other star). Dietrich received several honors for all her humanitarian efforts from the US, France, Belgium, and Israel. In November 1947 she was awarded the Medal of Freedom--what she considers her proudest accomplishment.
Marlene Dietrich was one to embrace the typified independent "femme fatal" role she so wonderfully portrayed in film. Though never divorcing her husband, Sieber, she had a slew of affairs throughout her life with famous co-stars, directors, and writers. Some lasted only months while others continued for decades. Dietrich was bisexual and would partake in the surprisingly thriving gay culture of 1920's Berlin. She broke gender barriers by boxing at training studios before it was common at all for women to participate. Many of her later cabaret shows (which she had a very successful run with from the 1950's-1970's) would begin with her singing and performing in lovely evening gowns for the first half of the show and end with Dietrich in a top hat and tails for the second half, often singing songs that were typically performed by men.
After a long and successful career, Marlene Dietrich suffered a fall onstage at a performance in Australia in 1975 and ended her touring performances. Her last film appearance was a cameo in Just a Gigalo (1979) starring David Bowie where Dietrich sang the title song. She spent the final years of life mostly in seclusion, letting few see her though keeping in touch through letter writing and phone calls. In May 1992 she passed away. Her legacy lives on not only through her films and recordings, but through her amazing humanitarian works and willingness to challenge the social norms. At the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., an exhibition featuring Dietrich will run June 16, 2017, running through April 15, 2018. Also in current news is that a letter from Ernest Hemingway written to Dietrich (his love interest) is set to go to auction in New York on May 4th and is expected to go for $30,000.