Mystery and glamour are the first things that come to mind when the name Marlene Dietrich is mentioned. Working her way from the German cabaret stage to the glittering lights of Hollywood, Marlene starred in some of the most memorable films of the early 1930s including, “Morocco,” “Dishonored,” “Blonde Venus,” “Shanghai Express,” “The Scarlet Empress” and “The Devil Is A Woman.”
Born Maria Magdelena in Berlin, even her birthday remained a mystery for many years. It was originally believed she was born in 1904, the daughter of Edouard von Losch and Wilelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing. A birth certificate found years later showed that she was born on December 27, 1901 and was a stepdaughter to von Losch. Her real father, Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, a Royal Prussian officer died when she was very young. Her family life was conservative, upper-middle class, and with her father’s military influence, it regarded the importance of duty and discipline to the utmost degree. It would be this influence which would shape her acting career and her life as a citizen in years to come.
Her first love was the violin and she aspired to become a concert violinist. Suffering a wrist injury which made it impossible for her to continue playing, her dreams were shattered. Turning to the stage, she appeared in German cabaret productions and small films. She met and married Rudie Sieber, a production assisstant on the film Tragedie der Liebe (Tragedy of Love), in 1924 and the following year Marlene gave birth to their daughter, Maria. Continuing to perform in various productions, she was still an unknown actress when she was discovered by Josef von Sternberg and offered a part in his film “The Blue Angel,” the first German “talkie.” The film became an international success, and when von Sternberg returned to Hollywood, Marlene joined him, leaving behind her husband and daughter.
Her work with von Sternberg was truly a collaboration where the two transformed Marlene into a glamourous starlet, a vision of von Sternberg’s ideal woman. This collaboration lasted until 1935 with the dismal failure of “The Devil Is A Woman.” Josef ended his relationship with Marlene and moved from Paramount to Columbia. She made another unsuccessful film “Knight Without Armor” in 1937 and during the filming she was approached by Nazi agents trying to persuade her to come back to Germany. When she refused Hitler’s offer, her films were banned in Germany, and viewed as a traitor by many of her countrymen.
With her career on the decline, she left Hollywood for two years and returned to Europe. In 1939, producer Joe Pasternak offered her role in the film “Destry Rides Again” with star James Stewart. A western, the role transformed her femme fatale image to that of a leathery saloon hostess and in effect, resurrected her career.
Marlene helps in the war against the Nazis
During World War II, she made her intentions towards the Hitler regime clear by not only becoming a US citizen, but also by entertaining USO troops overseas and giving anit-Nazi broadcasts in German. (She was skilled at playing the saw, despite her other obvious talents.) She was awarded with the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian American honors, and was similarly awarded in France with a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. It is also during this period she made the remarkable films, Kismet and Pittsburgh.
After the war, Marlene continued to appear in films such as “Golden Earrings,” Hitchcock’s “Stagefright” and “Ranco Notorious.” Then a distinction, vastly different than she had attained in the past occurred when her daughter Maria gave birth to a son. The media dubbed her as “the world’s most glamourous Grandmother.” In 1950, at the age of 49 she was photographed by Milton Greene in some of the most striking photographs of her proving that she was in fact all the glamourous starlet she had always been, despite her new title as Grandmother. Her films roles became fewer and fewer, but Marlene remained in the public eye by making stage appearances, notably in London, Moscow, Paris, Tel Aviv and even Berlin.
The last notable film Marlene made was the emotional “Judgment at Nuremberg” where she played a wife of a Nazi officer. From then on she appeared only in a handful of small roles and regular stage appearances. In 1960, she wrote the book A-B-C, which was billed as “the world’s most glamorous grandma makes a thoughtful journey through the alphabet.”
In the late ’70s she withdrew from public life, becoming a recluse in the sanctuary of her Paris apartment. Although she spent the last twelve years of her life bed-ridden, she maintained active telephone conversations and correspondence with her friends and associates. On May 6, 1992 Marlene died in her Paris apartment in her sleep. Services were held at La Madelaine on May 10, and by her request she was buried in Berlin next to her mother, May 16, 1992.