Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Marlene" by Charlotte Chandler

This is a book that may very well not have been written. Marlene Dietrich had been retired since the late 1960’s, and with the exception of a few guest “spots” here and there, she was living in an apartment in Paris, one of her beloved cities, when the author, Ms. Chandler, was able to obtain permission to interview her, for this book, in the late 1970's.

If you have never read one of Ms. Chandler’s biographies you are missing a real treat. Her books on Mae West, Groucho Marx, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, to name a few, are more than just biographies. They are personal insights into the stars themselves, in their own words, prompted by Ms. Chandler’s unique way of getting them to open up. And in this book, Marlene Dietrich does just that.

I have always been fascinated by Marlene Dietrich. To me she represented the gritty days prior to the Second World War, when Berlin was a bubbling cauldron of politics, art, music and sex. Who can forget seeing her dressed in a man’s tuxedo while singing to a cabaret full of cigarette smoke and finely dressed patrons? Not me. And yet, in spite of that outward bravado, the Marlene Dietrich known by her colleagues and friends, is surprisingly simple, and at the same time very complex.

From her early film roles in German cinema, to her heady days in Hollywood, and her service at the very front lines of World War Two, she was a most unusual woman.

When Ms. Dietrich was filming “Destry Rides Again”, a western with James Stewart, she became pregnant by him. He asked her what “she was going to do about it?” This was a tremendous insight into Mr. Stewart, who has always been one of my favorite actors. He couldn’t offer to marry her, she was already wed, but still, according to Ms. Dietrich, he should have at least asked. Not that she would have accepted. She was in an open marriage, one in which both parties accepted one another, as well as their mutual affairs.

Part of this book is a narrative by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with whom the iconic Ms. Dietrich had a five year relationship. He describes his surprise at meeting Ms. Dietrich’s husband, along with his lover, in London. It was all very civilized, but a bit strange, nonetheless. Some of the most interesting stories begin with Mr. Fairbanks; like the time Marlene Dietrich wanted to return to Germany to kill Adolph Hitler with a poisoned hair pin. Hitler was a big fan, and had even ordered her to return to Germany. In any case, she would have been searched before being left alone with him, but the hairpin would probably have worked. She knew that she would probably never get out of Germany again, but considered the risk worth taking in order to regain her native country. At the time that this story took place, Ms. Dietrich was having an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future President. It strikes me as no co-incidence that the CIA, under John Kennedy, contemplated using a poison pin to kill Castro in Cuba.

An interesting aside here is that Ms. Dietrich would often be a guest in the Kennedy home, even as she was having an affair with the elder Mr. Kennedy. Years later, when JFK was in the White House, and Jackie was out of the country, she was invited to the Executive Mansion, where the President wasted no time in making his desires known. In Ms. Dietrich’s words, “He was even faster than his father.”

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was madly in love with her, and he recounts some of the most enjoyable stories in the book. They were both in love; he with her, and she with love itself. He did several nude sculptures of her, all of which he broke the heads off of, so the sculptures would not be exploited after her death.

At one point, as England stood poised on the edge of war with Germany, and at the same time that King Edward was about to abdicate the throne for the American divorcee Wallis-Simpson, Ms. Dietrich planned to seduce him to thwart his impending marriage. She couldn't stand to see him throw his royalty away for "that flat chested American woman."

When World War Two broke out she volunteered to work with Bette Davis and all the other Hollywood actresses in the USO, dancing with, and even cooking for the soldiers who passed through. But she felt she wasn’t doing enough, so she sold all of her belongings to join the war effort, going way past where Bob Hope would even go. She saw the death camps, and even had relatives in there. When told she was only allowed 56 pounds of luggage for the trip, she tossed away her gowns and makeup kit, electing to stuff the pockets of her flight suit with dime store fake fingernails, which she felt she could not do without, as they made her feel more feminine.

But there was another side to her that will surprise many people. She loved to cook, and clean the houses of her various lovers. Several are quoted as saying that she never looked more beautiful than when wearing a hairnet, frying eggs for breakfast.

When she elected to appear in the film “Judgment at Nuremberg”, in 1961 with Spencer Tracy, she was able to add authenticity and even some dialogue to her part, as well as the film. This was her last major film, but not the end of her career.

In the 1960’s she did a show in Las Vegas which is still spoken of today by those old enough to remember it. She appeared on stage, singing. Her voice was that of the classic chanteuse. Her musical director was a young Burt Bacharach, who even accompanied her on her tour of the Soviet Union. To quote Ms. Dietrich, “When Burt said; ‘Terrific baby, terrific;’ I could have died of happiness.”

This was a delightful book to read, filled with the stuff that legends are made of. And Ms. Dietrich was that; a legend; even in her own time. If you have never read one of Ms. Chandler’s books, “Marlene” is a great place to start.

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