Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend

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About her personal life, both biographers agree on this much: she slept with von Sternberg. She married Rudolf Sieber and became a mother before "The Blue Angel" and never divorced, the better to protect herself from the claims of her hordes of suitors. The authors disagree about much more, including whether she pretended that her Nazi-supporting sister was a concentration-camp prisoner. Put these books together and they'll make your head spin, which might not be far from what Dietrich wanted.

She scorned facts and never settled for the truth when a pretty lie would do. The Riva book resembles a Hollywood celebrity biography, flashy and elaborately detailed but containing big black holes.

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Like von Sternberg at his most florid, Ms. Riva is not always easy to believe, but she is always greatly entertaining.

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Consider that von Sternberg turned Catherine the Great into the stunningly photographed Dietrich in "The Scarlet Empress," and you'll have an idea of where Ms. Riva got her sense of history. She begins with a line about her grandfather: "He must have been gorgeous! It is a very effective approach to a life that in its own way was an epic fiction. Riva plays up her insider's perspective masterfully. Her parents, Marlene and Rudi, affectionately called each other Mutti and Papi from the time of her birth and remained confidants throughout their lives.

Legends of Hollywood: The Life and Legacy of Marlene Dietrich

Maria's mother usually called her "the Child" and for publicity purposes shaved years off her age, starting when she was 6 and joined her mother in Hollywood. Dietrich apparently juggled her lovers with the accomplishment of a French farceur. In a quaint touch, at dawn von Sternberg or whoever would sneak out of whatever rented Hollywood mansion she lived in at the time, go back to ring the front doorbell and sit down to a breakfast of Dietrich's famous scrambled eggs, all so the Child wouldn't know.

The Child knew plenty. Instead of going to school, she accompanied her mother to the studio.

Much of the book is devoted to details of costume design and lighting, but then so were Dietrich's movies. After a while, Ms. Riva's child's-eye view becomes frustrating. When Dietrich visits Colette and Gertrude Stein, the intimidated young Maria remembers nothing about their conversations. Yet at times Ms. Riva writes as if she has total recall of decades-old conversations. Many of them have the tone of awkward expository dialogue.

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Dietrich complains about Ernst Lubitsch: "He thinks I will do whatever he says just because he is the big comedy director and now the head of Paramount. Still, Ms. Riva has great advantages over any other biographer, especially because she can quote from the diary Dietrich kept from youth to old age and from a great cache of letters by and to her. It was one of Dietrich's habits to pass her love letters on to her husband, who kept them all. The diary is revealing because it is a work of such startling banality.

When Dietrich falls hard for Yul Brynner -- she was nearing 50, he was around 30 -- the diary is full of adolescent exclamations such as, "He did not call" and "Feel have lost 'Him' forever. No use living. Riva writes that toward the end of Dietrich's life, she used that diary to create the self-pitying image of a neglected old woman. By then she was addicted to pills and alcohol, and after falling and fracturing her hip in , she "put herself to bed for the rest of her life. Riva says: "Now, when she passed out she would already be lying down in a soft, safe place.

Never once did the option of giving up drinking instead enter her mind. Riva knows what did or did not enter her mother's mind is one of those little scruples she never bothers with. She does, however, present a wrenching image of Dietrich's pathetic old age. When her physical beauty finally escaped her control, Dietrich would spend hours on the phone but see no one. She cooked on a hot plate next to her bed and used a Limoges pitcher as a chamber pot. On many visits to her mother, Ms.

Riva found entries in Dietrich's diary that read, "I never see Maria. She adds, "We played our little games. Riva plays with her mother and the reader. It is difficult to accept the word of a daughter who would amend her mother's diary. Riva may be an unreliable narrator, but she is not an unsympathetic one. It must have been a Freudian nightmare to have been Marlene Dietrich's daughter.

Who could possibly compete? That is the unexplored story of the Riva book. If it was hard to be Dietrich's daughter, imagine, as Mr. Bach does, how tough it was to be the legend herself. A onetime student of von Sternberg, Mr. Bach vividly recreates the willful manner in which Dietrich became an icon and stayed that way. Before von Sternberg saw her on stage, she did a notorious lesbian song-and-dance in a stage revue; she played many small roles in silent films, including one on which she astutely said she "looked like a potato"; she was carefree about her sex life and ambitious about her career.

All of this she liked to forget. View all New York Times newsletters. In Mr. Schell's documentary she also denied having a sister. Riva writes that her mother would say tragically during the war that her sister, Elisabeth, was "in Belsen," knowing very well that listeners would assume she was a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, although Dietrich knew she was living comfortably at home.

This was another "twisted script" her mother invented for her "personal convenience. Bach's version, documented by interviews with the British officer who dealt with Dietrich at the camp, is that she pulled her considerable strings to get to Bergen-Belsen soon after it was liberated. Only then did she learn from the British that her sister and brother-in-law had been working for a group supporting the Nazis. That, Mr.

Bach says, is why Dietrich publicly denied her sister's existence from then on. Where Ms. Riva is cynical about her mother's wartime efforts, Mr. Bach is convincing about the danger in which Dietrich put herself by going so close to the front lines. By then an American citizen, she was vilified all over Germany as a traitor, and if she had been captured she would have been killed or used as an unbearably effective piece of propaganda.

Bach's writing can be cloying: "The hints that age was showing rang bells like knells. But he is shrewd about her career. Lola Lola, he says, was the last role not tailored to Dietrich's persona, a situation that crippled her as an actress. It is possible to quibble with this. When she played Frenchy in "Destry Rides Again" , getting into a cat fight with Una Merkel and singing "The Boys in the Back Room," her humor and exuberant playfulness were great comic surprises at the time.

And the tailor-made role of a former Nazi cabaret singer in Billy Wilder's film "A Foreign Affair" was probably her best. Still, Mr. Her most famous director, Josef von Sternberg, did his best to accentuate the foreign and exotic nature of his most famous actress, and in conjunction with that the most famous images of Dietrich portray her glowing face juxtaposed against a shadowy silhouette, with the ornamental composition making it seem almost as though she were an artificial creation. Her life offscreen was no less exotic, filled with an endless string of affairs that only enhanced the Marlene Dietrich myth.

Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend : Steven Bach :

At the same time, however, there is a complexity to her performances that extends far beyond the artificiality of the costumes and the sensuality of her appearance. The significance of Dietrich's career lies in the way that she combined feminine sensuality with masculine independence. By: Charles River Editors. Narrated by: Allison McKay. Length: 1 hr and 22 mins.


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