With intimate detail, author Maria Riva reveals the rich life of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, the charismatic star of stage and screen whose career spanned much of the twentieth century. Opening with Dietrich’s childhood in Schöneberg, Riva’s biography introduces us to an energetic, disciplined, and ambitious young actress whose own mother equated show business with a world of vagabonds and thieves.
Dietrich would quickly rise to stardom on the Berlin stage in the 1920s with her sharp wit and bisexual mystique, and wearing the top hat and tails that revolutionized our concept of beauty and femininity. She comes alive in these pages in all her incarnations: muse, collaborator, bona fide movie star, box-office poison, lover, wife, and mother.
During World War II, Dietrich would stand up to the Nazis and galvanize American troops, eventually earning the Congressional Medal of Freedom. There were her artistic relationships with Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express), Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter, as well as her heady romances. And in her final years, Dietrich would make herself visibly invisible, devoting herself to the immortality of her legend.
Capturing this complex and astonishing woman, Maria Riva’s insightful profile of her mother has the depth, range, and resonance of a novel, and takes us on a journey through Europe and old Hollywood during an era that is gone but not forgotten.
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Read an Excerpt
By Maria Riva
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2017 Maria Riva
All rights reserved.
He must have been gorgeous! Ramrod straight, the deep blue of his perfectly tailored cavalry uniform taut across the muscles of his fencer's back, elegant face, its high cheekbones emphasizing eyes glinting clear blue behind hooded lids. "Bedroom eyes" had not been invented yet, but it would have suited Louis Otto Dietrich perfectly. He looked exactly what he was; a Prussian officer, born to class and privilege. He had removed his spiked helmet, his red-blond hair — the world would one day report its color as being "Titian" when describing his daughter's — caught the glint of the afternoon sun as it filtered through the Victorian lace curtains of his father's library. An acknowledged rake, Louis Dietrich was used to tongue-lashings from his long-suffering parent.
"Once and for all, if you don't stop with these whores of yours, you will be sent across the sea to be scalped by Indians!"
Louis had been threatened with banishment to far-off America and its Indian hordes so often, he remained silent, at attention in front of his father's desk, waiting for the usual lecture to run its course. It was a well-known threat that neither man took seriously. As only the second son of an aristocratic family, Louis knew he had little to look forward to, even less to lose. An automatic military commission assured him the elegance of a suitable uniform and a steady supply of drinking and gambling companions. Courtesans belonged to this life as much as the shiny dueling sword at his slender hip. Having recently distinguished himself in all regimental protocols required, he felt his military credentials were henceforth ones that the Fatherland could be justly proud of; his duty done, he now deserved to resume his favorite sport. Louis loved the game of love; the hunt, the chase, the capture, the inevitable surrender. Like a blue-eyed falcon, he swooped, and girls swooned in anticipation.
"God damn it, Louis! Don't you have anything to say?" Calmly, as though reciting his catechism, the son promised his father once again, he would mend his wild ways, protect the noble name of Dietrich from the slightest hint of scandal, strive diligently to present the family with what it seemed to want so fervently, a son they could be justly proud of. Louis could charm the larks off the linden trees. This monthly ritual of "making Louis see the error of his ways" always ended with a formal handshake, a deferential clicking of heels by the son, a gallant toast to the Kaiser in the excellent champagne his father's cellar was known for. Unrepentant, Louis kept right on making German maidenhood happy.
But when he brought his talents into the ancestral home, seducing one of the parlor maids, his outraged mother took charge — no lengthy discussions, certainly no champagne! She announced to one and all: "Louis is getting married!"
The Dietrichs were summoned to a family council. The brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, the whole imposing clan. They arrived in sumptuous landaus, on prancing horseback, some in their Daimler "Strength Wagons" that frightened the sleek harness horses. Amidst much shaking of bonneted heads, stroking of mustaches, clinking of Meissen china and Bavarian crystal, the eligibility and availability of Berlin's virgins were discussed, scrutinized as precisely as a military objective. The campaign to find a suitable bride "to keep Louis in line" had begun. It soon floundered. It seemed the Golden Falcon's reputation had filtered into an amazing number of the best homes. Proud Prussian mamas closed ranks, refusing to allow their innocent daughters even be considered likely candidates for marriage to such a "shocking bounder." While the family searched, Louis rode his horses and his amours with equal gusto.
The list of available brides dwindled. There was that rather quiet, nearly pretty, jeweler's daughter. The one whose father made those beautiful timepieces, perfect craftsmanship, really works of art. Her dowry would be substantial, the family honored to have their daughter marry above her station.
Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing was a good girl. She obeyed her mother, respected her father, asked nothing more of life than to do her duty, properly. Not really pretty, she looked capable and trustworthy. Her dark brown eyes could hold a hint of mischief, but rarely did she permit herself such frivolity of inner spirit. It wasn't that she lacked warmth or a sense of emotion. Actually, she would later discover that she was capable of tumultuous passion, but even then, if confronted by choice, duty always took preference over anything else. Being German, this suited her. Being a Victorian female, her future was known to her, which also suited her. Being of marriageable age, her father would soon transfer his responsibility for her existence to a suitable husband. She knew her place in Berlin society, that of a successful tradesman's daughter. Josephine, as she was called, had been schooled well. She knew the duties of a good wife: to oversee the servants, personally inspect the folding of linen, the weekly polishing of silver, beating of carpets, seasonal exchange of draperies, itemizing of the larder, selecting daily menus with the cook, stitching her husband's monograms on his personal linen, bearing him heirs.
She was just twenty-one when Louis Dietrich, resigned to his fate, came to her parents' house to pay his respects. Properly chaperoned by her proud mother, Josephine watched him as he approached. His male beauty shocked her so, instead of lowering her eyes as she curtsied to him, her startled gaze remained fixed on his face.
"Fräulein Felsing," he murmured softly, brushing his mouth across the back of her cool hand, and, for this sensible, lackluster girl, time stood still. She loved him! A timeless passion, unquestioned, unexplained, sometimes unwanted, through betrayal, carnage of war, even beyond death, till the end of her days.
She wore white lace, a matching capelet of cashmere against the winter cold. The traditional band of myrtle holding her bridal veil, its circle securely closed, denoting her virginity; a Victorian girl in new Edwardian finery. Louis, having resigned his military officer's elegance for the equally dashing uniform of a lieutenant in the elite imperial police, towered beside her in deep plum and opulent gold braid. They said their vows in an Anglican ceremony. It was December of 1898; she was twenty-two, he, thirty.
They moved into their new home in Schöneberg, a fashionable town near Berlin where Louis was stationed. Schöneberg was aptly named. It was indeed a pretty place, full of tall poplar trees, flowered gardens, intimate squares, careful architecture. The gracefully curved streetlamps were newly electrified; dark green trolley cars, with their small exterior platforms, no longer needed horses to pull them along their tracks — now boasted tall electric antennae with which to join the new century. Josephine ran her small establishment with an efficiency far beyond her years. Everything shone, sparkled, functioned properly. Louis was enchanted by this so-serious young bride wanting only to please. Being married might prove a pleasing diversion after all.
When the midwife announced the birth of his daughter, Louis acknowledged the news with a shrug of his beautifully tailored shoulders and ordered his horse, his duty done. His father would be disappointed that it was not a son, but as no child of his could inherit, be it male or female, it really made very little difference. He felt he needed a change of scene. His latest mistress was becoming tiresome, and now that Josephine would be suckling the child, he resolved to lock the connecting door between their bedrooms; while breeding women discomforted him, there was something about making love to a mother that he found somehow distasteful.
Josephine named her first child Elisabeth. A potato- dumpling baby, brown-eyed, quiet, undemanding, a being aiming to please as unobtrusively as possible. Deep down, hidden inside her, she would cry "Love me," but no one ever heard her. Her birth created a loneliness in her mother for which she was never forgiven, nor knew the cause.
Josephine went about her daily duties as efficient housekeeper and mother, living for the rare sound of a turning key in the night that brought the end of yearning.
Three weeks after her twenty-fifth birthday, the morning of December 27, 1901, after a particularly difficult labor, Josephine gave birth to a second daughter. An incandescent creature, the top of her perfect head covered in fine down the color of a summer sunset. Her skin held the luminosity of oriental pearls, a glint of clear blue behind hooded lids, the Golden Falcon in miniature. Josephine looked down at this perfect being at her breast, and the passion she felt for the man who had created it transferred itself to his child. She felt it like a raging force leaving her body. With this new love, twin to the old, came a terrible fear, an inexplicable haunting: Could the child have inherited the father's appetites? Would she, too, find facility in hurting those who loved her? She vowed to guard her, if necessary even from herself. Josephine named her new daughter Maria Magdalena. Was it to implore God's protection that she chose this name, or clairvoyance?
By the age of twenty-nine, Josephine was old. Frustration had worked its corrosion. The early blossoming, so callously terminated, had withered a young girl into a cold woman, set in her ways, stoic, given to commands, dictums, and ponderous truisms. In her dark skirt, severe high-necked bodice, sensible shoes, a stranger coming to call would have taken her for the dour housekeeper, not the young mistress of the house in Schöneberg. Josephine ran her home, reared her daughters with an iron hand. They feared her. But parental fear being such a normal prerequisite in a good Prussian home, the two little girls accepted it as normal and thrived.
Elisabeth, known as Liesel, was an intelligent child. Like the small brown sparrow she resembled, she picked up any crumbs of affection that fell her way. She loved books, taught herself to read before the age of five and, whenever her younger sister didn't need her, escaped to the attic and its treasure of books. She adored her beautiful sister. Liesel was one of those rare people incapable of envy. Still, it would be nice to be beautiful and then be loved for it, but Liesel was a sensible child and accepted her plainness at a very early age.
Maria Magdalena was special — everyone knew it without reasoning, accepting its truth. Lena, as she was known, knew it too. She felt different from those around her. She was sure all the beautiful things in the world had been created just to please her. She kept this knowledge inside, knowing her mother would not approve her thinking of herself as something special. Her sister knew it though. Furtively, she permitted Liesel to pick up her dolls for her, make her bed, be her happy handmaiden. After all, as it made Liesel so happy to do things for her, it was really a kindness that she offered her older sister to enjoy. She did wish, though, that Liesel would stop calling her by that silly nickname she had invented and made her very own. Lena did not like being called Pussy Cat. It was not dignified for a Dietrich of nearly four. Besides, Liesel knew how much she disliked pets. Mutti didn't allow any animals in the house. For once, Lena could wholeheartedly agree with one of her mother's strict rules. Lena liked her father. Vati never made rules. He left all that to Mutti. He did engage the ladies of good class who came to tutor them in foreign languages. He always made very sure they were attractive, besides speaking impeccable French and English. Liesel preferred English. Lena adored French, because it made everything sound so romantic.
Louis was so rarely at home, to his daughters he remained a nebulous figure of male authority throughout their youth. Soon war would erase him completely from their young lives.
For now, Europe was at peace. It was a time of plenty; the Victorian era ended, the elegance of Edwardian England reached across the Channel. Berlin had become the largest industrial city in Europe, the prized jewel in its Kaiser's crown. Many believed the city rivaled Paris in everything, including its beautiful women in the latest fashions, strolling along the linden-treed avenues.
Through the years of watching her cope, the women of the Dietrich family had become genuinely fond of Louis's wife. To show their affection and approval of Josephine's exemplary behavior, they often came to take tea with the young matron, bringing some of the city's sparkle into her lackluster life. The poor child never went anywhere. Well — she couldn't very well, could she, without a husband to escort her! Over creamy mocha and vanilla crescents they chatted, gossiped, had a lovely visit, while Josephine listened politely and saw to their needs.
"Only yesterday," said a buxom lady in dark russet and precious cameo, "I simply had to find some beige embroidery wool. The tapestry, you know, the one that hangs in our music room? I discovered a slight tear, right on the forearm of one of the muses! Immediately, I ordered the carriage brought around and rushed off to Wertheim Department Store. It is owned by Jews; nevertheless, I believe it is one of the great wonders of Berlin. Everywhere those opulent floral arrangements! And those chandeliers! Must be as many as Versailles. The food halls had just received a new shipment of salmon from the Caspian Sea — and great tubs of caviar. I immediately purchased some for my husband. The Czar could not have better at his table. I also purchased some of that delicious nougat — just arrived from Florence — for the children, and a weightless paisley shawl for Max's mother — it is her seventieth birthday next week. Then I enjoyed a delectable tea, accompanied by a Hungarian babka bursting with sultanas. Of course, I returned home absolutely exhausted, but quite content."
"Ingeborg, did you find the beige tapestry wool?" a very thin lady in deep purple inquired.
"Yes, of course! You know as well as I, Sophia, that Wertheim's emporium carries absolutely everything!"
"My husband read in this morning's paper and then told me," announced a mousy lady in pale gray alpaca, "there has been an earthquake in an important city somewhere in North America. 'A real catastrophe,' my husband said."
"I believe the city is named San Francisco, after Saint Francis of Assisi." The lady in purple liked to set things straight.
"Oh, yes. I believe that is the name of it. My husband said many lives have been lost."
A stern lady, in strict navy blue — when standing she must have been extremely tall for, even seated, she loomed over the rest — intoned in a voice used to command:
"The Kaiser has met with the Czar of All the Russias — in Swinemünde. Yes, you heard me. I said Swinemünde. I have often taken my husband and children there. I always have said there is nothing so invigorating as north sea air. Our Kaiser undoubtedly is of the same mind."
A fat dachshund sat up, begged, received a sugared reward, then resumed his snooze beneath the laden tea table.
The new memorial church the Kaiser had commissioned, to be built in memory of his grandfather, was a topic they all found interesting. Had someone heard that its main spire was to be 113 meters high? It would be glorious! But why the planned star on its pinnacle? Like for the top of a Christmas tree! Not proper for a religious edifice of such importance.
"The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church will be a triumph of ecclesiastical architecture for centuries to come, even if they do insist on that Christmas ornament!" intoned the lady in navy, and that ended the discussion.
"My cook tells me that on the north side, some women — she used the term 'ladies,' but of course I cannot believe that; over there they are all of the working class, but my cook insisted it was 'ladies' — marched there with banners, advocating that women should be given 'rights.' What rights? What some will do to draw attention to themselves! Shameful! 'Look after your husbands, homes, and children, and get off the streets,' they should be told." This, they all could agree with.
"We have taken a box for the opening of the new operetta. Is your husband taking you?" the mouse-gray lady inquired of the deep purple, who answered haughtily:
"No, my dear. My husband and I are giving a musical soiree of Schumann lieder that evening."
Excerpted from Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva. Copyright © 2017 Maria Riva. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Hollywood—The Beginning
- Hollywood—The Magic Years
- London and Beyond
- Box Office Poison
- Gone a’ Soldiering
- The World
- Copyright Page
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not a typical bio. She's realistic about her Mon, doesn't shred her character and gives history and and inside view of Hollywood few can.