Born Maria Magdalene Dietrich, December 27, 1901, in Berlin, Germany; (died May 6, 1992, in Paris, France); daughter of Louis Erich Otto (police officer) and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing; second of two daughters; married Rudolf Sieber (casting director), 1923; daughter Maria (born 1924); became American citizen in 1939; Education: attended Auguste Victoria School for Girls, 1906-18.

Marlene Dietrich's recording career extended over half a century for singing was always part of her acting career. Her first songs, forthe German movie Es liegt in der Luft, (There's Something in the Air), were recorded in 1928 and the soundtrack of her last film Just a Gigolo,which included her last musical offerings, was released in 1978.Although she first became famous as an actress, this fame made it easy for Marlene Dietrich to start a second career as chanteuse while she was in her fifties and film offers were becoming scarce. Capitalizing on her image as femme fatale, she performed in night clubs and theaters around the world for over two decades, and her musical work was documented in numerous recordings.

Dietrich's voice, with a range of a mere one-and-a-half-octaves, was not that of a great singer. However, she made up for her technical limitations through inventive phrasing and by avoiding sustained notes. She dramatized her shows with theatrical elements such as extraordinary costumes, lighting and movement. "Her dusky, accented vocals complemented the heavy-lidded character she assumed on stage," wrote Colin Escott in the liner notes to My Greatest Songs. She flirted with "the limits of on-stage eroticism, ... hinting at a strangely androgynous sexuality," wrote Escott. With her mixture of intelligence and eroticism, Dietrich created a modern female prototype with a good deal more independence than the traditional stereotype. And she was versatile. One of her less well known musical skills was her ability to play various songs on a saw with a violin bow.

Born in Berlin in 1901 as Marie Magdalene Dietrich into a well-to-do family, Dietrich received a good education. At the young age of 13, Dietrich merged her two names into Marlene and created her stage name. Her father Louis, an officer in the Royal Prussian Police, died while Dietrich was still in school. Her mother Wilhelmina remarried, but her new husband, Colonel Eduard von Losch, died from wounds received in World War I when Dietrich was 17.

In 1919, Dietrich enrolled at the Weimar Konservatorium and began studying violin. She loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and eagerly practiced his solo sonatas. Was it because of a wrist injury, or because she was not accepted for further study at the Weimar Academy, or was it an offer to join the chorus line in a burlesque revue? Whatever the reason, Dietrich moved back to Berlin and dived into the Berlin theater scene where she encountered Claire Waldoff, a lesbian entertainer who performed in men's clothes. When she was 21, Dietrich married Rudolph Sieber, the casting director for a German movie in which she played a bit part. A year later, she gave birth to her daughter Maria.

Dietrich had minor roles in 17 movies before film director Josef von Sternberg choose her to co-star with Emil Jannings in the American/German co-production The Blue Angel. That role as seductive nightclub singer Lola Lola lures a conservative schoolteacher to ruin, panted the seed for her future image as an actress--and as a person. One of Lola's songs, "Falling in Love Again" composed by Frederick Hollander, was Dietrich's first and most legendary song.

Dietrich the Hollywood Star

Sternberg could see Dietrich's potential as a new type of sex symbol and, after Paramount offered her a two-movie deal based only on a screen test, he persuaded her to go to Hollywood with him. From von Sternberg Dietrich learned about moviemaking and the importance of her image. She was an instant hit in America. She continued to wear men's clothing occasionally as she had done in Berlin. At first it was considered scandalous, but before long it became fashionable among American women. Dietrich was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Morocco, another von Sternberg production, but did not win the coveted Oscar. Dietrich acted in six more von Sternberg movies until 1935. The last few flopped. In 1937, Paramount canceled Dietrich's contract and, before a year was out, she had been labeled "box-office poiscommon soldier's diet and clothes, and was a source of endless comfort and pride to the troops," wrote Donald Spoto in Falling in Love Again. Dietrich entered Germany with the Allied troops and eventually met her mother again in Berlin. Despite Dietrich's packages of food and medicine, her mother died of heart failure in November of 1945. For her unprecedented work during the war, Dietrich was honored with the French medal Lgion d'Honneur and with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian could receive from the American Defense Department.

The Chanteuse

After World War II, Dietrich acted again, more or less successfully, in various movies. She made A Foreign Affair with Billy Wilder in 1948, a film which included some unvarnished scenes of the post-war black market. The film also produced some of Dietrich's most famous songs such as "Black Market," and "Illusions." Like many of her songs since the 1930s, they were composed and accompanied by Frederick Hollander. In 1950, Dietrich worked with Alfred Hitchcock in his comic thriller Stage Fright.As a singing actress with an international reputation, she interpreted the Cole Porter song "The Laziest Gal in Town" and Edit Piaf's "La Vie an Rose." Finally, after playing a nightclub singer many times, Dietrich became one herself. Her work entertaining the soldiers had proven her ability to perform live on stage. In 1953, after Dietrich served as Master of Ceremonies in one of her daughter's charity galas at Madison Square Garden, she received an offer to perform at the Las Vegas Hotel Sahara. In 1954, she played the Caf de Paris in London, where doctor Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, watched her show. In 1957, she made her second movie with Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution, which was a great success. After that, she returned to stage for a tour of South America.

Dietrich soon expanded her night-club act into a complete one-woman revue. In the first half of her shows Dietrich often performed in a sexy outfit that would appeal to the men, while in the second half she wore a tuxedo, bow tie, top hat and either slacks or tights. "She caressed the microphone as if she were making love to it, and she did a sexy high-kicking dance with a chorus line," described Bill Davidson in McCalls.

In August of 1959, Dietrich in Riowas recorded on Columbia Records at a Rio de Janeiro performance.Thousands welcomed Dietrich at the Paris airport when she arrived in November of 1959. As she was coming off the airplane, Dietrich carried a box as small as a jewel case which she later explained held the costume for her show, a remark covered by every Paris newspaper, according Bill Davidson in McCalls. A male observer called Dietrich's dress "a flesh-colored nothing studded with gold specks and diamonds," reported Newsweek. After three weeks of performing a show every night in Paris, Dietrich returned to the United States to perform once again in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Her $30,000 a week salary made Dietrich "the highest paid nightclub entertainer in the world," according to Davidson.

In the following years, Dietrich performed on stages all over the world, in Scandinavia, France, Netherlands, Spain, North Africa, Australia, and Japan. In May of 1960, Dietrich went to Berlin for three shows at Berlin's Titania Palast, her first public appearance in Germany since 1930. Surprised by the unfriendly reception given her by some Berliners and some Berlin newspapers, Dietrich told Newsweek "They knew I was there in uniform with the American Army during the push through Germany. If that means I'm a traitor, then let them call me a traitor. I became an American citizen because of Hitler...But I'm going there as a singer and entertainer--not as a politician." Nonetheless, Dietrich signed Berlin's Golden Book for Mayor Willy Brandt. Four years later, Time reported that Dietrich was celebrated by the Russian press as a "fighter against Fascism" when she performed in a sold-out variety theater in Moscow. "The reason I love you is because you have no lukewarm emotions--you are either very sad or very happy," told Dietrich the 1,350 Russians in the audience according to Time, adding "I am proud to say I think that I have a Russian soul myself."

Dietrich's "in concert" shows were directed until 1964 by young composer Burt Bacharach, who helped her assemble her repertoire, arranged her songs, conducted her shows and was at the same time her friend and advisor. "I've never been very self-confident, either in films or on the stage," wrote Dietrich in her memoirs. "On the stage, Burt Bacharach's praise gave me a much-needed feeling of security." In 1967, she debuted her one-woman show on Broadway in the Nine O'Clock Theater at the Lunt-Fontanne, for which she wore a new dress worth about $30,000. She continued to perform throughout the world, although less frequently, in part because the frequent deaths of many of her loved ones made her unhappy, in part because of several stage accidents she suffered. On September 29, 1975, Dietrich broke her leg on stage in Sydney, Australia. After a long period of medical treatment the seventy-four year old recovered, but she never returned to stage nor to public life. In June of 1976, Dietrich's husband died at age 79.

In 1986, a documentary about Dietrich's life by renowned film director Maximilian Schell-one of her admirers-was released. Although Dietrich refused to talk to journalists after her complete withdrawal from public life at the end of the 1970s, Schell managed to interview Dietrich several times in her Paris apartment, but the star-already in her mid-80s-refused to appear on camera. The interviews were used as voice-over in the documentary which consisted of clippings from Dietrich's movies, shows, and other public appearances. Dietrich's autobiography written in German and titled Ich bin, Gott sei Dank, Berlinerin-"I am, Thank God, a Berliner"-was first published in Germany in 1987. Two years later, the English translation came out in the United States as Marlene. Dietrich lived alone in Paris until her death in 1992. She is buried in Berlin.

by Evelyn Hauser

Marlene Dietrich's Career

Joined Reinhard's theater company and played minor roles in 17 German movies, 1922-29; cut her first record, 1926; got her first starring role in Ship of Lost Men, directed by Maurice Tourneur,1927; became an international star as nightclub singer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel,directed by Josef von Sternberg, 1930; Academy Award nomination for her acting in Morocco, 1930; moved to Hollywood with von Sternberg and worked with him in six more movies 1931-1935; acted in numerous movies under various directors for Paramount, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and other production firms, 1936-43; performed in war bond tours and worked on radio broadcasts for war effort, 1943; first performed "Lili Marlene" during North Africa U.S.O. tour, 1943; performed over 500 times before Allied troops, 1943-46; appeared in various movies, 1946-1961, including A Foreign Affair, 1948, Stage Fright, 1950, Witness for the Prosecution, 1957, Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961; performed first show as night club singer at Hotel Sahara in Las Vegas, 1953; toured as a concert and cabaret singer until 1975: toured Germany and Israel, 1960; Russia in 1964; Broadway in 1967; and the World Exposition in Montreal June, 1967; oother activities during the 1960s and 1970s included: narrator in Hitler-documentary The Black Fox, 1962; first TV special I Wish You Lovedirected by Alexander Cohen, 1972; withdrew from public life after a stage accident in Sydney, Australia, 1975; last appearance in the movie Just a Gigolo, 1978; Dietrich's autobiography published in Germany, 1987; English version Marlene published in the United States, 1989.

Marlene Dietrich's Awards

Lgion d'Honneur, France; Medal of Freedom, American Defense Department; honored on a German postage stamp in 1997.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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