Marlene Dietrich was a German-born actress and singer who was one of the most popular Hollywood leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s. She was known for her sensuality, her voice, and her beauty. She was also one of the first German actors to achieve success in Hollywood. Here are 42 facts about the sultry Marlene Dietrich.
1. Also Known As…
Marlene Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich, but was called Lena by her family. Marlene was a combination of her real name and her nickname, and she adopted it when she was just 11 years old.
2. Change of Direction
Acting wasn’t a lifelong aspiration for Dietrich. She’d originally dreamt of being a concert violinist, but was forced to give it up after sustaining a hand injury at the age of 18.
3. So Boring
Despite being a style icon, Dietrich had no time for fashion. In a 1960 interview, she told The Observer: “If I dressed for myself, I wouldn’t bother at all…Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans.” She was known for wearing men’s trousers both on screen and off, consistently defying the expectations of how a woman should look and dress.
4. Dietrich Silhouette
Dietrich’s penchant for trousers created what became known as the “Dietrich Silhouette,” which emphasized her narrow hips and broad shoulders. The look was created by the slim cut of her pant suits, which Dietrich told The Observer she had to have custom made, because of her ‘unusual’ shape.
5. Luxurious Accessory
Fur was an essential accessory in Dietrich’s wardrobe, and she absolutely adored it. She loved everything about it—especially the way she looked when photographed in it, and the way it felt to wear it. For all of her fur pieces, the one kind of fur she never owned was a chinchilla fur, simply because she thought it was an old lady fur.
The night Dietrich found out she’d received her big break, she and her friends were hanging out at the Silhouette club in Berlin. When the composer Friedrich Holländer found her and told her the news, word spread like wildfire around the club. The orchestra started playing “Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo” (“Just a Gigolo”) and Dietrich reportedly ordered enough champagne that they could have bathed in it. That must have been some party!
7. Stand With Us!
Hitler and his Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels were both huge fans of Dietrich and tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to return to Germany and support the Nazis. Not only did she refuse them, but she ended up applying for American citizenship and recording a number of anti-Nazi albums in German for the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA.
8. It’s Only Decent
Dietrich was one of the first celebrities to help sell war bonds, and she sang for the American troops on the front lines. When asked what her reasons were for doing so, she replied: “It was the decent thing to do.”
9. Most Proud Achievement
Dietrich’s efforts during the war were rewarded in 1945 when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of the country’s highest honors for a civilian. She later said that being awarded the medal was the thing she was proudest of in her life, and that’s saying something, considering all she accomplished!
Dietrich suffered from a condition known as bacillophobia, which is a fear of germs. Her fear was so severe, she was given the nickname “The Queen of Ajax.”
11. Suck a Lemon
When Dietrich was between takes, she’d suck lemon wedges to help keep her mouth muscles tight. At least nobody ever had to tell her to “pucker up” for a kissing scene!
12. A Scandalous Scene
A scene from the Josef von Sternberg film Morocco created quite the stir at the time. In it, a tuxedo-clad Dietrich kisses another woman, and it very nearly got cut by the censors. The scene was Dietrich’s idea in the first place, and she managed to save it with a flower that she first took from the woman before the kiss, and then gave to co-star Gary Cooper after. As she explained, if they cut the kiss, the audience wouldn’t understand the appearance of the flower.
13. Out of Order
The film Morocco marked Dietrich’s film debut in America, even though her true debut The Blue Angel had been filmed first. The latter was released in Europe before being released in the United States, and only after the former had played to American audiences.
14. Why Her?
When Dietrich was cast in The Blue Angel she was unknown in the film world, leading many to wonder why she was chosen to play Lola Lola. There have been several versions of the story, but in his autobiography, director Josef von Sternberg explained that he chose her because of her attitude during her audition. Dietrich apparently did not think she had any chance at winning the role, and approached it as though she were bored and simply going through the motions. As it turned out, this was exactly what he was looking for in the character, and the rest is history!
15. Marriage Wrecker
Dietrich’s love affair with Von Sternberg directly resulted in the breakup of his marriage. The affair began during the making of The Blue Angel, and the pair made plans to run off to New York together, hoping to make films together in the US. Riza Royce, Von Sternberg’s wife, found out what they were doing, and she and her lawyer were waiting at the dock for them when they got off the boat. Dietrich was notified that she was being sued for libel and alienation of affection, and a month later, Royce officially filed for divorce.
16. Work Friends
Dietrich was not known to have a lot of friends and was considered to be quite unsociable in Hollywood. The one person who managed to break through was Hollywood starlet Mae West, who hung out with her in her dressing room, gossiping, joking, and giving Dietrich her honest opinion. Because of their friendship, rumors circulated that the pair were romantically involved, but Dietrich’s daughter insisted that they were purely friends.
17. Stop it Already!
Modesty was not exactly Dietrich’s strong suit, and one night, she played a record of the applause for Noel Coward. At the end of the first side, after explaining in great detail how she received her applause, Dietrich was about to turn the record over and continue, prompting Coward to say: “Marlene, cease at once this mental masturbation.”
18. Quick to Wed
Rudolf (Rudi) Sieber was a German-American assistant casting director who met Dietrich in 1924 at the age of 20, after she was sent to the film studio where he worked to audition for a role as an extra. He suggested that she put up her hair, and it got her a part in the film. She married him in May of that year (long before The Blue Angel), and their daughter was born seven months later.
19. Only Death Will Part Us
Dietrich and Sieber spent most of their marriage living separate lives, and often in separate continents. Oddly enough, though, the pair never divorced. Despite her numerous public affairs, and her busy career, he always maintained that they shared a strong bond, and that their marriage would only be ended by death. When questioned about their relationship, Dietrich also claimed to love him, calling him “the perfect husband and father.” Perhaps distance does make the heart grow fonder?
20. Searching for Peace
In 1953, Sieber acquired a chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley because he “was tired of living in big cities.” He explained that even when he worked in Hollywood, publicity was never of interest to him, and that just because he enjoyed seclusion, he was far from a recluse.
21. Nothing but Trouble
According to a biography of Dietrich written by her daughter Maria, when she told Dietrich about her first pregnancy, Dietrich’s response was “A child brings you nothing but trouble.” No wonder she stopped at one!
22. Unconventional Childhood
Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva had an unusual upbringing, even for the daughter of a Hollywood star. Dietrich often referred to her as “the child,” and rather than attend school, she was dragged from set to set, acting as Dietrich’s assistant. She did things like arrange flowers and autograph fan mail, and was taught how to dress her mother. Unconventional sounds like an understatement.
23. I’ll Sing to You!
When Dietrich was in her 80s and bedridden, she reportedly received a fan letter from a doctor living in California. Noticing he was a doctor, she called him up, and began a series of telephone exchanges. When the doctor offered to fly to Paris and visit her, she cut him off for several weeks. When they next spoke, he told her that he’d been paying $90 an hour to a psychiatrist to help cope with his feelings for her. She suggested that he give her the money instead and offered to sing to him five times per week in exchange. Amazingly, he sent her a large cheque, and she did indeed call him up as promised, and sing him her old standards.
24. Whoever you Want!
Dietrich was a bisexual who had affairs with numerous men and women throughout her life. When questioned about her lack of embarrassment or shame about her sexual appetites, she would say “In Europe, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman—we make love with anyone we find attractive.”
25. Traitor to Her Country
No matter what she did, Dietrich always felt like an outsider in both her home and adopted countries. Because of her German nationality and Hitler’s interest in her, Americans were naturally suspicious of her. At the same time, because of her rejection of Hitler and the Nazis, she was forever regarded as a traitor in Germany.
26. Preserving the Illusion
Dietrich held onto the sexy siren look as long as she could, but as she got older, she had to create a few illusions to preserve the image. She took to wearing a latex body stocking to give herself a shapely figure, and the stage lights in her venues were kept dim. Eventually, a series of falls, including one where she broke her leg, forced her to permanently retire from the stage.
27. Over Ice
It was no secret that Dietrich was fond of drinking, and there was one drink in particular she would frequently order. It was a twist on the Old Fashioned, made with Canadian whiskey, orange curaçao, and Angostura bitters, shaken with ice, and then strained into a rocks glass with ice. Dietrich ordered it so often, the bartender at the Hi-Ho Club in Los Angeles named it after her.
28. Unsynchronised Passion
Author Ernest Hemingway and Dietrich met on a French liner in 1934 and the connection between them was instant. As revealed in their letters, they had a tremendous passion for one another, but somehow never slept together. As Hemingway once called it, they were “victims of an unsynchronised passion,” but they continued to correspond until his death in 1961.
29. All About the Image
Image was everything to Dietrich, and there always had to be a mirror on set so she could monitor her hair and makeup while she worked.
30. Rumoured Affair
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were professional rivals, but despite denials that they’d ever met, Dietrich’s description of Garbo’s body and her quip that the actress wore “dirty underwear” suggest otherwise.
31. Early Loss
When Dietrich was 10 years old, her police lieutenant father fell off a horse and died from his injuries. A couple of years later her mother remarried, but her step-father was tragically killed in WWI.
Throughout her career, Dietrich was frequently cast as a prostitute or a vamp, and definitely never in a good girl role. As she once quipped “I played whores…I never played any recommendable character.”
33. Transforming Her Image
When Von Sternberg brought Dietrich to Hollywood, he completely transformed her image. She lost about 30 pounds, plucked her eyebrows and created penciled arcs, used makeups to hollow her cheeks and reduce the width of her nose, and lightened her hair. Von Sternberg was often described as her “Svengali” and she once wrote that he “breathed life into nothingness.”
34. Inspired Character
One of Dietrich’s affairs was with All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque, who later modeled the character Joan Madou in Arch of Triumph after the actress.
35. Almost Anything Goes
The fight scene between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in the movie Destry Rides Again was completely unchoreographed, with only one rule—no closed fists. They punched, slapped, kicked and pulled hair, and Dietrich was bruised from the fight for several weeks afterward. At least it only took one take!
36. Kiss So Hard
A make-up man who worked with Dietrich swore that she kissed so hard in her scenes that she needed to reapply her lipstick after each one. Now that’s a kiss!
37. Take Me Home
Despite her penchant for a good strong drink, Dietrich lived all the way to the age of 90. She died of renal failure in her Paris apartment in May 1992. Thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall, she felt comfortable enough with her uneasy past with Germany to ask for her body to be buried there, in the city she was born.
38. Public Disassociation
Dietrich’s sister Elizabeth was one year older than Marlene. She and her husband Georg ran a Nazi canteen and cinema at Bergen-Belsen during WWII. Dietrich was so embarrassed by this that she publicly claimed to be an only child.
39. An Appetite for Love
According to Dietrich’s personal writings, she had an insatiable appetite for romance and sex, and sometimes had as many as three lovers in a day. The actress enjoyed affairs with both men and women, with names ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Gary Cooper to the Cuban poet (and Greta Garbo’s rumored lover) Mercedes D’Acosta.
40. Better Make It Quick
One of Dietrich’s sexual exploits was allegedly a quickie with the US President John F. Kennedy. Dietrich had been invited to the White House for drinks less than an hour before she was to receive a plaque at a Washington Hotel for her work with Jewish refugees. As the story goes, the whole encounter took about 20 minutes and was “over very sweetly, and very soon.” After that, they never saw each other again.
41. An Important Question
Before they parted, Kennedy reportedly had one important question for Dietrich. She had been friends with his father Joseph in the 1930s, and he asked her: “just one thing…did you ever make it with my father?” Dietrich replied that she hadn’t, to which Kennedy quipped: “Well, that’s one place I’m in first.”
42. Should We Trust Her?
Despite everything that Dietrich did to help the war effort, J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the F.B.I., majorly distrusted her, and tried to prove that she was a German spy. On his orders, she was constantly followed and tracked and her mail was opened, but the only thing they found out was who she slept with.
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