Marlene Dietrich’s film titles say it all. Blonde Venus. The Scarlet Empress. And perhaps most of all: The Devil Is A Woman. Dietrich cultivated an ice queen persona both on screen and on the red carpet, but behind the scenes, she was all fire and passion. From her steamy affairs with Hollywood’s hottest men and women to the dark secrets she hid from the press and her own family, Marlene Dietrich was the ultimate femme fatale.
Marie Magdalene Dietrich—later known as Marlene, of course—was born to a prosperous family in Berlin in 1902. It all should have been so easy…but no amount of wealth and privilege could save young Marlene from the years of heartache that awaited her. When Marlene was just five years old, her beloved father was thrown from his horse and died.
The tragedy took the light out of their once-happy mother’s eyes—and sadly, there was more misery in store for the Dietrichs.
The loss of their patriarch and the outbreak of WWI thrust the Dietrich family into utter chaos. In order to support the family, Marlene’s mother took on work as a housekeeper. However, there was a scandalous side to this desperate move. Wilhelmina Dietrich soon fell for the man she was working for, a colonel named Eduard von Losch. Only it wasn’t exactly happily ever after.
When they wed, Wilhelmina wore a black dress, her mourning clothes for her first husband. Bad omen? You bet.
Marlene Dietrich’s memories of her stepfather are scant. After all, he tied the knot with her mother in 1914, as WWI raged on, and he was in the army. The respite he offered to Wilhelmina and her girls was sadly only a brief one, as he died in combat just two years later. Once again, the Dietrichs were adrift, with just Von Losch’s pension to keep them going.
Still, Wilhelmina Dietrich scraped enough together to make what she thought was a very wise investment…
Marlene’s mother didn’t want her to have to rely on a man, so she encouraged her daughter to follow her dreams of being a violinist…but not just any violinist. Dietrich wanted to be the best around. She would practice for six hours at a time, mastering complicated pieces. Wilhelmina spent thousands supporting her daughter’s goals—until tragedy struck yet again.
Dietrich began experiencing painful muscle spasms in her hand. When she visited a doctor, he gave her a devastating diagnosis.
Dietrich had injured the bones in her hand, and her musical career was already over before it even began. Still, she picked herself up out of the depths of despair and adapted. If she couldn’t be a concert violinist, she could still perform, in a sense. Dietrich turned her focus to acting. A moderately successful career on the German silent screen followed—but if you were to ask Dietrich about it, she would deny that it ever happened…
If you asked Dietrich what her first movie was, she’d tell you that it was the starring role of Lola Lola in the 1929 Josef Von Sternberg film The Blue Angel. That, of course, would be a blatant lie. According to her, none of those earlier films “counted,” but she had her reasons for this subterfuge. For one, Dietrich’s beliefs and lifestyle didn’t exactly align with the political climate in her home country at the time…
Dietrich may have positioned herself as a mysterious femme fatale—but as her pre-fame life proves, she had a scandalous wild side. She was a regular at gay bars and drag balls in Weimar-era Berlin, and engaged in a number of passionate affairs with men and women alike. Dietrich’s devil-may-care attitude and party-girl lifestyle propelled her through the early 20s…but then, she turned on a dime.
Dietrich was just 22 when she met and married assistant director Rudolf Sieber in 1924. What made Dietrich pull this complete 180? According to Dietrich, she was madly in love—but those of us who can count might suspect a scandalous secondary possibility. Dietrich was most definitely pregnant when she tied the knot. She gave birth to a baby girl in December of that year.
Nuclear family: achieved. But then again, no one remembers Dietrich as a docile housewife…
Soon after they tied the knot, Dietrich’s beloved husband met and fell for a dancer. However, that’s not the surprising part. Dietrich’s bizarre reaction was. She wholeheartedly supported her husband’s mistress, even giving her gifts and letting her hang out with her daughter Maria. Thus began one of Hollywood’s longest-running open marriages—but, as we’ll see, it was not without its fair share of bumps, scrapes, and other disasters.
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Marlene Dietrich never let her whirlwind personal life get in the way of her film career or the glam-yet-nonchalant image she started cultivating long before she became a star. It was exactly this aura that captivated director Josef Von Sternberg, who needed a leading lady for a film he was set to direct. It was Germany’s first full sound film: The Blue Angel.
Despite every collaborator who tried to talk him out of it, he insisted on the then-unknown Dietrich. For her part, Dietrich had no idea what she was getting into.
Marlene Dietrich didn’t expect much when she showed up to screen test for The Blue Angel—but her performance in the film made her an instant star. “Overnight” doesn’t quite cut it in this instance. Weeks before they even released the film, Paramount had signed her to a two-picture deal on the promise she'd come to Hollywood.
She said goodbye to her husband and daughter, promising to return to Berlin as soon as possible. Well, it didn’t quite go as planned.
Dietrich’s Atlantic crossing was spent preparing for her next film. When the ship docked in New York, she got a disturbing welcome. Von Sternberg’s wife had her served with papers the moment she stepped off the ship. She was suing Dietrich for $600,000, for alienation of her husband’s affection and libel. The suit claimed that Dietrich had told the press Von Sternberg was in love with her and would leave his wife. Was it true? Oh, maybe…
Dietrich wasn’t even a star in the US, yet she somehow already had her first Hollywood scandal. Paramount wanted to settle, but Dietrich wanted to fight and even went so far as to track down the journalist who’d fabricated statements on her behalf. Eventually, the accuser dropped the case. It’s unclear whether Dietrich and Von Sternberg ever got physical, but one thing was clear: Their professional collaboration was matched by a personal relationship that was perhaps too intense.
Dietrich and Von Sternberg made some of their best work together—but there was a chilling dark side to their relationship. As Dietrich became more of a star in the US, Von Sternberg suffered dramatically both personally and professionally. He got a reputation for being controlling and his career deteriorated. To add insult to injury, the object of his affection had a wandering eye…
On the set of their film Morocco, filmed just months after Von Sternberg brought Dietrich to the US, she began a steamy affair with her co-star Gary Cooper. And it just so happened that he was already having another affair, with Mexican star Lupe Velez. Velez was so infuriated that she once said she’d “tear out Marlene Dietrich’s eyes” if given the chance.
There’s an old saying about a woman scorned, and, if you can believe it, that wasn’t the only trouble that Dietrich stirred up on Morocco’s set.
Dietrich and Von Sternberg were trusted collaborators, so even though she was new to Hollywood, he let her have some input in the film—and of course, the scene she came up with created a firestorm of controversy. In it, a tuxedo-clad Dietrich kisses another woman. The censors were apoplectic—but somehow, she managed to finagle them to leave the scene in the film, convincing them it was essential to the plot.
With that string of scandals under her belt, she returned to Berlin—but she was in for a surprise.
When she got back home, Dietrich made a heartbreaking discovery. Even though she’d been gone barely a year, her beloved daughter hardly remembered her. That simply wasn’t the way that she wanted to raise her daughter, so she gathered Maria and Rudolf and they set off to return to Hollywood—but just because Dietrich wanted to be close to her daughter didn’t mean that she offered her a normal childhood.
When Maria was growing up, Dietrich gave her something of an unconventional upbringing. She often referred to Maria as “the child,” and rather than attend school, Dietrich dragged her from set to set, where she acted as her mother’s assistant. Maria did things like arrange flowers, autograph fan mail, and dress her mother. Unconventional sounds like an understatement—but there were chilling reasons behind Dietrich’s insistence that Maria join her on set.
After the success of the film Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich was on top of the world—until she received a mysterious letter from an anonymous sender. When she read it, her blood ran cold. It said unless she paid a generous ransom, her daughter would soon be kidnapped. Another letter escalated the threat to bodily harm and told her not to contact the authorities.
Dietrich was paralyzed by fear. She and her husband called friends, who helped guard their home for two terrifying nights—but there was something that she didn’t know.
When Dietrich first showed the letters to her husband Rudolf Sieber, she insisted that they not contact the authorities. He gave her a typical “Yes dear”—and then promptly called them behind her back. Even though he spent a long 48 hours keeping watch outside Maria’s door, he knew that at the same time, the authorities were surveilling the house and watching out for the family.
That initial panic faded, and the culprits never made their attempt, but as a result, Dietrich insisted on having Maria by her side, even on movie sets, for years afterward. See, Dietrich did have a soft side after all…
Considering her icy cool demeanor, it’s not surprising that, at the height of her fame, Dietrich didn’t have a lot of friends. People in Hollywood considered her to be quite unsociable. The one person who managed to break through was her polar opposite: the bawdy and shameless 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 later insisted that they were purely friends.
When she first came to the US, Paramount groomed Dietrich as their answer to Greta Garbo, who was at the time a megastar. And a thick accent, icy façade, and captivating beauty weren’t all they had in common. When Dietrich met actor John Gilbert, he had been beaten down by professional and personal failures, including an instance where Garbo left him at the altar.
He was on a downward spiral and drinking heavily—and Dietrich decided to be the one to save him.
Dietrich tried to get Gilbert a comeback part in one of her films and even helped him make a nice Christmas for his daughter from an earlier marriage. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, and tragedy struck. Gilbert’s history of drinking was too much for his body and he suffered a series of heart attacks, one of which finally took his life. Dietrich’s doctor was called, but it was already too late. The loss left her utterly devastated.
Dietrich’s public persona was always carefully cultivated, her glamorous demeanor covering for her scandalous private life—but at Gilbert’s funeral, even she lost her grip. In the aisles of the church, Dietrich wept and collapsed with grief over her lost love. She had helped him kick the bottle, but she felt genuine remorse about the turmoil and stress their affair had caused him.
Dietrich returned to work and tried to get over the loss—but on top of that, she was about to lose one of her oldest friends.
Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg were close collaborators for her first five years in Hollywood, but as time wore on, his welcome wore out. He decided to go back to Germany, hoping that they’d appreciate his work more—not knowing the horrors that the country was about to face. Despite the professional setbacks he faced in the intervening years, he did have a stroke of luck.
Dietrich knew what the political climate in Germany was, and lived in fear for her old friend, who happened to be Jewish. Fortunately, he was in London when Germany invaded Austria and was wise enough to not attempt to go back. Dietrich could breathe a sigh of relief—at least for a little while.
After losing John Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich rebounded the best way she knew how—by jumping into bed with another man. This time, it was actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., seven years her junior…and very much married to Joan Crawford. Fairbanks Jr. even spent time with Dietrich, her husband, and his mistress on vacation in Salzburg. Boundaries? Marlene had never heard of ‘em.
She even let Fairbanks Jr. listen in on the phone when another one of her suitors would call and go on jealous rants about him. However, those kind of suitors were the least of her problems.
In the late 30s, everyone was in love with Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood’s hottest leading men, legendary writers, millionaires…and the most evil man in the world. That’s right, none other than Adolf Hitler was full-on obsessed with Dietrich, as was his propaganda minister, who had taken over the film company she’d once worked for.
They wanted her to come back to her homeland and offer her support. Well, they had no idea who they were dealing with.
In Christmas of 1936, Marlene Dietrich received an unwanted message from an unidentified German visitor. The message was that the Fuhrer wanted her to come home. Dietrich’s reply was so brutal, it’s unforgettable. Not only did she reject them outright, she immediately applied for US citizenship. In 1939, she officially renounced her German citizenship.
Her message was clear—and her bite was just as bad as her bark.
Long before WWII even started, or most people had any idea what was happening in Germany, Dietrich had picked her side. She had spent years fundraising for Jewish dissidents and refugees from Germany, and donated her entire salary from a 1937 film—nearly half a million dollars—toward their cause. And when WWII broke out, she doubled down her efforts.
Marlene Dietrich was a one-woman WWII aid machine. She sold more bonds than other stars and toured tirelessly to entertain the troops, even fearlessly coming within miles of the German front. And then she was recruited for another—less conventional—mission. The OSS asked her to make a series of recordings in German, targeting enemy soldiers in hopes of demoralizing them.
It was pretty clear what side she was on—but not everyone believed her.
Despite everything that Dietrich did to help the war effort, J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, 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. What they found was surprising. Sure, there was no evidence of any collaboration with Germany—but there was plenty of salacious details about her bedroom activities.
During WWII, Dietrich came up with a unique rebuff to all the men who tried to pick her up, assuming because of her reputation that she was easy. She’d tell them she’d sleep with them “over Hitler’s dead body.” And, of course, after WWII ended, she upped the ante. She’d use the same line, and cite the rumor that he was still alive and well in Argentina. Touché.
All of her own jokes aside, Dietrich constantly lived in fear for the people she’d left behind in Germany—but that wasn’t the only reason she was worried.
During WWII, Dietrich had been hiding a dark secret. Although her allegiances were clear, she felt immense shame due to her family’s activities back in Berlin. Specifically, her sister Elisabeth and her family. Elisabeth and her husband had run a movie theater that had mostly hosted Nazi officers and officials throughout WWII. Dietrich was disgusted, but at the same time, she faced a difficult decision.
Should she let her sister and brother-in-law rot for accommodating German officials? Or should she try and forgive them? At first, she used her considerable power to vouch for them and protect them from prosecution, but as time wore on, she came to regret her decision. By the time she began her memoirs, she cut Elisabeth, her brother-in-law, and her nephew out of her life and her story.
From that moment on, Marlene Dietrich was officially an only child.
Post-WWII, Dietrich was showered with praise and awards for her aid to the Allied cause. She received the French the Légion d'honneur and a US Medal of Freedom for "extraordinary record entertaining troops overseas during the war." It was one of the highlights of her life—but behind these glorious scenes, her career was in tatters.
A number of professional flops just before WWII broke out had left Dietrich in the unfortunate Hollywood cohort that came to be known as “box office poison.” Sadly, her efforts during WWII didn’t cause her career to rebound. While she still appeared in films in the late 40s, she never recaptured the success or fame that she’d enjoyed during the 1930s—but that didn’t stop her from having a good time.
Just because she wasn’t getting any good roles didn’t mean Marlene Dietrich wasn’t still a huge star, and her cross-Atlantic journeys to visit her husband Rudolf or her daughter Maria in boarding school became social events on the same level as an Oscars afterparty. On these long trips, Dietrich rubbed elbows with celebrities and intellectuals alike, including writers Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway—both were also rumored to be her lovers.
But writers were just one faction in her stable of paramours.
Some of Dietrich’s most passionate and long-lasting affairs were with women, including Paris cabaret legend Frede and writer Mercedes de Acosta—another lover she shared with Garbo. Back in Hollywood, Dietrich had what she called her “sewing circle,” a group of bi and lesbian Hollywood figures, including Ann Warner (wife to studio head Jack Warner), Dolores Del Rio, and Lili Damita—who was married to Errol Flynn, another actor whom Dietrich took as a lover.
You know what they say—sharing is caring, and Dietrich cared a lot.
With this parade of rotating lovers, it’s surprising that there wasn’t more drama around her affairs—public outbursts, on-set feuds, and the like. In fact, there was—but Dietrich was just especially skilled at hiding the worst of it. When French actor Jean Gabin sheltered in Hollywood during WWII, he took up with Dietrich—but her wild lifestyle left him furiously jealous.
Sadly, he would take it out on her with his fists instead of his words. Well, she got at least one measure of revenge. When he went back to France, she sold off the valuable paintings he’d left with her for safekeeping.
As we all know, history repeats itself—and thanks to her brave appearances near the front during WWII, Dietrich got a little taste of the past when she met paratrooper General James Gavin. When they reunited at a tiny Parisian bar after WWII ended, they flirted for hours on end—so many hours, in fact, that Gavin’s wife named Dietrich as the cause when she filed for divorce.
Once a femme fatale, always a femme fatale.
Just because her film career wasn’t what it was once didn’t mean that Dietrich didn’t get out there and work. From the 50s to the 70s, she had steady stage appearances and extended engagements as a cabaret artist in Las Vegas, Paris, London—and one place she never expected to return to again.
In 1961, Dietrich was enjoying a successful stage tour in Europe—but there was one date that filled her with a mix of heartache and fear. She was going to return to West Germany and perform in Berlin for the first time in decades. And it’s no wonder she felt so scared. What she ended up facing was absolutely terrifying.
Aside from the negative press surrounding her stop in Berlin, there were protests from Germans who accused her of forsaking her homeland, chants of “Marlene go home!” and, perhaps scariest of all, two different bomb threats on the theater. Still, Dietrich weathered the storm as bravely as she had WWII, even though it left her devastated.
Luckily, her performance in East Berlin went much better. She also became one of the first performers to sing in German in Israel.
A grueling tour schedule didn’t slow Dietrich down in these years—and her love life kept going at a rapid clip as well. She had a decade-long affair with Yul Brynner, and romances with George Bernard Shaw, Mike Todd, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra well into her 70s. And yet, she remained married the whole time…
So, where was Dietrich’s husband during all of this? Well, Rudolf Sieber stood by her side throughout scores of affairs over decades. After all, he had a mistress of his own—Tamara, the woman he met before Dietrich had even moved to Hollywood. Dietrich supported the couple for years and even bought a ranch for them in California—but after more than three decades, Tamara met an unforgettably dark end.
After years of decline in her mental health, Tamara became agoraphobic, terrified of Sieber abandoning her, and had stopped eating and speaking. Doctors urged him to commit her, and he did. It was a fatal mistake. Another inmate attacked Tamara there and took her life. Dietrich, Sieber, and their daughter all mourned the woman they’d come to know and love over the past 35 years. Sadly, there was more heartbreak in store.
Tamara’s sad end served as a terrible portent for what the next decade held in store for Marlene Dietrich. After a bout with cervical cancer, Dietrich turned to booze and pills for comfort. A horrific onstage accident in 1973 aggravated this—but it was nothing compared to what happened in 1975. Dietrich broke a thigh bone while in Australia, and the pain would haunt her for the rest of her life. And the worst was yet to come.
In 1976, Marlene Dietrich faced the most excruciating heartbreak of her life. Her husband of 53 years, Rudolf Sieber, passed after a battle with cancer. Despite their unconventional marriage, he was the love of her life and her best friend, and she mourned his loss deeply.
After losing “Rudi,” as she called him, Dietrich disappeared from showbiz and public life in general, preferring to spend most of her time alone in her Paris apartment. Not that she was alone alone. She scores of letters and talked on the phone so much that her phone bill was often upwards of $3,000. It wasn’t all just small talk, either.
Dietrich would regularly call up world leaders like Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher, and give them a piece of her mind.
When Dietrich was in her 80s and bedridden, she reportedly received a fan letter from a doctor living in California. 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 talk about his feelings for her.
Her reply was unforgettable. 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, to sing her old standards to him.
Dietrich kept herself hidden from public view for more than a decade before finally succumbing to kidney failure at the age of 90. While her funeral was in her longtime home of Paris, Dietrich asked to return to a place she’d barely seen in the past 50+ years to be buried: her hometown of Berlin, which was newly unified. After her passing, a score of new biographies about her came out—including one by her very own daughter. It was in these books that her deepest secrets were finally revealed…
One of Dietrich’s most notorious bedroom exploits was an alleged quickie with then-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.
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.” The twist?
Dietrich later told a biographer that she was just telling him what he wanted to hear—implying that she had, in fact, slept with the elder Kennedy.
In the late 30s, helping the Allied effort consumed Dietrich’s life. Still, she found time for another scandalous affair—but this one was way more tumultuous than the others. While making the film Destry Rides Again, the glamorous Dietrich fell head-over-heels for Hollywood everyman James Stewart. And boy, was it a rollercoaster.
While making the film with Stewart, Dietrich was already sleeping with Erich Maria Remarque, who was never far away from the set. That didn’t stop her from bedding Stewart on the first night of filming—a dalliance that led to a shocking discovery just weeks later. She was pregnant, and it most definitely wasn’t her husband’s. Although she loved being a mother, she knew she would never be able to pull this one off, so she terminated the pregnancy—but the drama didn’t end there.
According to Remarque, there was a dark side to Dietrich’s ardor for Stewart. In fact, it bordered on obsession. He said that she built a virtual shrine to the younger star and even hired a P.I. to see how serious he actually was with the actress the press thought was his girlfriend. Well, Stewart caught on and dumped her as soon as filming was done.
Dietrich was heartbroken—but she couldn’t let it show. In fact, she never let it show. Dietrich refused to expand on their affair in her memoirs, dismissing their relationship and portraying him as a fool. Ouch. And that wasn’t the only bad blood she experienced…
For years, the press played up rumors of a bitter feud between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. After all, they had shared numerous lovers, including ill-fated actor John Gilbert and writer Mercedes de Acosta. Both actresses rarely mentioned the other’s name. However, according to one journalist, there may have been a much more scandalous reason for their icy relations—one that went back to a time before either was a star.
Back in 1920s Berlin, Dietrich and Garbo were both trying to make a name for themselves in silent film, and they ended up in one feature together: The Joyless Street. According to the journalist, Dietrich, then 23, and the younger and more naïve Garbo enjoyed a raucous affair filled with outings to Berlin’s wildest gay and lesbian bars, sex clubs, and cabarets.
That is, until Dietrich dealt Garbo a heartbreaking act of betrayal.
Dietrich was worldly and at ease in the big city, whereas Garbo was still insecure about her working-class roots. According to the journalist, Dietrich spread a rumor in their social circle that Garbo wore “dirty underclothes.” The slight devastated Garbo and for decades afterward, she refused to speak to Dietrich. When they both ended up in Hollywood, a mutual friend got both to agree to not talk about each other in the press—but it didn’t end there.
After the turmoil and travails of WWII, Dietrich did reportedly reach out once more and try to squash the silent beef between herself and Garbo. She tried her best to charm and compliment Garbo into forgiving her, but the Swedish Sphinx could only say, “Thank you,” and retreat. To be fair, many Hollywood historians dispute this tale of their rumored relationship.
Still, it presents a compelling theory as to why each star seemed so determined to ignore the other despite overlapping lovers and positions in Hollywood.
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