Born to a prosperous family in Berlin on 27 December 1901, Marie Magdalene Dietrich, later known as Marlene, was one of the most popular film and music stars of the 1930s and 1940s, known for her fashionable style and diverse portrayals of loose women. She lost her father at the age of five, when her father, Louis Otto Dietrich, a former military officer turned into an imperial police lieutenant, was thrown from his horse and died, leaving her mother a widow with two small children. Seven years later, her mother married her husband’s best friend Eduard von Losch, who was killed two years later, in World War I. Although the family depended solely on Von Losch’s pension, her mother did not want Marlene to have to rely on a man in the future and encouraged her daughter to pursue her passion to become the best violinist around.
Before entering school, Marlene and her older sister, Liesel, were tutored at home, learning French, English, ballet, violin, and piano. After that, they attended the Augusta Victoria School for Girls, while continuing to have private language and music lessons at home. Dietrich also took up playing the mandolin. Unfortunately, she had to give up her ambition to become a violinist as she was experiencing painful muscle spasms due to a wrist injury she suffered in her early teens. Although it was a great blow for the aspirant violinist, she picked herself up out of the depths of despair and turned her focus to acting on the stage.
During those days, following WW I, Berlin was the third-largest metropolitan area in the world and the city was abuzz with writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, artists and singers. Dietrich, a musical girl since her childhood, was drawn to the vibrant and often decadent nightlife of the cabarets in Berlin. Soon she established herself as a chorus girl and singer in her late teens and within a short time, became a well-established figure in the cabaret scene of the city throughout the 1920s.
She also became renowned and a bit scandalous, for not wearing underwear during her performance. However, she was not shy about that in the least, which was admittedly, part of her appeal.
Despite her naturally dramatic face with wire-thin eyebrows, razor-sharp cheekbones, waves of butter-yellow hair, eternally sleepy eyelids and a penetrating, sometimes discomfiting gaze, Marlene Dietrich was not a traditional beauty. Neither was she a traditionally good singer, as her voice was huskier and baritone than those of similar figures like Judy Garland. Nevertheless, she successfully performed in several plays on stage in Berlin throughout the 1920s and also established herself as a recognizable figure in the German silent film industry. At the same time, she had a scandalous wild side, becoming a regular at gay bars and drag balls, a fascinating subculture illuminating themes of race, gender and sexual orientation within society in Weimar-era Berlin and also becoming involved in several passionate affairs with men and women alike. Her reckless personal life, along with a party-girl lifestyle, propelled her through the early 20s.
However, things took a sudden turn in 1924, when the 22-year-old Dietrich met and married Rudolf Sieber, a casting director at UFA film studios, as she was reported to be madly in love with him. But there was also a suspected scandalous possibility in the air of Dietrich becoming pregnant when she tied the knot.
Anyway, in due course, she gave birth to a baby girl in December of that year, although no one remembers Dietrich as a docile housewife. Soon after their wedding, her beloved husband met and fell for a dancer and although seemingly strange, Marlene Dietrich wholeheartedly supported her husband’s mistress, even giving her gifts, letting her hang out with her daughter Maria and thus, began one of the longest-running open marriages of Hollywood. However, they formally separated after five years of marriage, but never divorced, until he died in 1976.
Long before she became a star, Marlene started to cultivate an aura of a cool but glamorous image, which captivated director Josef Von Sternberg and gave her a break in Germany’s first full sound film The Blue Angel (1930) to play the role of Lola Lola, the heartless cabaret singer, who destroys respectable men without a backward glance. Dietrich had no idea what she was getting into and did not expect much when she showed up for the screen test, but her performance in the film made her an instant star. Clad in a top hat and a black dress slashed across the front to reveal her underpants and gartered silk stockings, she shuffled across a shabby stage, vamping for the tuxedoed audience but keeping a lascivious eye on her chorus girls as she croons what became her signature song, ‘Falling in Love Again’. Soon, Paramount Pictures Corporation, distributor of the English version of the film, signed her to a two-picture deal and Marlene moved to Los Angeles, along with Josef von Sternberg, who immensely contributed to her career and created some of the most iconic images of Hollywood glamour with her. They made some of their best work together and their professional collaboration was matched by a personal relationship, which was perhaps too intense. But the object of love and affection of Sternberg had a wandering eye and on the set of their film Morocco (1930), filmed just months after their arrival in Hollywood, she began a steamy affair with her co-star Gary Cooper, while he was already involved in an affair with Mexican actress, singer and dancer María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez, professionally known as Lupe Vélez.
Marlene Dietrich cultivated an ice queen persona on screen, but behind the scenes, she was all fire and passion. With her numerous steamy affairs with Hollywood’s hottest men and women, she was the ultimate femme fatale during her days. In the 1930 film Morocco, she played Amy Jolly, a saucy nightclub chanteuse who looks equally stunning in an evening gown or a man's tuxedo and the tuxedo-clad Dietrich planted a kiss on the mouth of another woman, which was more than a simple peck. It was among the first mainstream Hollywood films, featuring an on-screen kiss shared by two women, for which Dietrich was probably immensely proud. Although the censors vehemently opposed the screening of the scene and almost decided to delete it, she somehow managed to convince them that it was an essential factor for the plot. Nevertheless, Dietrich's legendary near-insatiable libido was not reserved for men only, she was openly bisexual. While making her way to the US for the first time in 1930, she tried to get intimate with another attractive female passenger and when she objected, Dietrich explained that it was a common practice in Europe, where people make love with any attractive person irrespective of sex. However, while in America, she began picking up Hollywood starlets at random and had a group of steady female lovers whom she referred to as her Sewing Circle.
Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were close collaborators for her first five years in Hollywood and when he decided to go back to Germany due to his professional setbacks, Dietrich became apprehensive, as she was aware of the political situation in Germany and Sternberg was a Jew. As luck would have it, when Germany invaded Austria, he was in London and took the wise decision not to go further and Dietrich breathed a sigh of relief. They made several films together, which included Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman and by that time, Dietrich seemed determined to live up to the billing of at least one of those titles, burning through affairs with several top artists of Hollywood, which included, among others, Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and James Stewart. She also shared her bed with General George S Patton, US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his son, John F Kennedy, whom she recalled even faster than his father. Her alleged quickie bedroom exploits with President John F Kennedy took place when Marlene was 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. At that time, the President was only 45, while she was 61 and the alleged encounter took only about 20 minutes, was over very sweetly and swiftly and they never met each other again.
Meantime, the Sewing Circle, the group of bisexual and lesbian Broadway and Hollywood figures, was also in full swing. The ladies, belonging to the circle, would meet at one another's house for lunch, conversation and for some other possibilities. The sultry Mexican actress, Dolores del Ráo, who was more than a Latin Bombshell and married to MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons during that time, was a frequent hostess of those Lunch parties. She was known as the female Valentino for her luminous beauty and her former lovers included the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the famous novelist Erich Maria Remarque, eminent actor and director Orson Welles and American poet Mercedes de Acosta. In addition, de Acosta was also known for her numerous lesbian affairs with celebrated Broadway and Hollywood personalities, which include, Greta Garbo, the sultry actress Alla Nazimova, the famous dancer Isadora Duncan and also Marlene Dietrich. The Sewing Circle also included Paris cabaret legend Frede and Lili Damita, wife of Errol Flynn, another actor whom Dietrich took as a lover.
Although branded as the heartless femme fatale, Marlene Dietrich tried to save actor John Gilbert, when he was in deep depression and was drinking heavily, beaten down by professional and personal failures, especially Garbo’s refusal to marry him despite his several requests. Marlene tied to get Gilbert to come out of his depression and drinking habit, tried to give him a comeback role in one of her films, even helping him to have a nice Christmas with his daughter from an earlier marriage. Unfortunately, nothing was enough to avoid the ultimate tragedy, as 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 on 9 January 1936. The untimely death of Gilbert left Marlene utterly devastated and she lost her grip over her carefully cultivated cool demeanour at his funeral, as she wept and collapsed with grief over her lost love in the aisles of the church. However, after losing John Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich rebounded by the best way she knew, by jumping into bed with another man, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who was married to Joan Crawford and seven years her junior.
Long before the global public grew concerned, Marlene Dietrich became aware of Adolf Hitler's developing influence early on in the dictator's rise. She refused to work with UFA studios, run by the German government, as she apprehended that her work could potentially be used as propaganda. She spent years raising funds for Jewish dissidents and refugees from Germany and donated nearly half a million dollars, her entire salary from a 1937 film, towards their rehabilitation. During the years of the Great War, she toured tirelessly to entertain the American troops, even within miles of the German front. However, when she saw a chance to assassinate the Führer, she wanted to sign on for one more German film, which would give her the opportunity to make her presence near Hitler. According to Fairbanks, she detailed her plan to him as she needed his help to set things in motion. It was planned that once the pair had established a connection, Dietrich would seduce the Führer, walk into his room, possibly in the nude and then finish the job. However, the plan was discarded, as none of them could figure out where to hide a murder weapon on a naked body. However, in Christmas of 1936, Marlene Dietrich received an unwanted message from an unidentified German visitor, stating that the Führer wanted her to come home. In retaliation, Marlene rejected to oblige it outright, immediately applied for US citizenship and officially renounced her German citizenship in 1939. In recognition of her exemplary contributions to the country, the United States government bestowed Marlene Dietrich the Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honour in 1947. While France awarded her the Legion d’Honneur for her wartime activities in the country, Belgium awarded her the Knight Order of Leopold and she was made an honorary citizen of Berlin on 16 May 2002.
Marlene Dietrich suffered the shock of her life, when Rudolf Sieber, her husband of 53 years, died on 24 June 1976, after a battle with cancer. With a shattered heart, she disappeared from showbiz and public life, in general, to spend most of her time alone in her Paris apartment. During that time, she wrote scores of letters and made regular calls to talk with the top leaders of the world like Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher to share a piece of her mind. She died of Kidney failure on 6 May 1992, at the age of 90 and her funeral service in Paris was attended by around 1,500 mourners, including ambassadors from several countries, which included Germany, the USA, the UK, the USSR and other countries. After that, her coffin, draped in an American flag, flew to Berlin, to be buried, close by the grave of her mother.