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Marlene Dietrich
The Berliner Angel

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Marlene Dietrich – The Berliner Angel

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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A century after the birth of Marlene Dietrich, her myth remains intact."If she had nothing more than her voice," said her friend, Ernest Hemingway, "she could break your heart with it."

Originally christened Gubart von Maria Magdalena Dietrich, she was born in Berlin on 27 December 1901.Immediately after the First World War, Dietrich took acting lessons at the Max Reinhardt School and, starting in 1923, began to appear in small roles in the Deutsche Theatre. 

Throughout the rest of the 1920s, she played a large number of small and medium-sized film and theatre roles in Germany.Marlene Dietrich, as she was then known, was becoming increasingly recognised for her sharp wit, her bisexual sensuality - in top hat, white tie, and tails (made by the tailor of her husband, Rudolf Sieber) - and visiting cabarets where transvestites congregated and performed, embodying for them all they yearned to be.

Marlene Dietrich first found fame in the role of Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg's film, 'The Blue Angel', in which she created an icon for the modern age: the self-confident, erotic and financially independent woman.On April 1, 1930, the day of the film's premiere, Dietrich boarded a train in Berlin and headed for the USA, where she began her international career.

In her big Hollywood films of the 1930s, she was Sternberg's muse and collabarator in 'Morocco', 'Shangai Express' 'The Scarlet Empress' and 'The Devil is a Woman'.She was transformed into a female cinematic goddess, shrouded in an aura of mystery and inaccessibility.

During the Second World War, she supported the US army in the fight against National Socialism, for which she was later heavily criticised in the Federal Republic of Germany.And yet Dietrich, who had become an American citizen in 1939, was still regarded as being German.

In 'A Foreign Affair' and 'Witness for the Prosecution', both films directed by Billy Wilder, she played German women with a dubious past. In 'Judgement at Nuremberg' she played the widow of a German general. 

This was the same woman who searched for Jean Gabin in Algiers, was adored by Brian Aherne, fell hopelessly in love with Yul Brynner, and palled around with Noel Coward and Cole Porter.In her 50s and 60s, Marlene Dietrich, the Las Vegas star and consummate concert performer around the world, continued to devote herself to the immortality of The Living Legend she had become.

In real life, Marlene Dietrich remained a Berliner, even when her relationship with Berlin and Germany came under strain.In 1992, the world-famous Diva who had spent the last years of her life in seclusion in Paris, was buried at her own request near her mother's grave in a small cemetery at Stubenrauchstrasse 43-45, Berlin.

Peter Riva, 50, a literary agent and TV documentary producer who lives and works in New York, is one of the four sons of Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, who is still alive and well in Palm Springs. He agreed to share his thoughts and memories of his late, legendary grandmother - the Berlin-born singer-actress who glamorised smoking in the first half of the 20th century, in such films as The Blue Angel and Destry Rides Again.December 27, 2001, marks the centenary of Dietrich's birth.

Marlene Dietrich was a unique individual with many talents. What do you think she should be best remembered for" 

Riva: Her ability to find the resources and strength within herself to strive for excellence. Like most artists who have a particular goal in mind, they are perhaps not consciously aware that they rely on themselves to achieve a desired result. In her case, she had the ability to renovate and innovate from within on more than one occasion and that stands as an example for all people - the young and the old and next generations to come.

Was there another side of Marlene Dietrich that her public never saw, or perhaps misunderstood" 

Riva: I think the only people who understood her fully were her peers. And her peers may have been Howard Arlen, Noel Coward or Burt Bacharach. Or in the case of actors, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart and so on.People recognised in her the same abilities they also had, but most of them stood in awe of her multi-discipline abilities. She was one of those rare persons who was able to excel at more than one art form, simultaneously.When you hear people like Kenneth Tynan talk about her, they talk about her as a woman.She wasn't simply an actress, a monster, a celebrity or a housefrau alone.I think Katharine Hepburn understood Marlene better than most people because she recognised in her that true woman of the year ability. 

Marlene Dietrich achieved the status of international unattainable glamour and in later years was seen as aloof from the rest of the world.Was she really like that" 

Riva: She achieved stature in her later years but she was never aloof. She never ever had any corrective surgery, but one morning she realised she could no longer maintain the visual persona of Marlene Dietrich.So she simply remodelled the visual persona from the public eye, that's all.She did answer 100 letters a day and spent thousands of dollars on telephone calls, so she certainly wasn't a recluse. 

You know, when you grow up, you realise there was this person you knew as 'Massy', which was the bastardisation of 'Miss Dietrich' which we heard our maid calling her.And there was this other person whose name was 'Marlene'.If she working, she referred to herself as 'Marlene'.If she was at home on her own and acting as matriarch of the family, we referred to her as 'Massy'. 

What is your fondest memory of your grandmother" 

Riva: There's no one particular moment overall, but I guess my fondest memory is of the strengths and weaknesses she showed.And of her determination and her belief in what's right and her unbelievable opposition to what's wrong. There was no grey area in her mind. 

If Marlene Dietrich had been born in the 21st instead of the 20th century, do you think she would have had a completely different life" 

Riva: Yes.Her upbringing was prior to WW1, in a Prussian household. A lot of her ability to withstand tremendous rigours was built on the discipline of that Prussian family, and that's all gone. So her inner resources and strength would probably be tempered with a little more self indulgence.And perhaps she would have had a happier life. 

Would the talent have been there, and been exercised" 

Riva: Absolutely. That was part of her.

What can, or should we learn, from the life and career of Marlene Dietrich. 

Riva: That you can make a decision between right and wrong, and stick to it.After all, this is a woman who was born into the post-Bismarck world, and chose between right and wrong at a time when most people around the world didn't - and particularly people in Germany failed.And even though it meant turning her back on her life and family, she knew the difference between right and wrong, and fought for it.

Where did Marlene first take up smoking" 

Riva: In 1920's Berlin. I think pretty much all women in Germany at that time smoked for affectation; it was a part of the cabaret scene.It was the accessories as much as anything else that brought her to smoking - all those terribly elegant cigarette cases, holders, lighters and boxes.

What was her preferred smoke"

Riva: Cigarettes.She used to smoke Gauloise with Jean Gabin but Chesterfield were her preferred choice in America - she also advertised Lucky Strikes, once. 

What would she have said if she were still alive today and someone in a public place told her to put her cigarette out" 

Riva: You're making the supposition that someone would ask her.A) they wouldn't dare and B) she wouldn't answer.It's exactly as if you were asking the Queen to do something - you wouldn't dare.

She smoked in most of her early films…

Riva: Smoking for her was a wonderful affectation, but like most singers she didn't smoke very much.She probably only smoked 5-10 cigarettes a day in real life.It was a wonderful aural sexual gesture to have a cigarette. In those days a lady held a cigarette between two fingers, and a guy held a cigarette between his thumb and two fingers. In pretty much all of her films, you see her holding cigarettes in different ways. As one of the guys in Destry Rides Again, she used two fingers and a thumb. When she was a grand lady in The Flame of New Orleans with John Wayne she made sure she held the cigarette between two fingers - as a lady did.

She once said, "I started smoking during the war. I have kept it up ever since. It keeps me healthy." When did she quit smoking"

Riva: She was told not to by her doctor, in the 1960s, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.With her typical discipline she never lit another cigarette.

After that, did she mind people smoking around her"

Riva: As someone who was well-bred and well-mannered, she wouldn't have presumed to tell anybody else about their personal habits.There was one occasion on a flight when a man lit a rather large cigar and she asked him politely to refrain from smoking because it was making her airsick. However, she would never have told him to put the cigar out as a right.

If your grandmother was still alive, would you like to share an ashtray with her" 

Riva: It's not a thought that ever occurred to me. I had smoked in my grandmother's presence but it never occurred to me it was a social occasion.I stopped smoking cigarettes when I was 21 but I occasionally smoke a cigar.Smoking today is becoming more ritualistic than it was 20-30 years ago when it was part of everyday life. Now, it's something you contemplate doing each time you light up. I was a 3 pack a day smoker and just woke up one morning, stepped out of the shower, lit two cigarettes and forgot I had already lit them. Everybody stops for their own reasons.I stopped because I didn't like it controlling me.


Marlene Dietrich in Berlin

In 1993, the City of Berlin acquired Marlene Dietrich’s estate from her daughter, Maria Riva. A collection of 3,000 textile items, over 10,000 photographs, about 40 trunks, 350,000 sheets of paper, and numerous film props is housed at Streitstrasse 15-17, Berlin. E-mail: Guided tours are available, for a small donation. Please book your visit at least one week in advance.

A permanent exhibition on the history of German film with a look at Hollywood, including a display of the personal effects (film and stage costumes – including her legendary tailcoat) of Marlene Dietrich and others, can be found at the Berlin Film Museum, Im Sony Center am Potsdamer Platz, Potsdamer Str.2, 10785 Berlin, Germany.

For the latest information on Marlene Dietrich:

General tourist information on Berlin:

Marlene Dietrich: Traces of a Legend – a three-hour bus tour covering the diva’s life, including the ‘Marlene menu’ at the ‘blauer engel’ and ending with a visit to the theatre. E-mail: 

Copyright James Leavey, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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