Marlene Dietrich was known for her androgynous beauty and style, her outspoken opinions, and being one of the most iconic figures in the history of cinema. Throughout her 90 years on this earth, the actress made a point to live her life to the fullest, getting to participate in many historical events. In many ways, Dietrich was one of a kind and ahead of her time. Although her career was in the spotlight, her life had its fair share of darkness.
The Old Hollywood legend may have been revered for her enviable style and life of luxury, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have to deal with a troubled upbringing and chaotic relationships. The woman refused to work with the Germans, broke traditional gender roles, and had multiple affairs. The femme fatale wasn’t just an androgynously pretty face; she also explored feminism and made a point to be politically transparent throughout her life.
This is an inside look at the complicated life of a performer who raised a lot of eyebrows in her day.
The German-American actress and singer enjoyed a career that spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s. As you can imagine, that involves a lot of films, relationships, drama, and spotlights. The woman, to put it bluntly, has been around. In 1920s Berlin, Marlene was performing on the stage and in silent films. The role that landed her international fame and a contract with Paramount Pictures was Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel in 1930.
Marlene eventually starred in many Hollywood films, like Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Desire (1936). Her glamorous persona and exotic looks helped spring her up to becoming one of the highest-paid actresses of the era. During the Second World War, she was already a high-profile entertainer in America.
Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901, in Schöneberg, which is now a district of Berlin. Her mother came from a rich German family who owned a jewelry and clock-making firm. Her father was a police lieutenant who died in 1907 when she was just six years old. Her father’s best friend, Eduard von Losch, who was an aristocratic first lieutenant, wooed Marlene’s mother, and they got married in 1914. But he then died during the First World War.
Her family nicknamed her “Lena” and “Lene.” And when she was about 11, she combined her first two names, forming the name “Marlene.” She learned to play the violin and developed an interest in theater and poetry as a teenager. But thanks to a wrist injury, her dreams of becoming a concert violinist shattered.
But she still played the instrument, and by 1922, she got her first job playing the violin in a pit orchestra for silent films at a Berlin movie theater. She was fired, though, four weeks later. Her earliest professional stage appearances were as a chorus girl on tour with vaudeville-style entertainers in Berlin.
Her film debut in the film The Little Napoleon in 1923, which was the same year that she met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of Tragedy of Love. Marlene and Sieber married months later. The two had one daughter together in 1924; Marlene’s an only child, Maria. Throughout the 20s, Marlene worked on stage and in film.
It was in musicals and shows, such as Broadway, that she attracted the most attention. By the late 20s, Marlene was also playing bigger parts on screen, including the films Café Elektric (1927), I Kiss Your Hand, Madame (1928), and The Ship of Lost Souls (1929). 1929 was a breakthrough year for Marlene as he got the role of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel.
Director Josef von Sternberg, who was established in Hollywood, took credit for having “discovered” the young star. His film introduced her signature song, “Falling in Love Again.” Josef von Sternberg’s encouragement and promotion helped Marlene make the big move to the United States – under a contract to Paramount Pictures, of course. Paramount saw it as a way to market her as a German version of Greta Garbo.
Joseph von Sternberg welcomed Marlene with gifts, like a fancy green Rolls-Royce Phantom II – the car that was used in their first U.S. film, Morocco. In the end, Marlene would star in six of von Sternberg’s films, between 1930 and 1935. The director worked with her to create the image of a glamorous yet also mysterious femme fatale.
As was common in those days, he encouraged the actress to lose weight and coached her intensively. The young performer was just happy to be starting a Hollywood career, and so she followed his sometimes authoritative direction, which is something that some other performers resisted. Their first American film, Morocco, came out in 1930, and Marlene cast in her usual role as a cabaret singer.
Morocco is known for the sequence where Marlene Dietrich performs a song wearing a man’s white tie and kisses another woman. Both the man’s tie and the same-sex kiss were seen as provocative for the era. The film ended up earning Dietrich her one and only Oscar nomination. After Morocco, she starred in Dishonored in 1931, which was another major success.
In 1932, Shanghai Express debuted, which the critics called “Grand Hotel on wheels.” The film became both von Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s biggest box office success, as well as the highest-grossing film that year. The actress and director/mentor collaborated again on the romantic movie Blonde Venus (also in 1932). The year following, Marlene worked without von Sternberg for the first time in the romantic drama Song of Songs.
Dietrich and Sternberg’s last two films, The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and The Devil Is a Woman in 1935, were the most stylized of all their collaborations. They also happened to be their lowest-grossing films, too. As a side note: Dietrich herself later said that she was at her “most beautiful” in The Devil Is a Woman.
Joseph von Sternberg was known for lighting and photographing Marlene Dietrich to perfection. He had a signature way of using light and shadow. That combined with set design and costumes is what made their films some of the most visually stylish. To this day, critics still debate how much of the credit belonged to him and how much to her. But neither of them reached such heights again after Paramount fired the director.
Marlene and von Sternberg never worked together again after he got canned from Paramount Pictures. Dietrich, however, moved on and starred in Frank Borzage’s film, Desire, in 1936, which turned out to be a commercial success and allowed Dietrich to try something new: a romantic comedy. Her next movie, I Loved a Soldier, flopped even before it finished.
The film was scrapped weeks into production due to script issues, scheduling problems, and the studio’s choice to fire the producer (Ernst Lubitsch). Marlene started getting extravagant offers, luring her away from Paramount and getting her into color films. The first color film she starred in was The Garden of Allah in 1936. Her paycheck? $200,000. Her second color film was Knight Without Armour (1937), for which she earned $450,000.
Now that she was making these new films in color, she became one of the highest-paid film stars of the time. While The Garden of Allah and Knight Without Armour performed well at the box office, her means of expression were expensive, and her public popularity started to decline. In those particular days, Dietrich came in 126th in box office rankings.
In May 1938, American film exhibitors dubbed her “box office poison,” a distinction she happened to share with a number of fellow actors, like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Dolores del Río and Fred Astaire, to name a few. Her decline in fame came with an unexpected visit from her home country’s authorities…
In the late ‘30s, when the Second World War was about to begin, Marlene was staying in London and was approached by German officials. They offered her profitable contracts should she agree to come back to Germany as a film star in the Third Reich. A wise woman, she refused to work the enemy and officially applied for U.S. citizenship in 1937.
She returned to Paramount Pictures to make another romantic comedy, Angel, in 1937. The movie was poorly received, and Paramount bought out the remainder of Dietrich’s contract. At the time, she wasn’t working with Josef von Sternberg anymore, but his role as her mentor didn’t end. He convinced her to play against type – as a cowboy saloon girl, Frenchie, in the western-comedy Destry Rides Again (from 1939).
Not only did Marlene Dietrich refuse to work with the Germans, but she also made sure that her strong political convictions were heard, and she was never afraid to speak her mind. In the late 30s, Dietrich created a fund with Billy Wilder, and other exiles, to help Jews and nonconformists escape from Germany. Her entire salary for the 1937 film Knight Without Armor ($450,000) was put into escrow to the refugees.
By 1939, Marlene was officially an American citizen and thus renounced her German citizenship. In 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, Dietrich was one of the first public figures to help sell war bonds. She also toured America in 1942 and 1943, performing for 250,000 troops in the Pacific Coast alone. Reportedly, she sold more war bonds than any other star.
During two extended tours in 1944 and 1945, Marlene performed for the Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK, France, and the Netherlands. She then entered Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. Despite the obvious danger of being within a few miles of German lines, Marlene claimed that it was “aus Anstand” (“out of decency”).
Billy Wilder later commented on how she was at the front lines more than Eisenhower himself. Her show included songs from her movies, performances on her musical saw, and a “mindreading” act that her famous friend Orson Welles taught her for his Mercury Wonder Show. She would walk over to a soldier and tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!” American church papers reportedly complained about this part of her act.
Here’s something that many people never knew about. In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) started a new initiative called the Musak project. It involved musical propaganda broadcasts that were designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Dietrich happened to be the only artist who was told that her recordings would be for OSS use.
And so, she recorded a bunch of songs in German for the Musak project, including “Lili Marleen.” The song ended up becoming a favorite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Major General William J. Donovan, the head of the OSS, wrote to Marlene: “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us.”
Marlene became known for her humanitarian efforts during the war, like housing German and French exiles, providing financial support, and advocating for their U.S. citizenship. She later received honors from the United States, France, Belgium, and Israel. After the war, she reunited with her sister Elisabeth, her sister’s husband and their son. They had been living in Belsen, Germany, throughout the war.
The couple ran a cinema that was frequented by German officers and officials – the same men who oversaw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Marlene vouched for her sister and her husband, sheltering them from prosecution as Nazi collaborators.
Later, however, Dietrich omitted the existence of her sister and her nephew from all accounts of her life, choosing to completely disown them, claiming to be an only child.
In 1947, Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom for her “extraordinary record entertaining troops overseas during the war.” Marlene said it was her proudest accomplishment. After the war, she took film roles from time to time, but Marlene Dietrich spent most of the 50s to the 70s touring the world as a marquee live-show performer.
But unlike her professional celebrity, which she carefully crafted and maintained (with the help of von Sternberg), her personal life was mostly kept out of public view. Marlene, who was fluent in German, English, and French, was also bisexual. She enjoyed visiting the thriving gay bars and drag balls of Berlin in the 1920s – before she ever made it big in America.
Marlene Dietrich defied the conventional gender roles of the time through – believe it or not – boxing. She trained at Turkish prizefighter Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin, which was only opened for women in the late ‘20s. Austrian writer Hedwig (Vicki) Baum wrote in her memoir: “I don’t know how the feminine element sneaked into those masculine realms… but in any case, only three or four of us were tough enough to go through with it (Marlene Dietrich was one).”
Marlene was married only once, to Rudolf Sieber, who later became an assistant director at France’s Paramount Pictures. He was responsible for foreign language dubbing. While she was officially a married woman (until her husband died in 1976), Marlene had numerous affairs throughout her career
Of her list of extra-marital affairs, some were short-lived, and some lasted decades. They were often overlapping, and almost all of them were known to her husband. Marlene even had a habit of passing intimate letters from her lovers to her husband, sometimes with bitter comments. When she arrived in filmed Morocco in 1930, she had an affair with Gary Cooper.
Cooper, at the time, was having another affair with Mexican actress Lupe Vélez, who once said, “If I had the opportunity to do so, I would tear out Marlene Dietrich’s eyes.” Another man on the side was actor John Gilbert, known for his connection to Greta Garbo. Gilbert’s early death turned out to be one of the most painful events of Marlene’s life.
Dietrich also had a brief romance with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was also cheating on his own wife, Joan Crawford. While filming Destry Rides Again, Dietrich started a relationship with co-star James Stewart, which ended as soon as filming wrapped up. In 1938, Dietrich met and started seeing writer Erich Maria Remarque. In 1941, she “dated” French actor Jean Gabin.
Her romance with Gabin began when they were both supporting the Allied troops in World War II. The relationship ended years later, in 1948. In the early 40s, she had an affair with Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, another man linked to Greta Garbo (he claimed to be her lover). But these were just the men…
Sewing circle was a phrase Dietrich used herself when she was describing the underground, closeted group of lesbian and bisexual film actresses and their relationships in Hollywood. In Marlene’s “Sewing Circle,” are some famous names. Her close friends in the circle were Ann Warner (the wife of Jack L. Warner of Warner studios), and Lili Damita (an old friend from Berlin and the wife of Errol Flynn).
There was also Claudette Colbert and Dolores del Río (a woman Dietrich called the most beautiful woman in Hollywood). French singer Edith Piaf was another one of Dietrich’s closest friends when she stayed in Paris in the 1950s. Rumor has it that they were more than just friends. But rumors are just that – not necessarily true.
After the war, Dietrich never fully returned to her previous star status, but she continued performing in films, including Golden Earrings (1947), A Foreign Affair (1948), and Stage Fright (1950). She appeared in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958. Marlene had a sort of platonic love for Welles; she considered him a genius.
From the early ‘50s to the mid-‘70s, Dietrich worked almost exclusively as a cabaret artist. She performed live in large theatres all over the world. In 1953, she was offered a then-impressive $30,000 per week to appear live on the Las Vegas Strip. There, she wore the infamous “nude dress,” which obviously attracted a lot of publicity. She then turned her nightclub act into a one-woman theatrical show.
Marlene Dietrich would often perform the first part of her shows in one of her typical body-hugging dresses and a swansdown coat. Then, she would change her attire, putting on a top hat and tails for the second half of the performance. This change of outfits allowed her to sing songs that were usually associated with male singers.
The songs “One for My Baby” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” are two examples. As she grew older, she was able to preserve her glamorous image by using body-sculpting undergarments and even nonsurgical temporary facelifts that involve tape. She would also get her makeup done by experts, wear glamorous wigs, and involve careful stage lighting.
In “Marlene: A Personal Biography,” author Charlotte Chandler wrote about the time Dietrich asked her lover Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for his help in a rather extraordinary (and gutsy) plot. The plan? Dietrich would agree to make a film in Germany, on one condition – that she could be alone with Hitler. Why? Because it would allow her to assassinate him.
“I would gush over how I feel about him, intimating that I am desperately in love with him,” Dietrich said to Fairbanks. “I’ve heard Hitler likes me, and I’m certain he would agree,” Marlene predicted that she would be searched, and was prepared to go into the Fuhrer’s bedroom naked. But there was one problem with the plot…
Chandler wrote that the only detail Dietrich couldn’t figure out was how to smuggle in a murder weapon. She had considered a poisoned hairpin, but Fairbanks told Chandler: “Fortunately, her idea didn’t go any further because she didn’t figure out how to complete the assassination. But she was a very brave girl, and I know she would have gambled her life if she thought she had a chance of success.”
Dietrich returned to West Germany in 1960 on a concert tour, which was controversial, to say the least. She was met with a mixed reception, even though the press was consistently negative, and there was a vocal protest by Germans who felt that the performer betrayed her very own homeland. Not to mention the two bomb threats.
Nonetheless, her performance in West Germany attracted huge crowds. Protesters were heard chanting: “Marlene Go Home!” But Dietrich was also warmly welcomed by the non-grudging Germans, especially those in East Germany. Much of these events were documented in British biographer David Bret’s book “Marlene My Friend: An Intimate Biography.”
That tour turned out to be an artistic victory, but a financial failure. The hostility she faced left Marlene emotionally drained. She vowed never to visit her home country again.
1960 happened to be a significant year, not just for Marlene, but for a man named John Banks. It was after her brief stint in Germany that she continued her tour, making a stop in Montreal, Canada.
A man from Montreal named John Banks happens to remember a lot about Marlene Dietrich, and that’s because he was her personal secretary for 12 years. Banks was only 15 years old when he met Marlene for the first time, which was backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal in 1960. According to Banks, now in his late 60s, the announcement that she was coming to Montreal created a frenzy that only Céline Dion or Madonna could match today.
It was Halloween night, and there were many Dietrich-wannabes on the streets of Montreal (in the city’s then-downtown Gay Village). After her concert that night, she met many of her admirers, fans and impersonators alike. Of them was Banks, who asked her to autograph three records. She refused to sign the third record, which was a Decca compilation from her films.
She told the young fan: “But these are old songs… I don’t sound like that anymore.” But instead of simply agreeing with her, Banks snapped, saying, “Well, I wasn’t around then, and I like the way orchestras sounded back then!” That’s when Marlene Dietrich paused, pushed the teenager aside and said, “You stay here.”
Later, after having drinks at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Banks was hired on the spot as her personal secretary – a job that lasted for the next 12 years. “Let’s face it,” he now says, “I was her gofer.” She called him “Jahn-ny” and the two become friends. “She was my university,” Banks said of that period in his life. He also spoke of the way she really stood out among other women…
“She didn’t give a sh*t. She could tape [her face] up and do all sorts of things to make herself look like Dietrich. But in her offstage life, she really didn’t care.” Director Mike Nichols said Marlene was the only woman he ever knew who didn’t look in the mirror all night. According to Banks, Marlene was very secure in her looks. Of her many affairs, she also had romances with other women.
Marlene and Claudette Colbert were close friends all their lives, and Banks thinks they were also likely lovers. Banks also noted that getting Marlene to talk about Hollywood was hard, but he pointed out that she never hid the truth. He mentioned how she had affairs with Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper at the same time, and she even appeared at the 1932 premiere of The Sign of the Cross with of both of them – and dressed as a man!
In her 60s and 70s, her health started to decline. She survived cervical cancer in 1965 and also suffered from poor circulation in her legs. She became increasingly dependent on painkillers. Marlene Dietrich’s show business career ended, for the most part, on September 29, 1975, when she fell off the stage and broke her leg during a show in Sydney, Australia.
The following year, her long-time husband, Rudolf Sieber, died of cancer on June 24, 1976. Her last on-camera film appearance was in Just a Gigolo in 1979, starring David Bowie. By that point, Marlene was an alcoholic and addicted to painkillers. She would stay in her apartment in Paris. She spent the last 11 years of her life almost exclusively bedridden, only letting a select few (family and employees) to enter the apartment.
Dietrich’s love life continued well into her 70s. She considered Errol Flynn, George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Michael Todd, Michael Wilding, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra as some of her “victories.” During her bedridden period, she wrote tons of letters and constantly spoke on the phone.
In 1982, she agreed to participate in a documentary about her life, called Marlene (1984). However, she refused to be filmed. The director, Maximilian Schell, was only allowed to record her voice. He used his interviews with Marlene as the basis for the film and set to them to film clips from her career. Schell’s film won European film prizes and got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary that year.
Author David Bret says he was the last person she talked to — she called him two days before she died. “I have called to say that I love you, and now I may die,” Dietrich told Bret over the phone. Bret had dug up all of his interview notes with Marlene and noticed that Dietrich kept referring to a man named “Johnny” (John Banks).
Marlene Dietrich died of kidney failure in Paris on May 6, 1992. She was 90 years old. Her body, covered with the French flag, was flown to Berlin in a military plane and buried next to her mother. Unfortunately, to this day, German white supremacists regularly desecrate her tombstone. Her tombstone reads: “Hier steh ich an den Marken meiner Tage” (Here I stand at the milestone of my days).
Dietrich was an adamant anti-German. She may not have liked being buried in her home country, but that’s where she ended up. She once said, “When I die, I’d like to be buried in Paris. But I’d also like to leave my heart in England, and in Germany – nothing.”
John Banks last spoke with Dietrich in 1988 when she was in Paris. He said that she spent her last years watering her beloved geraniums, watching CNN, and reading several newspapers each day. But Banks prefers to remember his days with “Miss D” in a more positive light. As per David Bret’s notes, Marlene remembered “Jahn-ny” as that “loudmouth 15-year-old backstage in Montreal.”
She may have said verbally that she wants nothing to do with Germany, she did, however, stipulate in her will that she wants to be buried next to her mother in Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, her body was flown there. In 1993, the largest portion of Marlene Dietrich’s estate was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek (the U.S. showed no interest), and it became the main part of the exhibition at the Film Museum in Berlin.
The Dietrich collection includes over 3,000 textile items from the 20s to the 90s, including costumes. There are also over a thousand items from her personal wardrobe. 15,000 photographs, 300,000 pages of documents, and other items like film posters and sound recordings are included. The Marlene Dietrich Collection was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek for $5 million by her heirs. The items in Dietrich’s Manhattan apartment, with jewelry and clothing, were sold in a public auction in Los Angeles in 1997. Her apartment at 993 Park Avenue was sold for $615,000 in 1998.
Dietrich’s only child, Maria Riva, was born in Berlin in 1924. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as she became an actress herself. But Maria worked primarily in television. In 1948, when she gave birth to a son, John, who later became a famous production designer, Dietrich was dubbed “the world’s most glamorous grandmother.”
After Marlene’s death, Riva published an honest biography of her mother, simply titled Marlene Dietrich. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, Maria and her son John said Dietrich was politically active and kept in contact with world leaders by telephone. Those leaders? Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a couple. Her phone bill? Over $3,000 per month!
Marlene Dietrich was a fashion icon to designers and screen stars alike. Edith Head once said that Marlene knew more about fashion than any other actress. Marlene, who favored Dior, said in an interview with The Observer in 1960: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. If I dressed for myself, I wouldn’t bother at all. Clothes bore me.”
It’s an ironic thing to say by someone who was known for her fashion sense! In 2017, Swarovski commissioned an Art Deco-styled dress that was worth $60,000 in the style of her famous “nude dress.” The dress was made by Berlin-based fashion tech company ElektroCouture, and it was to honor Dietrich 25 years after her death.
That dress contains 2,000 crystals and 150 LED lights. ElektroCouture’s owner, Lisa Lang, said the dress was inspired by both electrical diagrams and the correspondence between the actress and fashion designer Jean Louis from 1958. “She wanted a dress that glows.” The dress was then featured in French-German broadcaster Arte’s documentary “The Last Dress of Marlene Dietrich.”
Marlene was known for her androgynous roles and her bisexuality. Academic literature after 1975 analyzes her image: that it was created by the film industry. The analyses (of course) included psychoanalysis as well. Emphasis was placed on the “fetishistic manipulation of the female image.” But Marlene herself said she dressed for her profession. She would rather wear jeans – men’s jeans.