Who was Marlene Dietrich?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday December 14, 2005
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December 27, 1901 (104 years ago this month): Bisexual screen legend Marlene Dietrich is born in Berlin.

Marlene Dietrich, one of the premier stars of Hollywood's Golden Era, was infamous for her masculine dress and her numerous affairs with both women and men. Unlike many of the screen and stage divas beloved by gay men, Dietrich was queer in her own right.

Maria Magdalene Dietrich was born December 27, 1901, to a bourgeois family in suburban Berlin; she adopted the name "Marlene" as a young girl. One of her earliest romantic relationships was reportedly with a female music teacher at her all-girls high school.

Forced to give up playing violin due to a hand injury, in 1921 Dietrich enrolled in a drama school run by renowned director Max Reinhardt. Taking small roles in stage plays and films, she immersed herself in the decadent Weimar-era Berlin social scene. At age 22, she married director's assistant Rudolf Sieber; she gave birth to her only child the following year.

After director Josef von Sternberg saw her in a cabaret performance, he cast the then-obscure actress to star in Germany's first major sound film, Der Blaue Engle (The Blue Angel). Dietrich's iconic portrayal of Lola Lola – a cabaret singer who seduces a repressed professor with her risque performance of "Falling in Love Again" – catapulted her to fame. On the day of the film's German debut in April 1930, she departed for the United States to accept an offer from Paramount Studios, which positioned her as a rival to Swedish glamour queen Greta Garbo.

In her American debut, Morocco (1930), Dietrich donned a white tailcoat and top hat and kissed a woman on the lips. That "masculine attitude" would increase her charm, von Sternberg later explained. "I didn't only want to show a lesbian scene, but Marlene's own special sexuality." Though fondly remembered for this androgynous role, she mostly played femmes fatales – often prostitutes – in movies such as Shanghai Express (1932) and Blond Venus (1932). By the mid-1930s, she was the most highly paid actress of her day.

Off screen, Dietrich lived up to her image as an independent, sexually liberated woman. Remarked British critic Kenneth Tynan, "Marlene's masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men." Indeed, though she remained married to Sieber until his death in 1976, Dietrich had numerous affairs with both sexes. "In Europe it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman," she once said. "We make love with anyone we find attractive."

Dietrich's many male lovers – documented or rumored - included Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Yul Brynner, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, General George Patton, and both President John F. Kennedy and his father, Joseph. But according to her daughter and biographer, Maria Riva, Dietrich was seeking romance and companionship, and didn't enjoy sex for its own sake. As such, she reportedly had a special fondness for men who were impotent (such as writer Erich Maria Remarque) or queer (like Maurice Chevalier and Noel Coward).

Dietrich was part of a group of lesbian and bisexual Hollywood women referred to as the "sewing circle." Her female lovers reportedly included actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Claudette Colbert, chanteuse Edith Piaf, and French author Colette. In the 1930s, Dietrich had an unusually open relationship with Spanish-Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta, after de Acosta was dumped by Garbo. Many have speculated on the possibility of a sexual liaison between Dietrich and Garbo, both of whom – somewhat implausibly, given the incestuous nature of their circle – denied they had ever met before 1945. Former Washington Post society columnist Diana McLellan, for one, asserts that the two women had a brief affair in 1925 while working together on an obscure film, The Joyless Street. But in a 2002 interview, Riva told the Advocate, "[N]o matter how much your readers might wish it were so, Dietrich never had a relationship with Garbo."

After parting ways with von Sternberg in the mid-1930s, Dietrich switched to more comic roles, including saloon hostess Frenchy in the Jimmy Stewart Western Destry Rides Again (1939). Having become a U.S. citizen in 1937, she rejected an invitation from Adolf Hitler to return to Germany during World War II to make propaganda films (and perhaps to be his mistress), opting instead to entertain American GIs near the front lines in Europe and North Africa. While some Germans long regarded her as a traitor, she called this "the only important work I've ever done."

Drawing on her USO experience, Dietrich embarked on a career as a cabaret singer in the 1950s, performing in Las Vegas, on Broadway, and at venues throughout the world for the next two decades. In the 1970s, she began drinking heavily, suffered several on-stage accidents, and started overusing pain medication. After breaking her leg in 1975, she finally retired. Unable to maintain her glamorous image, she thereafter lived a secluded life in her Paris apartment (although she wrote hundreds of letters and spent thousands of dollars on phone calls). Dietrich died in her sleep in 1992 and was buried next to her mother in Berlin.

Far from ruining her career, Dietrich's gender-bending and libertine reputation only added to her allure. Her attitude of sexual entitlement – as much as her androgynous attire – helped change society's image of femininity.

Suggested reading

Bach, Steven. 2000. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (Da Capo).

McLellan, Diana. 2000. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood (St. Martin's Press).

Riva, Maria. 1994. Marlene Dietrich (Ballantine).

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].