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Electra from Beverly Hills

Marlene Dietrich

by Maria Riva
Knopf, 790 pp., $27.50

Marlene Dietrich died last year aged ninety-one. She spent the last decade of her life holed up in bed in the Avenue Montaigne. During that time her daughter Maria Riva let it be known that as soon as her mother was dead she would publish her biography. This is it.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes Euripides’ Electra as “almost a monomaniac from hate and brooding over her wrongs.” Maria Riva is a Beverly Hills Electra. Of course she doesn’t actually help anyone to kill Dietrich, but she disembowels and flays her after her death. She tears off her specially engineered corset to reveal the ugly breasts and—in later years—“the crepe-flesh of her hanging thighs.” She burrows into the filthy unmade bed in Paris from which the octogenarian star chose never to move, although, according to Riva, she could perfectly well have got to the bathroom instead of defecating into a casserole which had belonged to her dead husband and now stood among boxes of suppositories and bottles of pills and alcohol by her side. Surely this is a revenge murder. Dietrich’s character and behavior are massacred with the same ghoulish gusto as her famously beautiful looks. Not that she emerges as an angel—except the Blue one—from any biography: but the monster described here is beyond belief, even by Hollywood monster standards.

Riva’s book is 790 pages long. It has no index or notes, so anyone interested in Dietrich’s professional career had better consult. Steven Bach’s Marlene Dietrich (Morrow, 1992). It has only 625 pages but that includes an index, theater chronology, filmography, discography, source notes, bibliography, and a reasonable amount of good will toward its subject. Both books have lots of photographs, many of them the same. William Spoto’s Blue Angel (Doubleday, 1992) is a standard showbiz biography of quite manageable size. Alexander Liberman’s sumptuous picture book Marlene (Random House, 1992) is subtitled An Intimate Photographic Memoir. Up to a point, that is what it is: he was a very old friend of Dietrich’s and got close enough to snap her playing with her grandchildren. But the closer he got, the blurrier the focus. The result is beautiful in the dreamy high camp style invented by Josef von Sternberg for The Blue Angel and given a reprise in Maximillian Schell’s extraordinary filmed biography of Dietrich (1984), in which she refused to appear. All these books must have been lined up waiting for death’s starting pistol along with Riva’s. Dietrich would have thought that quite funny. She was fond of black humor.

Riva’s giant volume comprises not one life but two. Dietrich’s biography and the author’s autobiography, the story of a grueling symbiosis. Riva married at eighteen in order to get away from her mother, took to drink when the marriage failed, got dried out, moved in with her father’s mistress, returned home, and actually shared Dietrich’s bed when there happened to be no one else in it. Her second marriage to the designer William Riva was a success. They had four sons, but Maria remained her mother’s resentful slave for the rest of her life, rushing across continents whenever she was summoned to help out. The Rivas seem to have been financially dependent on Dietrich, though this is made more explicit in Bach’s book than in Riva’s. She concentrates on letting her own feelings of rejection, oppression, and exploitation hang out, begging for sympathy; her good deeds queue up for approval, and her heart bleeds for the victims of her mother’s cruelty and for the woes and joys of the world. These are slotted into short historical situation reports—1955: “Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and every parent in the world built a private shrine in their heart to Dr. Jonas Salk. I looked down at my sleeping children and cried, thanked God for him who had lifted the specter of polio from their lives.” 1967: “In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. In Europe, his murder hardly caused a ripple—it was an American, home brewed tragedy. Two months later—’Oh, no! Not again!’ our hearts cried as Bobby Kennedy lay bleeding, life leaving him so quickly.”

Passages like these are followed by laconic accounts of what Dietrich was up to at the same time. Even when it wasn’t taking a new lover, it was always something comparatively piffling like making a film or appearing in cabaret: so the juxtaposition points a finger at her frivolity, self-absorption, and callousness. It’s a manipulatory trick. Ruthless manipulation is a vice Riva exposes in her mother’s character, along with narcissism, selfishness, promiscuity, possessiveness, power mania, insensitivity, bullying, lying, and lack of pudeur. (Her own lack of pudeur “makes one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.”) She even defaces Dietrich’s famous generosity by pointing out that she never failed to make sure it was noticed. So that leaves only self-discipline on the credit side, plus talent—not for acting or singing so much as for makeup, costume design, lighting, camera angles. Dietrich herself used to say that she owed her expertise in these techniques to working with Sternberg, and Riva admits: “Except for her middle-European sentimentality, Dietrich would have made a good director, perhaps even a better-than-good. What a shame she never took the time from ‘being in love’ to concentrate on becoming one.” This praise is more backhanded than you might think, because sentimentality was something Dietrich particularly despised.

Riva’s book explains how she got to hate her mother so much. She was born in Berlin in 1924 when Dietrich was twenty-two and her husband, Rudolf Sieber, twenty-seven. He was a handsome young assistant film director. The marriage lasted until Sieber’s death in 1976. Dietrich paid for his funeral as she had to maintain him during his life, and had his tombstone engraved RUDI, 1897–1976, as if he’d been a pet spaniel. The marriage was open from the start: Rudi acquired a mistress for keeps called Tamara Matul, and Marlene began on what must be the longest and most prestigious list of lovers ever recorded. Among quite a lot of others it includes John Gilbert, Gary Cooper, Brian Aherne, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, José Iturbi, Hans Jaray, Michael Wilding, Adlai Stevenson, Frank Sinatra, Mercedes de Acosta, Edith Piaf, Erich Maria Remarque, Ed Murrow, and generals James Gavin and George Patton, whom she acquired during her war service; but not Ernest Hemingway. When Rudi and Dietrich were apart, which was most of the time, they telephoned and corresponded constantly, signing their letters Mutti and Papi. Mutti enclosed the letters she received from her lovers, with carbons of her replies.

Josef von Sternberg comes early on in the list, after he cast her as Lola in The Blue Angel in 1930 and made her a star. He took her with him from Berlin to Hollywood where they made six more films together. First Maria and then Rudi and Tamara followed. Maria’s childhood sounds standard Hollywood: she was spoiled, neglected, spasmodically educated, and often embarrassed through the floor by her famous parent. What distinguished Dietrich as a mother was her determination to be seen as a good German Mutti, and her mania for hygiene and feeding people. She was always cooking, dishing up, or scrubbing. Every time Maria returned home from an outing, she was pushed into the shower, and all her clothes carried off to be disinfected. Her mother used her as a supernumerary dresser and gofer around the studio, and that is how she became indispensable to Dietrich and learned what Pushkin, apropos of the aged countess in The Queen of Spades, called “the hideous secrets of her toilette.”

During the first half of Riva’s story Sieber is a monster too. His career ran into the ground in Hollywood and he lived off his wife, though he did manage her practical affairs for her. He kept up his self-respect by a fierce perfectionism in comme il faut trivialities; his clothes came from the best tailor in Vienna; he would send back any piece from his mountain of Hermès luggage if he could detect a fault in the stitching; and he specialized in the ostentatious humiliation of waiters if the service was not up to scratch. But although his treatment of them could silence whole restaurants, it was nothing to the way he humiliated—and tormented—the pathetic Matul. Her story is the tragic subplot to Riva’s version of the Dietrich saga. She insists that the Siebers between them gradually drove the poor creature out of her mind: Rudi by bullying and forcing her to have abortions—several a year sometimes, and Dietrich by countering her depressions with giant doses of drugs and enforced stays in expensive but irresponsible psychiatric clinics. She died, eventually, in the California state mental institution at Camarillo; but that was not until 1965. When she first arrived in Hollywood, the Siebers used her as a maid and governess. She was kinder than they were to their fat, unhappy child, who says she loved Matul until she died. By that time their roles were reversed, with Riva looking after the helpless psychotic as long as she wasn’t too busy with her own life; when that happened her heart was rent with compassion and guilt, and she invites her readers to view the wound.

Eventually Dietrich decided that Matul was not a suitable governess and replaced her with a colossal lesbian who duly raped her charge. Child abuse is a fashionable complaint. A generation later, Riva claims, Dietrich kept introducing one of the Riva boys

to her most aggressively homosexual friends…. So she was trying with her grandson what she hadn’t accomplished with her daughter? I thought: She never gives up. I had suspected long ago that my mother had subconsciously wanted me to be initiated into a lesbian life-style, even maneuvered my sexual abuse in this manner, in the hope I would follow this path into maturity. No man could then have taken me from her.

At this point the story seems to be switching from Electra to Oedipus: but in any case, it makes the machinations at Mycenae seem comparatively naive.

So what about Agamemnon? Well, by 1954 Rudi was living on a chicken farm with Tamara, supported by Dietrich but without enough cash to buy Christmas presents for his grandsons.

My father had become a pitiable man, possibly had always been, I, just too young and full of anger to realize it. I never forgave him for what he did, allowed to be done, to Tami, but I learned to pity him for what he had allowed to be done to himself. Living with love makes nourishing ground for compassion. I even hoped I might, one day, think of my mother within the context of human frailty.

Of course she manages to fulfill this pious hope when she comes to bury her mother’s body beside her grandmother’s in Berlin. The coffin arrived from Paris draped in the French tricolor, which does seem odd. Riva got it replaced by the Stars and Stripes: “This one act is for me—a selfish need to show the world, make the statement that Marlene Dietrich was an American citizen, regardless of her romantic attachments.” In fact, Dietrich was rather scornful of America—“So American,” she once remarked about the Hays Office and its proceedings, “to see sex everywhere and then try to hide it.” She wasn’t ashamed of being German. Her daughter was: her book is full of anti-German sniping, and her mother’s embarrassing behavior and tongue are often put down to her origins. After the flag has been changed, Riva addresses her grandmother’s grave and begs the old lady to be kind to her daughter Marlene. I cannot bring myself to quote the final paragraphs of this repulsive, embarrassing, vindictive, sanctimonious book: and no amount of compassion could embrace its prose style.

Still, owing to her presence in the dressing room and on the set, Riva is able to tell us something about Dietrich at work. Learning her trade under Sternberg, she was, as we know from Sternberg’s autobiography, incredibly obedient, patient, and hard working. When she moved on other directors she still worked extremely hard (she would stand still for eight hours of continuous fittings), but instead of being docile she was interfering and bossy. She thought she had learned enough to know best, and so she probably had. Riva describes how she redirected Rouben Mamoulian’s lighting during the shooting of Song of Songs. She had no illusions about movie acting being art:

She considered it her duty to know what she was expected to know. She had no interest in any one in the scene with her. They had their duty, she had hers. They would do theirs, she hers, and the director would edit the results into a scene. In some later films she was forced to adapt herself to more conventional procedures of creating a scene with other actors: she complied, but always with inner annoyance and impatience. She believed motion pictures were a technical process—let the machines and the inspired men working them do their magic; actors should be quiet and do as they were told. Those who wanted to “act” belonged in the theater.

Riva acknowledges her mother’s professionalism and photogenic glamour; but she misses the things that made her special as a performer. There are at least two: the first is a sense of humor, of mockery and self-mockery—not apparently inherited by her daughter. She always made fun of herself just a little. She did it by means of a look of faint surprise, a raised eyebrow that asks, for a subliminal second: What can I be doing in this corny affair? The second is a sense of complicity with the men playing opposite her, and not only when she is being one of them in her famous white tie and tails. However much she is called upon to torture them with unrequited love, she makes you feel that she understands what they are going through and even regrets it a little. She was a copine before her friend Piaf invented the type.

Of course, these qualities come out even more strongly in Dietrich’s singing. Hemingway said, “She could break hearts simply with her voice.” Riva is not quite as informative about her mother’s cabaret and concert performances as she is about her film work. This is understandable, because they came early and late in her career, when Riva was either too young or too far away to observe her regularly and closely. It’s clear that Dietrich fed on the feedback she got from live audiences, that they mutually intoxicated, each other. Riva concentrates instead on the gruesome aspects of the aged woman’s “the show must go on” mentality which made her stagger on stage from a wheelchair, sick, in pain, drunk and drugged, while her audiences got smaller. Still, people will probably go on listening to her voice long after her films have disappeared even from late night television.

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