Marlene Dietrich's ABC
Marlene Dietrich: Portraits 1926–1960
Marlene Dietrich is generally agreed to have been eighty-four last December, old enough to be fond of old jokes. One of her favorites is a macabre conceit of her own called the deathbed Oscar. It is for old movie actors who have never won an award. If they suddenly find one being presented to them, they should conclude that death is not far off. A whiff of deathbed Oscar hangs around the recent spate of books about Dietrich herself. A biography by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva is said to be ready for publication as soon as her mother dies. Naturally, it is expected to be full of revelations about a private life almost as carefully protected as Garbo’s.
Marlene Dietrich’s ABC first appeared in 1961. It is a collection of banal, worldly-wise aphorisms interspersed with sturdy recipes for beef tea and goulash. The autobiography Marlène D. is something of a mystery, but only a publishing one. It is described as “traduit de l’américain par Boris Mattews” (sic). There has never been an American edition, but there was a German one in 1979 called Nehmt nur mein Leben. The text is a confused affair, omitting some periods of Dietrich’s life altogether, and establishing the sanctioned but obfuscating version of her origins and early life.
Navacelle’s text in Sublime Marlene is what one expects a film star biography to be. The photographs are the thing; they come from John Kobal’s collection and are mostly Hollywood stills. In Portraits 1926–1960, on the other hand, the photographs are all studio portraits. Most of the chosen photographers are—or were—specialists in glamour (Cecil Beaton, Don English, Hoyningen-Huene, Parkinson, Richee, Steichen, and so on); so glamour is the aspect of Dietrich they emphasize. But each also gets across some of her over- and undertones: her loucheness, irony, sexual ambiguity, camaraderie, detachment, and even her quality of being a survivor par excellence, which has made her an icon to fans of nostalgia, “a thorn,” in Benny Green’s words, “in the side of time.” Kenneth Tynan said she makes you feel that “whatever hell you inhabit, she has been there before and survived.” Only Cecil Beaton in 1935 missed Dietrich’s point altogether and snapped a pretty hat on a mindless, chic gazelle.
Portraits has an introduction by Klaus-Jürgen Sembach, the director for the Zentrum für Industriekultur in Nuremberg. With German eagerness for making intellectual connections he links the Sternberg/Dietrich movies with the “International Style” of the 1930s, “a style of high precision, rationality, and, for all of that, sensuous effects…. The severe and at the same time voluptuous shimmer of Josef von Sternberg’s films demonstrated a great affinity with this movement.” You see at once what he means: gleaming Dietrich, the goddess of the chromium curve, Our Lady of the Hispano Suiza. Sembach continues: “At the same time, these films also revealed the risk inherent in this style of becoming too hermetic and remote. This outspoken aesthetic possessed immensely narcissistic traits.” More than twenty years ago, Susan…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.