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…

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