Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. When a budding career as a violinist is cut short, the willful teenager vows to become a singer, trading her family’s proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited, louche world of Weimar Berlin’s cabarets and drag balls. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, seductive silk cocktail dresses, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses and becomes entangled in a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention.
For the beautiful, desirous Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler and the Nazis rise to power, she sets sail for America. Rivaling the success of another European import, Greta Garbo, Marlene quickly becomes one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, starring with legends such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Cary Grant. Desperate for her return, Hitler tries to lure her with dazzling promises. Marlene instead chooses to become an American citizen, and after her new nation is forced into World War II, she tours with the USO, performing for thousands of Allied troops in Europe and Africa.
But one day she returns to Germany. Escorted by General George Patton himself, Marlene is heartbroken by the war’s devastation and the evil legacy of the Third Reich that has transformed her homeland and the family she loved.
Anyone who has seen “Blue Angel” will know the compelling magnetism of Marlene Dietrich. I wasn’t sure how anyone could do her justice, but C.W. Gortner rose to the proverbial challenge and gave us an intimate portrait of Marlene that was satisfying as well as charming. I was aware that she was an expatriate German living in America, but I never learned her early story. This novel gave us a Marlene that we could identify with. No, she was not an overnight superstar, but even in her apprenticeship she impressed others with her “difference”. It was strange and disconcerting to read a first person narrative about a famous living actress, although it was done so well I found myself believing it was the real woman telling her story. During her impossible audition for Blue Angel with the irascible director:
“Forget that stupid American song,” I said. “Play something German instead.”
The accompanist returned his gaze to me. “German?” he said, as if it were unheard of.
“’Wer Wird Denn Weinin,’” I told him, and when he began playing, I stepped past him, climbing onto the bench and clanging my heel on a key with a discordant twang that I hoped von Sternberg captured on his microphone. Perching on the piano, I hiked the spangled frock high above my knees to expose my legs, cocked a hand on my hip like the transvestites at Das Silhouette, and gave the song everything I had. Von Sternberg thought I sounded like a schoolgirl? I’d show him what I could do…
Von Sternberg and Marlene turned out to be an impressive collaboration—at least long enough to make her a star. But this necessitated her move to America, and there she plunged into her career at the expense of her family, especially her daughter. But she must have had a great time along the way! Having affairs with both men and women, co-stars Gary Cooper and John Barrymore, Jr, among others… the cross-dressing Marlene broke all the rules and got away with it. For the most part. How could one not get jaded? By the time WWII reared its ugly head, she may well have been ready for a change, and her sudden and complete dedication to the USO (United States Entertainment Organization) turned the fading star into America’s heroine. Traveling with the army to the most dangerous, terrifying war zones, she performed for adoring soldiers and exposed herself to so many hazards she nearly died from dehydration and malnutrition.
Marlene Dietrich led an incredible life. In sharing her inspiring story with us, Gortner has certainly done us a favor!