Open Road Media recently published Marlene Dietrich, a biography of the eponymous actress, written by her daughter, Maria Riva. To celebrate its release, the publisher has allowed me to share an excerpt. First, though, here’s the official synopsis:
With intimate detail, author Maria Riva reveals the rich life of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, the charismatic star of stage and screen whose career spanned much of the twentieth century. Opening with Dietrich’s childhood in Schöneberg, Riva’s biography introduces us to an energetic, disciplined, and ambitious young actress whose own mother equated show business with a world of vagabonds and thieves.
Dietrich would quickly rise to stardom on the Berlin stage in the 1920s with her sharp wit and bisexual mystique, and wearing the top hat and tails that revolutionized our concept of beauty and femininity. She comes alive in these pages in all her incarnations: muse, collaborator, bona fide movie star, box-office poison, lover, wife, and mother.
During World War II, Dietrich would stand up to the Nazis and galvanize American troops, eventually earning the Congressional Medal of Freedom. There were her artistic relationships with Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express), Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter, as well as her heady romances. And in her final years, Dietrich would make herself visibly invisible, devoting herself to the immortality of her legend.
Capturing this complex and astonishing woman, Maria Riva’s insightful profile of her mother has the depth, range, and resonance of a novel, and takes us on a journey through Europe and old Hollywood during an era that is gone but not forgotten.
The excerpt, which starts after the break, covers how the actress decided on her stage name.
Liesel was happy in school. Everything that contributed to learning suited her. Her sister didn’t like it, but, equally conditioned to taking orders, Lena too had no problem fitting into the strict structure of the school. Both girls delivered the excellent marks expected of them. On their return home each day, the girls first removed their street shoes, placed them neatly in the box provided in the entrance hall. After lacing up their indoor shoes, they washed their hands, changed from their school dress into their study pinafores. A minimum of two hours’ homework preceded French conversation and composition with a private tutor. Then an hour’s piano and violin practice, followed by a nourishing supper, eaten in strictest silence, as chatter was considered a hindrance to proper digestion. After their meal, English conversation and composition with another lady tutor ended their long day. Only after their mother had rebraided their hair for the night were the girls permitted a precious half hour to do with as they wished. Liesel always chose to read, while her sister smoothed the long satin ribbons of many colors she was collecting to tie to her mandolin. Somehow, somewhere, Lena had found the time to learn to play this Italian instrument. She thought it romantic and planned to tie her pretty collection to its neck. In a book, she had discovered a drawing of a wandering Gypsy boy, and wanted to be one, playing a mandolin, trailing ribbons.
In 1912, for Easter, Tante Valli gave Lena a secret gift, a small red morocco-bound diary, embossed in gold. Its elegance appealed to the young girl immediately.
“Write in this your feelings,” her aunt whispered. “You are old enough now to have them. Remember, it is always good to have a secret friend whom you can confide in.”
In the years to come, Lena would pour her heart out in books of many colors, but this first one, the one she nicknamed Red, was her favorite. Sometimes she wrote in Berlin slang, unique in its sardonic, street-smart flippancy, so very different from the aristocratic High German that was spoken at home, that one has to wonder where she could have picked it up. Although its cutting tone left her whenever she waxed romantic, throughout her life the Berlinese of the streets could be instantly recalled. Now, at the age of ten and a half, a lifelong habit was about to begin.
The sinking of the Titanic in April of that year did not stir Lena’s emotions, so she felt no need to record this tragedy. Two months later, during a summer outing, something did happen in her life that she finally considered was important enough to set down:
8 June 1912
Dear Little Red. Yesterday it was wonderful! We went on an excursion to Saatwinken with H. Schultz. I sat on his lap. Dear diary, you just can’t imagine how nice it was. A thousand kisses,
One of the favorite places for young people to congregate was Berlin’s large ice-skating rink. It boasted twinkling lights and a brass band that played Strauss waltzes and the latest sentimental tunes of love, loss, yearning, and suffering — Lena’s favorite music.
26 February 1913
On the skating rink it was wonderful. I fell down and right away a lot of boys rushed to help me. Good-bye for now, sweet Red. Lots of kisses.
17 January 1914
At the ice rink, they play all the time the song “All Men Are Rogues.” That’s certainly true except for certain special people like Losch, Vati, and Uncle Willi and maybe someone with initials — S.F.? I don’t want to write the name. Somebody may peek. I have to stop.
Have my violin lesson. Adieu my Red.
19 January 1914
Today at the skating rink it was really nice. Liesel just asked if I was writing all that rubbish about boys again. Well, really! Is it rubbish, my sweet Red? Certainly not! We know what stuff she writes about, don’t we. Liesel is so goody-good.
Despite Lena’s exemplary behavior at school and at home, Josephine recognized in her younger daughter an inner rebellion that alarmed her. It bore watching, closely. Liesel was instructed to accompany her younger sister everywhere, watch, report immediately any unladylike behavior, should there ever be any. Always dependable, ever obliging, Liesel now had her work cut out for her. She, who hated ice skating — it made her weak ankles ache so — skated with dogged determination. Head down, her little chunky body braced for balance, she plowed the ice, intent on keeping Lena and her latest conquest in constant sight. Instead of reading her beloved books, she trudged for what seemed miles, back and forth, keeping an eagle eye on Leni while she “bummeled,” Berlin slang for the custom of visiting with one’s friends while strolling up and down along the avenue at twilight. Wherever her Pussy Cat went, so did Liesel, the trusty watchdog.
30 January 1914
“In school today I got a black mark because someone tickled me and I laughed. So of course Mutti had to give me a lecture about “friends.” I can’t help it if I don’t have “any girlfriends. Today I tried it with Anne Marie Richter in Composition Class, but she is so silly and she is already thirteen years old. So how to make friends in class? As I sit only with the Jews it’s not easy. Mutti says I should ask for an isolated seat.… I already am expecting the worst from the children in Braunschweig this summer — but I hope they’ll be nice. I am now taking myself very strongly in hand. Today Stephi Berliner pulled my cap off at least 6 times. Well! Was I mad! Now I have 4 black marks and 4 reproaches, one in attention, one in deportment, one in tidiness and 4 reproaches in behavior! Holy cow! Now I have to go to bed. I have a toothache. Adieu.”
Leni was considering changing the look of her name. While the schoolmaster’s back was turned, she used the back pages of her copybook to try out the different effects. “Marie Magdalene” — that looked nice, with the two e’s at either end, instead of two a’s. Vati’s name, Louis, was after a French king, so hers should have been French, too. But, as all maids were called Marie, perhaps that was the reason hers had that a on the end instead? In her much studied and labored-over German script, she wrote her full name. What a long time it took! She tried to shorten it: “Marialena,” “Marlena”—she liked the sound of that one. Maybe now, the last e she liked would look right: “Marlene.” She wrote it again: “MARLENE.” She wrote it again: “MARLENE” — “Marlene Dietrich” — yes! That looked right. That she really liked! She rehearsed it a few more times, then closed the light blue copybook, very satisfied with herself. At the age of thirteen, she had invented the name Marlene.
Maria Riva’s Marlene Dietrich is out now.