Authors: Donald Spoto
Continuing her publicity tour for the film in Los Angeles, Dietrich learned that the actor Kirk Douglas was ill with pneumonia after the dangerous river scenes of his recent film
The Big Sky
. Although she had met him only once (through their mutual friend Billy Wilder), Dietrich immediately swept down on Douglas, offering (as he later said), “soup [and] affectionate sex. But that was less than the mothering, the closeness. Marlene is an unusual person. She seemed to love you much more if you were not well. When you became strong and healthy, she loved you less.” The liaison was as brief as Douglas’s illness, which kept him bedridden only a few weeks that spring; their later meetings were infrequent, cordial and much less intimate.
“She was always particularly keen on having men in her life who were sick,” confirmed Billy Wilder, with whom Dietrich’s relationship was strictly platonic. “This was the part of her that was wife, mother,
. And during her entire life I never knew her to have an affair with a rich man. She would neither ask for nor accept any material compensation.”
Dietrich could not have lingered in California in any case, since her radio show required her presence in New York, and she had also arranged with Mitch Miller (director of popular music for Columbia Records) to revive her recording career. In July, she spent several days in a studio on East Thirtieth Street, singing and resinging “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Lili Marlene,” “Mean to Me” and a half-dozen others—each of them sounding like the complaints of a benighted lover, including a German rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” She also cut a novelty record with Rosemary Clooney (one of the most popular singers of the 1950s), whom she advised, “I know you’re working, Rosie, but you really
comb your hair!”
Preparing diligently for an important shift in her career—to become the solo star of her own nightclub act—Marlene Dietrich, true to character, proceeded systematically. First she had to assure the maintenance of a positive image nationwide, and to that end she convinced a friend at
magazine to schedule a lead story on her enduring fame and endearing friendships. The article, by Winthrop Sargeant, ran on August 18, with Marlene and Maria on the cover.
But Dietrich also knew she required more than publicity: she needed a serious education in all the details and mechanics of a solo stage performance if, in her fifties, this new venture were to succeed. She began by attending Judy Garland’s rehearsals for her one-woman show, and then her performance at the Palace Theater on October 16—after which she heaped praise on Garland before prying crucial information from her. Several weeks later, Dietrich arranged to be invited to a dinner party for Garland at the Waldorf Towers suite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. To this soirée she brought several of her own phonograph recordings from live performances during the war, corralling everyone to hear each number, pointing out the long and gratifying applause for each song.
(“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could sing, too?” she later wrote across a photo of herself in the Jean Louis gown.)
The opening night of the Ringling Brothers–Barnum & Bailey Circus in April 1953 at New York’s Madison Square Garden was a charity benefit. A number of stars had agreed to appear, and it was Maria’s idea that her mother’s fervor for publicity would be well served by her presence, too. But one among many was not Dietrich’s goal, and so she managed to land the role of mistress of ceremonies. Of the outfit she designed to show off her legs, she said, “I invented the short pants later known as ‘hot pants.’ I looked wonderful, with my boots and my whip.” And thus attired as a combination of Lola Lola and a Berlin dominatrix, she stepped out with only a single spotlight on her red coat, diamond studs, shining boots and silk hat rakishly tipped. “Hel-loooo,” she purred into a microphone. “Are you having any fun?” While Dynamite, billed as the only horse in the world able to gallop backwards, did so, thousands of spectators and thirty photographers concentrated solely on the lure of Marlene Dietrich.
Many other actresses, given so many disappointing professional developments, would—voluntarily or not—have retired. Not so Dietrich. That night at Madison Square Garden, the vagaries of the last sixteen years were forgotten—that she had appeared in only two or three memorable films, made but a short list of recordings and aged to over fifty without yet demonstrating any great gift for singing or acting, much less any newly discovered talent. Yet the third (and, as it happened, the longest) resurgence of a long career had now begun, and it owed only to the skillful marketing of herself as an ikon of perpetual glamour and feminine allure.
Actresses like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn sustained long careers by abandoning claims to youth and beauty and developing new facets for themselves within a wide range of roles for mature women. Marlene Dietrich, however, had to rely only on a cultivated sex appeal that was provocative but never coarse, slightly naughty but never sordid. She pleased men and women in her audience by incarnating in her roles and expressing in her songs a cynicism without acrimony—by representing the ordinary adult experience of failed romance, lost love, diminished expectations.
She represented what she was—the eternal lover, tenacious, proud, destined for the cycles of fierce romance and eventual disappointment, hovering too closely, nurturing too much, rejected but unbitter, ever eager for restoration to favor. But most of all, she simply endured, and all the world loves a survivor.
LONDIKE IN THE DESERT
A REPORTER CALLED
Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1953. That year, seven million tourists flocked to its legal gambling tables, and a major expansion of the city’s many hotels and resorts was in progress. At the Desert Inn, the Flamingo, the Sahara and the Sands, guests passed through garish foyers to reach vast casinos filled with the cries of croupiers, the endless chiming of slot machines, the snap of cards and the clatter of chips.
In the restaurant-nightclub spaces of these hotels, cabaret performers could earn astonishing salaries, although they often had to compete with animals, circus and novelty acts and a distracted audience. “A wayfarer arriving in Las Vegas during any given week has a wider choice of top banana talent than the average New Yorker,” reported the
New York Times
that year. But some artists agreed with Lena Horne that “the audience is a captive one, but the thing that has captured them is the gambling. They really only come to see you in order to take a rest from the crap tables.” Nevertheless, a diverse roster of celebrities was regularly billed—Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr,
Georgia Gibbs, Ray Bolger, Ezio Pinza, Jeanette MacDonald, all of them lured by fees of
20,000 a week for less than an hour’s work nightly. Some performers were contracted to movie producers or television networks, but in a town controlled by organized crime, all manner of means were found to secure the services of a big name.
Marlene Dietrich, free of studio interference, needed no doubtful company for permission to work here. Arriving in Las Vegas in 1953 to negotiate for her debut that December, she surveyed the sound and lighting facilities, gauged the effects of this position and that gesture, assessed the sightlines and inspected the dressing rooms. She also listened to other performers—among them the twenty-five-year-old singer Eddie Fisher. A smooth tenor with a shy personality, he was carefully piloted by managers and billed as one of America’s most adorable teenage heartthrobs. Fisher’s boyish charm also made him the darling of the grandparents, and so for agents and record producers he was that rare find, a singer popular with both audiences.
Dietrich invited Fisher to her table after his performance one night and explained her plans, but he thought of her as an actress, not a nightclub star. “Eddie,” she replied, “I was singing in cabarets before you were born.” That age difference (twenty-seven years) apparently made no difference to their reunion a few weeks later in Dietrich’s New York apartment, to which she invited him for a home-cooked supper. Greeting Fisher in a revealing, low-cut beige gown, she served a candlelit meal and, as he recalled years later, completely took charge of the situation: “I was both excited and a little scared. But Marlene knew how to make me feel like a man. The ceiling of her bedroom was mirrored.”
Predictably, the affair (conducted mostly in New York during the summer and autumn of 1953) was intense but brief. On the one hand, it was flattering to an eager young singer from Philadelphia who appreciated every personal, social and professional endorsement offered by this “remarkable woman who knew how to enjoy life, the most stimulating woman I had ever met.” But as in the case of Michael Wilding, Fisher was really more important to Dietrich than she to him. Although the charms of a handsome young lover were
certainly not to be disregarded, she was, as usual, attracted by the situation of nurturing as much as by sex. More vital still, she needed to know that she was attractive to and could please a new generation of admirers. What she longed for in public—the attention and love of thousands—required a private supplement. Once again, a transitory affair signalled her need to be worshipped rather than loved, although by the paradox often engendered by sex, it was perhaps simultaneously a plea for affection. But if, as she always contended, work was her cardinal value, she did not (at least past the age of forty) select lovers who would threaten that primacy; each affair had within it the seeds of its own demise.
OR THREE WEEKS BEGINNING
16, 1953, Marlene Dietrich sang a half-dozen songs each night at the Sahara in Las Vegas; for this she was paid
90,000, which again made her the highest-paid entertainer in America (and very likely in the world). Half-singing, half-speaking with a strategic mutter, a purr, a wink and a flutter of her half-closed eyelids, she was more a
—a husky, gauzy lady baritone blithely unconcerned for accuracy of tone yet somehow communicating the sly, world-weary sagacity of what the French call
une femme d’un certain âge
. Her audience clapped, whistled, stomped the floor and banged their tables after she sang “The Boys in the Back Room,” “Falling in Love Again,” “Lili Marlene,” “The Laziest Gal in Town,” “Johnny” and “La Vie en Rose,” and she closed her thirty-minute set in her scanty ringmaster’s outfit from the circus; she was, after all, the owner of legendary legs. In a way, she had come full circle, revising for modern audiences certain key aspects of earlier Berlin entertainments—and always teasing her audiences, inviting them yet maintaining a cool distance.
But it was not Marlene Dietrich’s talent as a vocal artist that was earning her headlines, feature photographs and the greatest press coverage of her career thus far. In fact, her singing was ignored by the critics; her success was in what she wore and how she was lighted—in other words it was all style. “Her voice deficiencies were neatly offset by her rather radical costume,” read a typical press
report, “the most revealing gown” anyone could recall on an entertaining figure anywhere.
“My outward appearance was extremely important, since I had no illusions about my voice,” Dietrich later admitted. For that reason, she had a few Las Vegas entrepreneurs pressure the reluctant Harry Cohn, chief executive at Columbia Studios, to loan her his chief wardrobe designer, Jean Louis.
He had designed a seductive
costume for Rita Hayworth’s film
which consisted of a thickly padded, girdlelike “living foundation” covered with a body stocking of flesh-colored chiffon. This was then overlaid with beads to hide the seams, and with the right lighting and camera angles Hayworth upset the censors. Dietrich had seen the film the previous spring and had been impressed. Jean Louis then drew up the basic blueprint for Dietrich—furs, spangles and diamonds, she insisted—and then, all during the autumn, fifteen seamstresses worked on three versions of the gown, sewing and resewing the sequins, glass brilliants, six hundred rhinestones and yards of chiffon, tearing and refashioning according to Dietrich’s alterations. According to Jean Louis, Dietrich had “almost a mania for everything to be just right. She flew to Hollywood from New York maybe six times until everything was perfect. And then she would move one more bead the size of a pinhead—just an eighth of an inch to the right or the left and back again until she was satisfied. I have never seen such patience—and such tenacity to get just the effect she wanted!”