Book review: Charlotte Chandler’s ‘Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

It hardly seems possible that there could be room for yet another important biography on so iconic a star as Marlene Dietrich, already the subject of a remarkably candid yet detached memoir by her daughter Maria Riva and of the late Steven Bach’s thoughtful and exhaustively researched “Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend.” Both were published not long after Dietrich’s death in Paris at 91 in 1992. Yet Charlotte Chandler’s “Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography” proves invaluable. As with such self-protective, image-conscious legends as Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Mae West, Chandler has again demonstrated her unparalleled ability to get major figures of Hollywood’s golden age to talk about their lives with unprecedented openness.

In 1977 Chandler made three trips to Paris for lengthy tapings with a still-stunning Dietrich. After a second and serious fall in 1975, Dietrich ended her concert and nightclub career. She later appeared in her final film “Just a Gigolo” (1978), then made “Marlene” (1984), Maximilian Schell’s unique documentary, in which Dietrich is heard, constantly sparring with Schell, but is never seen. Dietrich admits to Chandler that her increasing seclusion in her Avenue Montaigne apartment was her way of preserving her timeless image of beauty and glamour.

Chandler’s slender but revealing volume does not so much contradict as complement previous Dietrich biographies. As much as possible Chandler resists secondary sources, and Dietrich’s confidences are richly rounded out by the detailed reminiscences shared with Chandler by Dietrich’s onetime lover, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; David Riva, her youngest grandson; Mae West, with whom Dietrich became good friends at Paramount in the early 1930s; the eternally controversial Third Reich filmmaker-actress Leni Riefenstahl, who was 100 years old when Chandler interviewed her; and Joshua Sinclair, “Gigolo’s” screenwriter, who describes the challenge in getting Dietrich to appear in the film and her moving professionalism on the set.


The arc of Dietrich’s life and career is well known: her birth into an upper-middle-class Berlin family in 1901; her admiration for her twice-widowed mother; her violin studies cut short by an injury that led her to the stage and screen; her eventual discovery by Josef von Sternberg, who cast her in “The Blue Angel” (1930) and took her to Hollywood, where he made her into an immortal screen goddess. Revitalizing her career, Dietrich stepped down from her pedestal with the earthy western “Destry Rides Again” (1939) and followed it with many more films, tirelessly entertained American troops during World War Il, then in the early 1950s launched an illustrious singing career that took her all over the world for more than two decades.

Dietrich was famous for her many lovers — and indeed she confirms the rumor that some were women — but she stayed married to Rudi Sieber, an assistant director, from 1923 to his death in 1976. Early in the marriage Marlene became unashamedly unfaithful and was grateful that he took a mistress, a beautiful Russian, Tamara Matul. Dietrich talks of the ultimately ill-fated Matul with an unsettling, patronizing tone, and declares that she, Marlene, always came first, second and third in Rudi’s life. It was an unforgettable experience for me to be introduced to the blazingly radiant Dietrich following one of her last Las Vegas performances, but utterly astonishing to be in turn introduced proudly by Marlene to Rudi, whom she clutched like an Oscar — a nattily dressed man with a good toupee and a beaming smile that suggested how she ranked in his heart.

Thomas reviews movies for The Times.