Marlene Dietrich is unmistakable. From her the tone of her voice – deep in the lower registers, distinctive with its Bavarian rhotacism – to the arch of her brow, framing alluringly languid lids, the late actress is an icon of cinema, fashion and politics alike. Far from the archetypal screen siren, Dietrich began to redefine gender constructs in the mainstream, alongside her staunch opposition to Nazism and her contribution to 20th-century cinema and LGBT+ culture.
She was also known for her professional relationships with photographers – from Cecil Beaton to Irving Penn – each of whom captured her own unique aesthetic. A newly published book titled Obsession: Marlene Dietrich chronicles such portraits, taken from the personal collection of Pierre Passebon – an aficionado of the butchcamp femme fatale. Here, alongside these images, we chronicle ten little-known facts about her life.
1. Her real name was not Marlene
Dietrich was born in Berlin in 1901, on the 27th of December. Her birth name was, in fact, Marie Magdalene Dietrich, with her family nicknaming her ‘Lena’. Her adopted on-screen moniker Marlene was an amalgamation of the two – one that she began using at the tender age of 11.
2. She had orchestral aspirations
Dietrich never had ambitions to become cinema’s fêted androgynous femme fatale. As a young woman, her aspirations were orchestral, as she was an accomplished violinist. In 1922, Dietrich landed her first job playing soundtracks for silent films, but was fired after four weeks due to a wrist injury that hindered her ability. Soon after, she tried her hand at dramatics. The rest is history.
3. Her first role was a silent bit-part
She made her film debut in 1923 with a bit part as lady’s maid Kathrin in The Little Napoleon, a silent comedy directed by Georg Jacoby. This marked a seven-year stint of roles in silent film, before her breakout in Blue Angel in 1930. It immortalised Dietrich in sound, through her performance of Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It), which would go on to become the actress’ anthem.
4. She suffered from bacillophobia
Dietrich was afflicted by bacillophobia, an intense fear of germs. This would lead Hollywood insiders to call her ‘The Queen of Ajax’. (A nickname that should be used far more often.)
5. She denounced her German citizenship during World War Two
Known for her strong political convictions, Marlene Dietrich was never one to mince her words. When approached by the Nazi Party to perform in propaganda films, she turned them down with a ferocious ‘NEIN’. A staunch anti-fascist, during Hitler’s dictatorship she renounced her German citizenship and became a fully fledged American. She also created a fund with Billy Wilder to assist Jews and dissidents to escape to the US.
6. She gave one of the first on-screen lesbian kisses
Renowned for attending underground drag balls in 1920s Berlin, later in life, the actress would use the phrase ‘sewing circle’ to refer to the closeted lesbian and bi-sexual scene in Hollywood, of which she was also a member. The late actor Klaus Kinski described Dietrich’s conquest of his girlfriend Edith Edwards, in his autobiography: “Marlene tore down Edith’s panties backstage in a Berlin theatre and, using just her mouth, brought Edith to orgasm”. In the 1930 film Morrocco, a tuxedo-clad Dietrich in the role of Amy Jolly, gave cinema one of its first on-screen lesbian kisses, securing her status as an LGBT+ icon.
7. The actress knew her fashion, although she did not care for it
“I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men,” said Dietrich, in a 1960 interview with The Observer. “If I dressed for myself, I wouldn’t bother at all. Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans. I adore jeans. I get them in a public store – men’s of course; I can’t wear women’s trousers.” Despite Dietrich’s own remarks, costume designer Edith Head claimed that she knew more about fashion than any other actress.
8. It was rumoured that she had a love affair with Greta Garbo
Garbo and Dietrich always denied knowing each other, known as they were to be cinematic rivals. Yet, there is evidence that suggests otherwise. In 1925, the two struck up a rumoured affair, with Dietrich describing Garbo’s anatomy in vivid detail, remarking that the Swedish actress also wore “dirty underwear”.
9. And many, many more...
She married her husband in 1923, and during their years together he was accepting of the plethora of affairs that his wife enjoyed. Some were short-lived and some lasted for years, with such lovers including Errol Flynn (and his wife), George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., James Stewart, Erich Maria Remarque, Jean Gabin, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway and Mercedes de Acosta.
10. Towards the end of her life she lived in almost total isolation
By the 1970s, Dietrich had retired from acting. While she provided a few segments of narration for Maximillian Schell’s 1984 documentary on her – simply titled Marlene – she flat out refused to be filmed. She died in 1992 whilst living in Paris in almost total isolation, and is buried next to her mother in Berlin. Dietrich is survived by her daughter, four grandchildren and a legacy that will never cease to fascinate.
Obsession: Marlene Dietrich is out now, published by Flammarion.