Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich
By: C.W. Gortner
Publisher: William Morrow
Maria Magdalena Dietrich was born into a life of genteel poverty, her mother’s proud family connections brought low by her father’s early death and a subsequent – and ever-present – lack of funds. Destined for life as a concert violinist, as a teenager she chafes against the moral restrictions imposed by her formidable mother. For while Maria Magdalena loves the violin, she yearns for something more, a chance to explore the burgeoning opportunities both personal and professional promised by the siren song emanating from the decadence of post-war Berlin, where the moral fiber that once defined the nation crumbles with the fall of the Kaiser and the dawn of the fledgling Weimar Republic. It is within the decadence and hedonism of the cabarets and clubs of 1920s Berlin that Maria – now known as Marlene – finds the beginnings of her voice and image as she strives to become an actress. A chance encounter with a mid-level studio executive lands her a coveted screen test, eventually leading to her breakthrough role as Lola-Lola, the seductive cabaret girl who leads men astray in The Blue Angel. Her partnership with director Joseph von Sternberg makes her a star, and as the Dietrich legend rises, the lines between reality and glossy celluloid fantasy begin to blur. As her once-beloved homeland descends into the madness of National Socialism and her personal and professional relationships become fraught with tension, Marlene is faced with a choice. Will she crumble under the weight of the Dietrich mythos, tarnished by poor box office receipts and failed relationships, or will a second world war allow the inimitable artist one last chance to reinvent herself anew?
I came to this novel not out of any special affinity for Marlene Dietrich or her films, but rather as a long-time fan of both classic Hollywood and C.W. Gortner’s novels, hoping for some juicy insight into the filmmaking process at home and abroad throughout the 1930s and 1940s. To date my favorite Dietrich films are among those made at the twilight of her film career, particularly 1947’s Golden Earrings, which is pretty terrible (Dietrich is as un-gypsy-like as it gets!), but I love it anyway, and 1948’s SUPERB A Foreign Affair, directed by Billy Wilder. After finishing this deliciously dishy take on Dietrich’s rise through the first half of the twentieth century, I’m determined to correct the unthinkable oversight of being woefully unfamiliar with her filmography, particularly the collaborations with von Sternberg, which were so essential to the construction of her myth and legacy.
Gortner takes his time establishing the mood of Marlene’s youth, positioning her later on-screen reputation as an untouchable seductress along with her seemingly endless string of lovers as a natural expression of a rebellious teenager coming of age and embracing the moral and artistic freedoms afforded by the Weimar culture of the interwar period. I knew Dietrich had a reputation as something of a female lothario, but I had no idea how much and to what extent her amorous appetites informed her character and image. Through her various relationships with men and women, Gortner sketches a portrait of a woman who came of age in the cabarets of Berlin and whole-heartedly embraced the hedonistic spirit of the age. It’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to witness the cost Dietrich’s insistence on doing it “her way” wreaks on her familial relationships – but if love is a drug it was one to which even a master such as Marlene would prove vulnerable.
It’s fascinating to watch Gortner chart the rise of Dietrich’s film career, focusing most on her relationship with the man half responsible for its creation – director Joseph von Sternberg. Mercurial and obsessive, he helped Marlene tap into her on-screen potential, their collaborations the foundation of Dietrich’s screen image as a lethal siren. I loved the deep dive into the studio system from an actor’s perspective providing, fascinating – and salty – insight into the perspective of the actors and directors like Dietrich and von Sternberg, artists who chafed under the restrictions of the receipts-driven system that exerted absolute control over not only their creative choices but their appearance, relationships, and free time. This novel is a window into a forgotten world, one where both star and studio collaborated to present a very specific image to the move-going public, a type of image that seems nearly deified and unassailable compared to today’s culture of insta-celebrity and 24/7 news cycles. Today we see stars at their best and just as quickly, their worst, an image tarnishing before it even has a chance to truly shine. Marlene is a study in how such a construct came to be in this period, seen through the eyes of the occasionally crass, surprisingly home-cooking and cleaning housefrau who wanted to be famous actress…and then made it so.
I was fascinated by the final quarter of the novel, where we see the rise of Hitler and the advent of World War II through the eyes of an expatriate German. I had no idea just how much she did for the war effort on behalf of her adopted country, nor did I ever consider the backlash she must have faced in Germany for refusing to support Hitler’s rise to power. While I haven’t read enough biographical information to grasp the tension she surely must have felt, knowing her family lived under Hitler’s sway, within these pages I was reminded of a lyric from the musical Hamilton -- Hamilton’s challenge to Aaron Burr at the end of the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” in which he asks “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Not only is the sentiment appropriate to Marlene’s wartime experiences, as she is forced to confront the question of what do you do when faced with the unimaginable, the unfathomable, the horrifying…it stands true today, for what happens when silence is no longer an option?
I’m not attempting to suggest that Dietrich herself should be taken as some sort of role model for today (that is a role I feel sure she would have abhorred with every fiber of her bohemian being), but the questions of moral responsibility that she grappled with leading up to and during the war felt incredibly timely. In a world increasingly segmented, with weighty issues reduced to a sound bite, our stars even more idolized and dissected (and arguably, disposable vis-à-vis lasting value, entertainment or otherwise), Marlene is unexpectedly relevant. Through the lens of Dietrich’s wildly colorful life, Gortner offers up a thoughtful portrait of a woman whose controversial life is still enduring and relatable. Gortner honors the myth even as he deconstructs it to reveal the very human, flawed woman beneath. A fascinating study in celebrity, after this I can only hope that one day Gortner will turn his pen to other titans of early twentieth-century culture (such as Judy Garland or Bette Davis). Marlene is both a homage and an engaging dissection of celebrity culture, the perfect blend of dishy gossip and thought-provoking conjecture. In short, this is why Gortner is one of my favorite novelists.
About the book:
A lush, dramatic biographical novel of one of the most glamorous and alluring legends of Hollywood’s golden age, Marlene Dietrich—from the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the lush film studios of Hollywood, a sweeping story of passion, glamour, ambition, art, and war from the author of Mademoiselle Chanel.
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.
An enthralling and insightful account of this extraordinary legend, Marlene reveals the inner life of a woman of grit, glamour, and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged her own path on her own terms.