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Marlene Dietrich; (December 27, 1901 – May 6, 1992) was a German-born actress, entertainer and singer.

Throughout her long career, starting as a cabaret singer in 1920s Berlin, Hollywood actress, World War II front line entertainer and finally an international stage show performer, Dietrich constantly re-invented herself and eventually became one of the entertainment icons of the 20th century. The American Film Institute ranked Dietrich No. 9 amongst the AFI's Greatest Female Stars of All Time.


Childhood and early career

She was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany to Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Dietrich (nee Felsing) on December 27, 1901. Nicknamed "Lena" within the family, she contracted her two first names to form the then-unusual name, Marlene, when she was still a teenager.

Dietrich studied the violin before starting work as a chorus girl and actress for Max Reinhardt in theatre productions in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s.

She made her film debut in 1923. In 1929, she got the role of Lola-Lola in UFA's production, The Blue Angel (1930). The film was the first German sound film, was directed by Josef von Sternberg and is noted for introducing Dietrich's signature song "Falling in Love Again".

Film star

From the trailer for Stage Fright (1950)

She then moved to Hollywood on contract to Paramount to make Morocco, for which she received her only Oscar nomination. Paramount tried to shape her as the studio's German answer to MGM's Swedish sensation Greta Garbo. Her most lasting contribution to film history was as the star in several films directed by von Sternberg in the pre-Code early 1930s, such as The Scarlet Empress and Shanghai Express, in which she played femmes fatales. By 1939 Dietrich was labelled "box office poison". Her 1937 Korda film Knight Without Armour had been an expensive flop. However, in 1939 her stardom was revived when she played against type as a cowboy saloon girl in the western Destry Rides Again with James Stewart. She played a similar role in 1942 with John Wayne in The Spoilers.

While she never regained her former popularity, she continued performing in films like A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil and Judgment at Nuremberg.

World War II

In 1937, while her film career stalled in Hollywood, she made a film in London for producer Alexander Korda. In later interviews, she claimed that while in London to film Knight Without Armour (1937) she was approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany, but turned them down flat. Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939.

In 1941 the U.S. entered the Second World War and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She entertained troops on the front lines in a USO revue that included future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act. Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. Like many Weimar era German entertainers, she was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised anti-Semitism.

She recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German for the OSS, including "Lili Marleen". She also played the musical saw to entertain troops. She sang for the Allied troops on the front lines in Algiers, France and into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, "aus Anstand" – "it was the decent thing to do".

Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US Government for her war work. She was also made a chevalier (later commandeur) of the Légion d'Honneur by the French government.


Dietrich had a smoky and world-weary singing voice which she used to great effect in many of her films, on records and later during her world-wide concert tours. Kenneth Tynan called her voice her “third dimension”; Hemingway thought that “if she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it”.

Dietrich’s recording career spanned over half a century. Prior to international stardom, she recorded a duet, “Wenn die Beste Freundin”, with Margo Lion. This song, with its lesbian overtones, was a hit in Berlin in 1928.

In 1930, she recorded English and German-language selections from her film, Der Blaue Engel, for Electrola in Berlin. It was at this time that she recorded Frederich Hollaender’s "Falling in Love Again" for the first time: it would become her theme song, to be sung in thousands of concerts and forever identified with her.

A 1933 Parisian recording session for Polydor produced several classic tracks, including Franz Waxman’s “Allein in Einer Grossen Stadt”. She recorded “The Boys in the Back Room” for Decca in 1939. In 1945, she recorded her version of "Lili Marleen".

Dietrich signed with Columbia Records in the 1950s, with Mitch Miller as her producer. The 1950 LP Marlene Dietrich Overseas, with Dietrich singing German translations of American songs of the Second World War era, was a prestige hit. She also recorded several duets with Rosemary Clooney; these tapped into a younger market and charted.

During the 1960s, Dietrich recorded several albums and many singles, mostly with Burt Bacharach at the helm of the orchestra. Dietrich in London, recorded live at the Queen’s Theatre in 1964, is an enduring document of Dietrich in concert.

In 1978, her performance of the title track from her last film, Just a Gigolo, was issued as a single. She made her last recordings from her Paris apartment in 1987: spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.

Asked by Maximillian Schell in 1982 for his documentary Marlene which of her own recordings were her favourites, she replied that she thought Marlene Singt Berlin-Berlin, a 1964 album featuring her singing old Berlin schlager (popular songs) was her best recorded work.

Stage and cabaret


Dietrich in a 1972 London concert

From the 1950s to the mid-1970s Dietrich toured internationally as a successful cabaret performer. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Until the mid-1960s her musical director was famed composer Burt Bacharach.

His arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's limited vocal range and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect. Costumes by Jean Louis, body-sculpting undergarments, careful stage lighting and temporary mini-facelifts helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.

Her return to Germany in 1960 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin's Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, "Marlene Go Home!" On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin mayor Willy Brandt. The tour was an artistic triumph but a financial failure. She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, including a German version of Pete Seeger's anti-war anthem Where Have All the Flowers Gone, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel.

In 1968, she received a Tony Award for her stage show. The show was broadcast on television in 1973.

Final years

Her show business career largely ended on September 29, 1975, when she broke her leg during a stage performance in Australia. She appeared briefly in the film, Just a Gigolo, in 1979, and wrote and contributed to several books during the 1980s.

She spent her last decade mostly bed-ridden, in her apartment on the avenue Montaigne No. 12 in Paris, during which time she was not seen in public but was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. Maximilian Schell persuaded Dietrich to be interviewed for his 1984 documentary Marlene, but she did not appear on screen. She was in constant contact with her daughter, who came to Paris regularly to check on her. Her husband, Rudolf Sieber, had died of cancer on June 24, 1976.


Marlene Dietrich's gravestone

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, her daughter and grandson claim that Marlene Dietrich was politically active during these years. She would keep contact with world leaders by telephone, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000. Her contacts included Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Dietrich died peacefully of renal failure on May 6, 1992, at the age of 90 in Paris. A service was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris before 3,500 mourners and a crowd of well-wishers outside. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin where she was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45, in Friedenau Cemetery, not far from the house where she was born.

Private life

Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich's personal life was kept out of public view. She married once, to director's assistant Rudolf Sieber, a Roman Catholic who later became a director at Paramount Pictures in France.

Her only child, Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born in Berlin on December 13, 1924. She would later become an actress, primarily working in television, as Maria Riva. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed "the world's most glamorous grandmother". The great love of the actress's life, however, was the French actor and military hero Jean Gabin. Their relationship ended in the mid-1940s. During the 1950s, she had relationships with Edward R. Murrow, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and professional bowler Don Carter. She remained close to her husband, but he lived on a chicken farm in California with his unstable longterm mistress, Tamara Matul.

Dietrich, who was bisexual, had affairs with actresses like Ona Munson and writer Mercedes de Acosta. Dietrich was reportedly involved in a long term affair with the father of President John F. Kennedy.


On October 24, 1993, the largest portion of her estate was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek (after US institutions showed no interest) where it became the core of the exhibition at the Filmmuseum Berlin. The collection includes: over 3 000 textile items from the 1920s - 1990s (including film and stage costumes as well as over a thousand items from Dietrich's personal wardrobe); 15 000 photographs (by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hurrell, Snowdon, Eugene Robert Richee and Edward Steichen); 300 000 pages of documents (including correspondence with Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner, Maurice Chevalier, Noël Coward, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Lagerfeld, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Erich Maria Remarque, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder); as well as other items like film posters and sound recordings.

The contents of Dietrich's Manhattan apartment (along with other personal effects such as jewellery and items of clothing) were sold by public auction by Sotheby's (Los Angeles) on 1 November 1997.

Image and Legacy

Dietrich never integrated into the Hollywood entertainment industry, being always an outsider for mainstream America. Her German accent gave an extra touch to her performance but made her look "foreign" in the eyes of Americans.

Dietrich was a fashion icon to the top designers as well as a screen icon who later stars would follow. Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality.

Her distinctive voice was later satirized, along with that of Lotte Lenya, in the song "Lieder" by cult British trio Fascinating Aïda.

Mel Brooks stated on the commentary track of the Blazing Saddles DVD that Dietrich was the inspiration for Madeline Kahn's character, Lily Von Schtupp in that movie.

On November 8, 1997, the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, honouring Marlene Dietrich, was unveiled in Berlin.

She once said, "I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men."


  • Love Tragedy (1923)
  • The Little Napoleon (1923)
  • Man by the Wayside (1923)
  • Leap Into Life (1924)
  • Dance Mad (1925)
  • The Bogus Baron (1926)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Doesn't Want Children (1926)
  • A Modern DuBarry (1927)
  • Chin Up, Charley! (1927)
  • His Greatest Bluff (1927)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Princess Olala (1928)
  • Dangers of the Engagement Period (1929)
  • I Kiss Your Hand Madame (1929)
  • The Woman One Longs For (1929)
  • The Ship of Lost Men (1929)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935) (short subject)
  • The Devil is a Woman (1935)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936) (unfinished)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • Knight Without Armour (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • Show Business at War (1943) (short subject)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Jigsaw (1949) (Cameo)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1956)
  • Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) (Cameo)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler (1962) (documentary) (narrator)
  • Paris, When It Sizzles (1964) (Cameo)
  • Just a Gigolo (1979)
  • Marlene (1984) (documentary) (Dietrich insisted to director Maximilian Schell that only her voice be heard)


Notable appearances include:

  • Lux Radio Theater: The Legionnaire and the Lady opposite Clark Gable (1 August 1936)
  • Lux Radio Theater: Desire opposite Herbert Marshall (22 July 1937)
  • Lux Radio Theater: song of Songs opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (20 December 1937)
  • The Chase and Sanborn Program with Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche (2 June 1938)
  • Lux Radio Theater: Manpower opposite Edward G Robinson and George Raft (15 March 1942)
  • The Gulf Screen Guild Theater: Pittsburgh opposite John Wayne (12 April 1943)
  • Theatre Guild on the Air: Grand Hotel opposite Ray Milland (24 March 1948)
  • Studio One: Arabesque (29 June 1948)
  • Theatre Guild on the Air: The Letter opposite Walter Pidgeon (3 October 1948)
  • Ford Radio Theater: Madame Bovary opposite Claude Rains (8 October 1948)
  • Screen Director's Playhouse: A Foreign Affair opposite Rosalind Russell and John Lund (5 March 1949)
  • MGM Theatre of the Air: Anna Karenina (9 December 1949)
  • MGM Theatre of the Air: Camille (6 June 1950)
  • Lux Radio Theater: No Highway in the Sky opposite James stewart (21 April 1952)
  • Screen Director's Playhouse: A Foreign Affair opposite Lucille Ball and John Lund (1 March 1951)
  • The Big Show starring Tallullah Bankhead (2 October 1951)
  • The Child, with Godfrey Kenton, radio play produced by Richard Imison for BBC on 18 August 1965

She made several appearances on AFRS shows like The Army Hour and Command Performance during the war years. In 1952, she had her own series on ABC entitled, Cafe Istanbul. During 1953 - 1954, she starred in 38 episodes of Time for Love on CBS. She recorded 94 short inserts, "Dietrich Talks on Love and Life", for NBC's Monitor in 1958.

Dietrich gave many radio interviews worldwide on her concert tours. In 1960, her show at the Tuchinsky Theatre in Amsterdam was broadcast live on Dutch radio. Her 1962 appearance at the Olympia in Paris was also broadcast.


Complete list of television appearances (excluding news footage):

  • Unicef Gala (Duesseldorf, 1962): Guest Appearance
  • Cirque d' Hiver (Paris, 9 March 1963): Cameo as "Garcon de Piste"
  • Deutsche-Schlager-Festspiele (Baden-Baden, 1963): Guest Appearance
  • Grand Gala du Disque (Edison Awards) (The Hague, 1963): Guest Appearance
  • Galakväll pa Berns (Stockholm, 1963): Concert, with introduction by Karl Gerhardt and orchestra conducted by Burt Bacharach
  • Royal Variey Performance (London, 4 November 1963): Guest Appearance
  • The Stars Shine for Jack Hylton (London, 1965): Guest Appearance
  • The Magic of Marlene (Melbourne, October 1965): Concert, with orchestra conducted by William Blezard.
  • Tony Awards Telecast (New York, 21 April 1968): Acceptance Speech
  • Guest Star Marlene Dietrich (Copenhagen - for Swedish Television, 1970): Interview
  • I Wish You Love (An Evening with Marlene Dietrich) (London, 23 & 24 November 1972): Concert TV Special, with orchestra conducted by Stan Freeman.

Further reading

Books by Marlene Dietrich

  • Dietrich, Marlene and Attanasio, Salvator [Translation] (1989). "Marlene". Grove Press. ISBN 0-802-11117-3
  • Dietrich, Marlene (1962). "Marlene Dietrich's ABC". Doubleday.
  • Dietrich, Marlene and Helnwein, Gottfried [Photographs] (1990). "Some Facts About Myself". Edition Cantz.

Biographies by others

  • Bach, Steven (1992). Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-42553-8
  • Spoto, Donald (1992). Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich. William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-688-07119-8
  • Riva, Maria (1994). Marlene Dietrich. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-38645-0. 
  • McLellan, Diana (2001). The Girls : Sappho Goes to Hollywood. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-28320-2. 
  • Riva, David J. (2006). A Woman at War: Marlene Dietrich Remembered. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-3249-8. 

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