Less than a week ago I paid homage to one of my favorite activities, a quiet browse through Barnes & Noble, seeking classic films, but I noticed much to my surprise an exciting new book title. Charlotte Chandler has churned out another of her notorious biographies, this time on on Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo’s biggest rival, and someone today all but forgotten, much to my dismay. Though I appreciate the resurgence of one of cinema’s most discounted actresses, it is Charlotte Chandler after all. Beginning in 1978 Chandler began a long career as biographer with Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends, and in the beginning she was taken as something of a fresh ingenue of the genre, setting a new standard in candid biography. From there, her reputation faltered, note that in each Chandler subject there is a complete lack of source notes, her acknowledgements compile a page of listed names, and this is supposed to back unique texts that often contradict other biographies that are extensively researched and the proof archived just as well at the conclusion of the book. Her approach is that of a camaraderie with the subject, intimate conversations compiled over years and years of friendship, it’s almost too good to be true that she was so close with so many stars for so many years including Mae West, Joan Crawford, Billy Wilder, and many others. Though it’s not only possible that there’s a fair bit of liberty taken with her biographies, I will give Chandler the upper hand, she does give a fresh story, an exciting facet to the genre, that few others can achieve. One thing struck me, how quietly Marlene came to the surface. In the age when Ashley Judd’s biography is released to a fanfare of press coverage, it’s almost depressing that the Ms. Dietrich can’t receive her triumph of accolade, she did lead quite the life! But that’s another story entirely, for now, I remain surprised, and amused, yet another entry in the canon of Charlotte Chandler.
In Marlene, the legendary Hollywood icon is vividly brought to life, based on a series of conversations with the star herself and with others who knew her well. In the mid-1970s Charlotte Chandler spoke with Marlene Dietrich in Dietrich’s Paris apartment. The star’s career was all but over, but she agreed to meet because Chandler hadn’t known Dietrich earlier, “when I was young and very beautiful.” Dietrich may have been retired, but her appearance and her celebrity—her famous mystique—were as important to her as ever.Marlene Dietrich’s life is one of the most fabulous in Hollywood history. She began her career in her native Berlin as a model, then a stage and screen actress during the silent era, becoming a star with the international success The Blue Angel. Then, under the watchful eye of the director of that film, her mentor Josef von Sternberg, she came to America and became one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. She made a series of acclaimed pictures—Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, Destry Rides Again, among many others—that propelled her to international stardom. With the outbreak of World War II, the fiercely anti-Nazi Dietrich became an American citizen and entertained Allied troops on the front lines. After the war she embarked on a new career as a stage performer, and with her young music director, the gifted Burt Bacharach—whom Chandler interviewed for the book—Dietrich had an outstanding second career. Dietrich spoke candidly with Chandler about her unconventional private life: although she never divorced her husband, Rudi Sieber, she had numerous well-publicized affairs with his knowledge (and he had a longtime mistress with her approval). By the late 1970s, plagued by accidents, Dietrich had become a virtual recluse in her Paris apartment, communicating with the outside world almost entirely by telephone Marlene Dietrich lived an extraordinary life, and Marlene relies extensively on the star’s own words to reveal how intriguing and fascinating that life really was.