12 December 2010

Taking the legend seriously - Dietrich’s whip is her own tongue

by Rebecca Morehouse

Timing it precisely, Marlene Dietrich enters the Louis XVI Room of the Waldorf-Astoria. She has just been described in Ernest Hemingway's words —"brave, beautiful, loyal, generous and kind." She is wearing a black Chanel pantsuit, black shoes, a black slouch hat.

She walks to the front of the room, begins to turn left and right, obliging a phalanx of photographers. The room is packed with newspaper, radio and TV reporters. She does not bother to say hello to them. Her face is impassive, her manner says: "Let's get on with it."She is a legend taking it seriously, a queen queening it, a wild-animal tamer whose whip is her tongue. She picks up a microphone, walks to a chair, sits.

The questions begin."Are you tired of being called the world's most glamorous grandmother?" a reporter asks respectfully. Snap goes the whip: "That old bit. I gave that title long ago to Elizabeth Taylor." He gamely struggles on: "Is it true you mop the kitchen floor to work off your frustrations?" She: "What frustrations? I have no frustrations. I'm a very good house-keeper, yes."

She is standing now, the microphone in her hand. The fit of her suit is perfection: couturiers say no one is more demanding at fittings. Surprisingly, she speaks with a lisp. Are some of her teeth missing? Or is there a lozenge in her mouth? Impossible to tell. She parts her lips only slightly as she talks.Another question: "Do you still wear see-through gowns?"

"You have old questions," she says wearily. "The interviews are more interesting in Europe. They're more interested in artistic things. There is not so much interest in culture in America. We're the only country that doesn't have a minister of culture."

The press conference was called to publicize her first television show, "Marlene Dietrich—I Wish You Love," on the CBS TV network, Saturday, January 13, from 10 P.M. to 11 P.M. It pre-empts The Carol Burnett Show, was taped before an audience in London in late November. Alexander H. Cohen, who presented her one-woman show on Broadway, produced the special.She is reminded that she once said, "They offer me the moon, but I'm still a virgin in television. Who needs it?" Why did she change her mind?"I still feel that way," she said. "But Mr. Cohen can make me do almost anything ... I like live shows, I like to see live peformances. A small screen is really frustrating. TV is wonderful for people who are lonesome or sick." There is laughter. "Why do you laugh? I mean people who are ill.

"Television is rush, rush, rush. I started out at 4 o'clock and at 2.30 in the morning I was still standing there. We had two days. We should have taken a week." Alexander Cohen, seated near her, puts his hands to his face. "It's difficult." she continues. "I didn't have commercials on Broadway. As there are so many commercials, I can't do all the songs."

You're not doing enough to bring culture to people. People in TV programming think they have to appeal to the lowest possible intelligence and I think they're wrong."

She is slender as a boy: "I'm just lucky, I guess." From 12 feet away, her face shows no lines. the skin is smooth and tight across those high, wide-apart cheek-bones."Would you describe your beauty regime?" a woman reporter asks. She: "That's a whole story in itself. I rarely look in a mirror, except when I'm performing. I don't pay attention to myself." ("Just 24 hours a day," someone murmurs.)

Question—What keeps you going?

Answer—Demand keeps me going. I work out of necessity, like everybody has to work. I never really wanted to do something, I was pushed into it. I'm not ambitious at all. I like what I am doing now (her one-woman show) better than doing films. You are alone and you'd better do it well or not at all.

Q.—Don't you have personal goals?

A.—I'd love to work with Burt Bacharach again. Otherwise, I don't have any goals. I think he is the greatest composer since George Gershwin. I miss him very much, I wish him happiness, he's a wonderful guy. (Mr. Bacharach musically directed her Broadway show.)

Dietrich was born in Berlin, her real name Marie Magdalene Dietrich. After her success in "The Blue Angel," she went to Hollywood in 1930. Her first American film was "Morocco," with Gary Cooper. In 1937, she became a U.S. citizen.She has an apartment here, but spends most of her time in Paris now. She flew here with 22 pieces of luggage."It's easier for me to work out of Paris. When I fly to Israel, Russia, Japan, the flights are shorter. I like to work. I go to London all the time; that's where the great actors are, Olivier, Gielgud."

She refused to take credit for popularizing trousers for women: "I wore them in Hollywood in the 1930's, but women wore trousers in California then. They're very comfortable." But they do hide those fabulous legs.

Q.—What do you do when you're not working?

A.—I do all my own typing. I do busisess letters myself. By the time you have told someone how to do it, you have done it. I have no secretary. I do have servants.No, I do not live with my family. My daughter (Maria Riva, who acted in the early days of television) has four sons and lives in London. She no longer performs. It was sad that she gave it up. My husband lives in California. (He is Rudolph Sieber, a onetime film director who now farms. They were married in 1924 and have been amiably separated many years.)

Bob Williams, TV critic of The New York Post, ventured to ask her age and drew her sharpest scorn."That is the oldest question," she huffed. "I'll say one thing, I'm not as old as the newspapers make me out to be." By the calendar count, she is 68.

Q.—Do you ever watch TV reruns of your old films?

A.—I don't, oh God, no. I have better things to do than that.

Q.—How does one survive?

A.—I wonder.

(Inteview conducted on 13 December 1972, first published in The Baltimore Sun on 2 January 1973 to publicize I Wish You Love.)

1 comment:

  1. from these answers alone you can tell she was one quick-witted woman