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16 April 2011

Marlene Dietrich, According to Charlotte Chandler

I could approach Charlotte Chandler's work, Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography, from several perspectives. Obviously, I could compare it to the existing body of work devoted to Dietrich and determine whether it tells us anything new or—at least—in a new way. Why bother? No one will ever trump Maria Riva's insider anecdotes and side-splitting dialogues. Aside from that, reviews are like celebrity biographies, and how could I attempt to critique Chandler's work as a reiteration of others' biographies when—as I write this text—I realize that much of what I'm typing has probably been noted by Joseph McBride in San Francisco Chronicle. In case you are wondering, Chandler does discuss the usual subjects and suspects: Dietrich's breasts ravaged by baby Maria's hungry infant mouth, Dietrich's affairs with a few Kennedy clansmen, Dietrich's show that broke Israel's ban on German-language performances, Dietrich opposition of Nazis that included her plot to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich's other plot to prevent King Edward VIII from abdicating by wrecking his relationships with Wallis Simpson, Dietrich's directorial expertise with the help of a full-length mirror, Dietrich's skill on the violin and the musical saw, Dietrich's seclusion in her Paris apartment where she made constant phone calls yet answered her phone as her maid, and so on.


Aside from contextualizing this work within the published biographical canon, I could evaluate its sources, apparently a star-studded chorus of accounts from Dietrich herself, Mae West, Leni Riefenstahl, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Tennessee Williams, Edward Kennedy, Fritz Lang, Isabella Rossellini, and Burt Bacharach. Even Dietrich's documentarian and filmmaker grandson, (J.) David Riva, chit-chatted with Chandler, it seems. McBride questioned the veracity of these sources, but I don't mind the possible fibbing. Fabrication conforms to the Dietrich mystique, and Dietrich herself lied in her autobiography as well as in the Maximillian Schell documentary, particularly about the existence of her early German films and her older sister Elizabeth, a.k.a. Liesel. As an icon, Dietrich had the prerogative to don a veil of legends and lore. Now that she exists only in people's memories and in her work, we're relatively free to disrobe her of her myths when we discover contradicting evidence, but if biographers such as Chandler wish to honor Dietrich's hagiography, I applaud them. After all, truth can be terribly insipid. I'd yawn if Chandler merely told us that Dietrich loved munching on B.L.T.s, but adding that Dietrich ordered her favorite meal from the Hôtel Plaza Athénée made me laugh.

On the other hand, some rumors must now be laid to rest. Was Dietrich in the same film as Greta Garbo, 1925's Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street)? Chandler perpetuates this tale, confirming that although Dietrich's scene ended up on the cutting room floor, publicity stills of Dietrich from the film exist. Well, I know of one heavily edited English-language version of this film online at Internet Archive, which is unfortunately not the original 150-minute version in which Dietrich could have appeared. Countless Garbo fans, however, have disproven the existence of any publicity stills, pointing out that the supposed images of Dietrich are of another German actress named Hertha von Walther. If such hogwash persists, it's understandable. I would have loved to see Dietrich and Garbo collaborate a la Davis and Crawford.

As McBride mentioned, this book bears a peculiar title. Chandler's biography titles tend to follow a pattern of phrase, colon, subject's professional name, comma, “a personal biography,” but for Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman, Chandler deviates the title structure as such: subject's first name, colon, subject's professional name, comma, “a personal biography.” Perhaps no expression can better embody the likes of Dietrich and Bergman than their first names.

So did I enjoy this book? Initially, no. I found it disjointed and ridden with non sequitors. Why does Chandler interrupt her narration of Dietrich and the Nazis with a synopsis of that turgid film Angel? In fact, these film synopses are a recurring element within the book's body that would be better off in the filmography section at the end. Also, Dietrich's voice in this book—despite the italicized text and except for the trademark catty remark, “Kim Novak? Is she still alive?”—was rather pithless. Interestingly, Chandler's biography of Bette Davis faced a similar criticism in Carole Cadwalladr's review for The Observer. Having seen and heard plenty of Dietrich and Davis interviews, I know they are saber-tongued divas quite unlike the tame dames who are possibly more analogous to Charlotte Chandler herself. Dietrich and Davis have said enough for themselves, though. As McBride pointed out, the best part of this book are Joshua Sinclair's memories of how Dietrich became involved with the film Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo (Just a Gigolo). The image of Dietrich's last acting role composed on toilet paper with a Remington typewriter is sheer comedy. Also, I either never knew or completely forgot that Karl Lagerfeld created Dietrich's costume and that Maria Riva acted as Dietrich's assistant, using the alias “Mrs. Patterson.” Chandler scatters other tidbits throughout the book that I can't seem to recall. I was unaware that Mae West and Dietrich spoke to each other in German and that Tami was murdered in Camarillo State Mental Hospital. If Maria already mentioned it, don't blame me for forgetting. My memory is certainly no match for hers.

One last thing. The photographs in this book are lovely but nothing new to fans. Nevertheless, I do want to note that they came from the collections of David Riva, Filmmuseum Potsdam, Mae West's confidant Tim Malachosky, Paul Morrissey (the one associated with Andy Warhol?), British Film Institute, Burt Bacharach, Billy Wilder, and Jean-Louis Dumas (Hermès).

22 comments:

  1. As I have said many times, I am aware of ALL of Marlene's later contacts--there was myself, Louis Bozon, Renata Helnwein, Norma Bosquet, Madame Mario, Roger Normand, and most especially the concierges, Ramon and Mario. Not one of these people mentioned Charlotte Chandler, and when I saw the visitors list during my visits to her apartment, her name is not there. She is making this up. David Bret.

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  2. David, thanks for your response. I haven't read your Marlene bio, although I've always been keen on doing so. As I said in the blog post, I don't mind whether Chandler's fabricating information because her biography maintains the Dietrich mystique. If you happen to read or have read Chandler's biography, I would love to post your review on this blog. Your perspective is one that would interest many Dietrich fans!

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  3. I forgot to add that "Charlotte Chandler" is the pen name of Lyn Erhard. It may be worth investigating to see whether that name appeared in the visitor list?

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  4. Mae West did not speak German, at least not fluently. She and Dietrich were only friends on the Paramount lot. Chandler is notorious for doing NO research. Whatever she is told, by any crazy person, she will print. Much of her "personal biographies" are greatly embellished old interviews.

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  5. Yeah, my understanding was that Marlene Dietrich and Mae West shared neighboring dressing rooms/areas on the Paramount lot. Nevertheless, I'm fascinated that biographers such as Charlotte Chandler remain prolific mainstream profilers of long-gone stars despite valid criticisms such as yours. Admittedly, I rolled my eyes as I read many of Chandler's claims, but I expected that her Dietrich bio would attract a lot of attention and wanted to initiate discussion about it. Although this blog gets thousands of visits each month, I've always been disappointed that visitors rarely comment, and I'm glad that Chandler's bio is finally eliciting written reactions.

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  6. Thanks for your review! I really enjoyed your insights about Chandler's book, especially with regard to the Dietrich mythology.

    The costumes for "Just A Gigolo" were designed by Marlene's friend, the costume designer Mago and executed at Chanel, I think -- whether Karl was then working at the house, I'm not sure of.

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    1. Karl was there an involved with that costume !

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  7. Thanks for straightening that out! Karl Lagerfeld became the head of Chanel in 1983, but I don't know whether he worked with Chanel before that. If Charlotte Chandler did speak with Joshua Sinclair, the man who gave her the behind-the-scenes scoop on Just a Gigolo, she clearly didn't fact-check.haha

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. Interesting review from The Bay Area Reporter, which comes to many of the conclusions you have. Link:

    http://www.ebar.com/arts/art_article.php?sec=books&article=622

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  10. I was amused to see that you had removed the comment by Maria Riva, masquerading under her mother's name. Chandler did not interview Marlene as she said, but even so I have to pity her if she has to come up against the Rivas--and despite my comments about Chandler I would defend her against these horrible people, who hate anyone they believe got close to Marlene. On their site they announced Norma Bosquet's death, and five minutes later were pulling her to pieces--and banning me, which was an honour! Regarding the Visitor's Book, there were no names there other than friends--well, Michael Jackson, who got as far as the inner door before being told by MD, "I do not talk to monkeys!"...I think she meant Bubbles! Only friends were ever allowed in there, and it was like getting into Fort Knox. I went there once when there was a relief concierge on the desk, and Marlene bawled down the phone to him that she had never heard of me--then called my hotel and asked me to go back later. She was paranoid about seeing strangers towards the end, largely because of the robbery. Best wishes, meanwhile: David Bret.

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  11. Could someone tell me what the deleted comment by "Marlene Dietrich" said? I missed it, and it appears, in fact, that "Marlene Dietrich" deleted it. By the way, David Bret, I have been pouring over your blog and have started reading your Joan Crawford bio. You are an incredibly entertaining writer (although that Hala Pickford character may disagree), and I can certainly understand why you've been such a prolific biographer. Miss Chandler on the other hand, not so much. She seems like a sweet lady, but much of her writing evokes that expression, "I'd rather watch paint dry." On to the subject of Michael Jackson, I wonder why he wanted an audience with Dietrich....

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    1. Perhaps, the same reason he did have one with Katherine Hepburn, who balked at having a photograph made with him. He was a collector of many things, including celebrities.

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    2. Indeed, I remember the rumor about MJ owning the Elephant Man's skeleton and then he sort of "collected" the Beatles' catalog. The celebrity-as-a-collector is a topic I should investigate further because Madonna was rumored to have purchased Marlene's Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet, and I could imagine her owning more MD possessions given her interest in MD and tendency toward collecting (Frida Kalo paintings, if I recall correctly).

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    3. The bracelet--which I saw. I'm not sure who made it, but the one she found in a suitcase was the one which formerly belonged to Damia. If you watch the youtube of her singing "Les Croix" you'll see it. I don't think it's the one you talk about, but Madonna did buy it after Marlene died. David Bret.

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  12. As for the review you linked, missladiva, I especially support the reviewer's recommendations (despite the misspelling of Steven Bach's name) but disagree that Riva and Schell's works provide a more balanced perspective. Riva's bio unexpectedly chronicles her own life, which intrigues me, while Schell's documentary serves to exemplify his directorial expertise, which I also find fascinating. Additionally, Riva and Schell devote much of their content to developing the image of Dietrich the Crone. I don't mean to imply that Riva and Schell construct simplistic portrayals of Dietrich. On the contrary, both cover Dietrich's life from a multitude of perspectives, but Dietrich's aging is the most pervasive theme in their works.

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  13. Sauli Miettinen04 June, 2011 15:12

    Although I'm just reading this book, haven't finished it yet, I somehow can't feel the real Dietrich's voice there. Personally I find it weird that MD, who hated talking about her private life, would reveal her secrets to Chandler. In 1977 she was working on her own memoirs and hardly would give a stranger a chance to tell more than she was ready to tell herself. And Yul Brynner had nothing to do with MD's life in late 70's, one of her conductors was Stan Freeman, not Stan Herman as Chandler claims and the Gigolo costume was designed by Mago (Max Goldstein) who also bought the gloves for it. Of course, it was made at Chanel but whether Mr. Lagerfeld had something to do with it, isn't really important - to mention his name and forgetting Mago's is an insult to the real disigner and a very dear friend of MD's.

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  14. I agree with you. Reading the Chandler bio was so dissatisfying that it renewed my interest in Riva, Bach, and Spoto's bios. I wouldn't dismiss it because some of the content is entertaining, especially the Joshua Sinclair interview, but for people who value truth, this bio is largely worthless. In fact, Chandler's bio perhaps represents biographical fiction rather than biography, and her works should be promoted as such. People who do find the inaccuracies bothersome should express themselves articulately as you have because I am not one to bear the banner of truth. Gossip and legends interest me as much as truth because they can truly shape people's perceptions. Many other reviewers of Chandler's bio have taken her testament faithfully and helped promote Dietrich to a wider group and perhaps a new generation. If those fans have any brains, they will realize how much make-believe is in the Chandler bio.

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  15. Lagerfeld a conçu une robe noire pour Marlene en 1971 quand elle s'est
    rendue au Palais de l'Elysée pour recevoir son grade d'officier de la Légion d'honneur. Bozon raconte que les essayages ont été houleux et que Lagerfeld a refusé plusieurs fois des commandes de Marlene.


    P.S. Un petit hommage par un journaliste qui a interviewé Marlene.
    http://www.lexpress.fr/informations/marlene-dietrich_643018.html

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  16. That homage speaks my language! Like Giannoli, I also accept factual errors (or omissions) and contradictions about Marlene's life in reverence of the Dietrich illusion. Dietrich's Francophile tendencies remind me of an old song by Dolly Parton called "When Someone Wants to Leave"--not so much the leaving aspect but rather the one-sided love situation.

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    1. Et, oui, comme l'a dit Oscar Wilde, la seule solution pour vivre un amour totalement partagé et réciproque, c'est de s'aimer soi-même !

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  17. I am just now reading Riva's biography about her mother.

    What a terrific read! Well written, and very funny.

    This is no "Mommie Dearest" (fortunately); a loving, realistic, heartbreaking, insightful book. Reading it makes me want to watch Dietrich films.

    One aspect of the book that I really liked was Riva's depiction of the costume designer Travis Banton and his working association with Marlene D.

    Riva mentions in her book that, while Dietrich was friendly with few other actresses, she and Mae West were close and shared many a practical joke on each other. Surprisingly, as Riva also points out, Mae West was never invited to Dietrich's home. Their friendship played itself out on the Paramount lot (their dressing rooms were beside each other).

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