11 May 2012

L'chaim, Higham!

Over the weekend, I read about Marlene Dietrich biographer Charles Higham's demise and two thoughts immediately came to mind. First, "Why did it take the papers two weeks to publish his obituary? They must have just realized he was 'somebody.'" Second, "Don't write about it! You've written enough death-posts this year!" After one of our readers, Paul, mentioned Higham, I changed my tune because I considered the possibility that some of you might be interested in discussing him.

Because it's been years since I've read any of his book, Marlene: The Life of Marlene Dietrich, I had to pull it from the stacks at my alma mater and re-read it. Funnily enough, I used to browse these shelves so often, I remembered that Dietrich-related books were shelf-listed in PN2658 and made a bee-line for it. To give you the gist of what I'm about to type, I determined the following: Higham's book--first published by Norton in 1977--was a sort of template for all the succeeding English-language Dietrich biographies, and Higham's book propagated many Dietrich legends.

Regarding the first point, Higham claimed that he interviewed 170 people, which resulted in a book brimming with quotes. Kirkus made reference to these citations in a less-than-favorable review, but this criticism didn't stop other biographers from adopting the trend. Maria Riva and Charlotte Chandler also used extensive quotations, as did Steven Bach and Donald Spoto to certain extent. Spoto possibly had less interview connections because he frequently quoted Dietrich's movies rather than her confidants. Maria had her apparently photographic memory. Indeed, I did observe an artlessness in how Higham strung together quotes, a la Chandler. Unless you'd like me to fall into a coma, please don't ask me to open that book again any time soon. Like Chandler, Higham claimed to have spoken to Dietrich herself, although I didn't note many direct quotes. Unlike Chandler, Higham captured Dietrich's wit.

To truly flesh out his text, Higham tossed out words from (or at least referred to interviews with) Dietrich's old school chums, a Berlin buddy named Gerda Huber, Josef von Sternberg, Lee Garmes, Tay Garnett, Fritz Lang, von Sternberg's ex Riza, Martin Kosleck, and many others. Before Higham, most English-language Dietrich bios merely glossed over her career, leaving her private life mostly private, no? I've got the Homer Dickens and Charles Silver books, which are worth more for their photos than their font. Admittedly, I've never read Leslie Frewin's book, which was apparently popular enough to get revised and reprinted, and I therefore cannot comment on its content. I have, however, rambled many times about Maria's book, which I regard as the pinnacle of quote-laden style. If the Hawes site is accurate, Maria's book garnered the most American success of any Dietrich bio (and rightfully so!), appearing 8 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. Even though Higham's book wasn't in the same league as Maria's, he does deserve credit for attempting to crack Dietrich's professional image, which perhaps drew public interest because Dietrich had withdrawn from the public eye a couple years before Higham's book hit the scene.

By mining the minds of so many people who knew Dietrich, Higham unearthed many myths. Conversely, Higham put under the magnifying glass a few legends that Dietrich herself promoted, exposing them as anecdotal costume jewelry. Let's start with Higham's hearsay: Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl lived in the same building (at the former address, Kaiserallee 54--now Bundesallee 54), Dietrich had her wisdom teeth removed to make her cheeks look sunken (which Higham heard from Anna Lee, who heard it from Nellie Manley), Dietrich nursed Mercedes de Acosta to health after the silly vampire accidentally poured cleaning fluid in her eyes, Dietrich's maid painted a crude message ("THERE IS !@#$ING IN THIS HOUSE") on Dietrich's Santa Monica home to draw attention to Dietrich's affair with Brian Aherne, Dietrich stripped Maria so that The Scarlet Empress icon designer Richard Kollorsz could appreciate the artistic merits of her daughter's figure, Greta Garbo spied on Dietrich and Jean Gabin in the house that Gabin was renting from Garbo to ensure that they weren't damaging anything, Lang caught Dietrich in his office taking photos of herself (ostensibly as test shots for the following day's work on Rancho Notorious), Cafe de Paris in London offered Dietrich the cabaret gig after Garbo rejected the prospect of having audience members sitting close enough to peer inside her nostrils, and Donald Neville-Willing took credit for having young men bring flowers to Dietrich during her show finales. As for the Dietrich tales that Higham dispelled, the most notable was that Dietrich was not Max Reinhardt's pupil and was in fact rejected from admission to his acting school.

Sometimes, Higham repeated others' inaccuracies. For example, he asserted that Dietrich appeared in The Joyless Street, which Silver and Dickens had already claimed. I've always wondered who was the first to start this rumor. I've got to say that in the Dickens book, The Films of Marlene Dietrich, the still printed as proof of Dietrich's involvement is rather compelling. Higham also told of how Kosleck and Dietrich's friendship ended, which I found hard to swallow. Dietrich thought Kosleck had stolen the portrait he had painted of her and given her, so Kosleck phoned Violla Rubber, the woman who had allegedly forged Dietrich's checks among other violations, to get the story straight--that Erich Maria Remarque had disliked the painting and had had it put in the Beverly Hills Hotel basement?

On some occasions, Higham told very personal Dietrich stories and bizarre tales of Dietrich's quirks that Maria eventually confirmed in her book. Was he the first English-language biographer to write about Tamara Matul and her mental deterioration? The first to reveal Dietrich's superstitious beliefs and patronage of the astrologer Carroll Richter? The first to break the news that Dietrich loved the sheepskin blankets in Australian hospitals?

You know I could carry on blabbing about this book, so I'll end the chatter here. Well, let me add a few more concluding comments. In Higham's own memoirs, In and Out of Hollywood, he elaborated on his relationship with Dietrich. He could have been Dietrich's lover had she not been so homophobic. After Tami's death, Dietrich went to Rudi's ranch, wrecked Tami's glass animal collection, and had her wig snatched by a chicken. For those of you who enjoy black comedy, you may laugh when you read that Dietrich hurled Higham's biography out her Paris apartment window, accidentally injuring a passerby.

Okay, I got carried away, so one more question, and then I'll continue this Higham discussion with the rest of you in the comments section. When will the manuscript for the abandoned Macmillan book, Tell Me, Oh, Tell Me Now, written by Dietrich and Hugh Curnow, see the full light of day?


  1. The Higham book was one of the first got my hands on about MD. It has that bizarre party of voyeurs watching people have sex at a party but it has the gorgeous picture of MD as Concha.

    What about Bernad Hall's manuscript?

    1. Oh, there I go again on a tangent, forgetting to address your question. What manuscript is this?

    2. Unfortunately there's no manuscript as such by Mr. Hall. I have read what is left of it and it was not much. And not informative at all. Parhaps there was more but it has disappeared. Though Mr. Hall appears in M. Schell documentary as quite sensible person, the truth is different. Actually his interview was made not in Paris but in Munich and without MD knowing about it. Naturally MD was furious after finding out about it. She felt she was betrayed by a friend - and not for the first time. But she forgave him and continued to pay some of his bills. But finally MD got enough and after 1987 or so they never met again. According to MD's notes on Mr. Hall and their mutual correspondence Mr. Hall wasn't capable of writing a serious book on MD. He sold strange stories to tabloids, instead. For instance that ridiculous story about MD having an affair with Romy Schneider. With best regards, Sauli Miettinen

    3. Hall divulged a lot to Steven Bach, too. Bach wrote that Dietrich called Hall a disgrace to the gay community after she had heard Hall's interview with Schell in the documentary. I can only imagine what she would have called Hall if she could have read Hall's claim that Dietrich tried to get him to bed Rudi. I know nothing about Hall's life, but Bach's portrayal and now your words remind me of my perhaps grossly inaccurate and patronizing perception of gay men who lived through the mid-20th century in terms of their financial and emotional instability. Unless they were a great talent like Noel Coward, they couldn't always secure a reliable means to support themselves. Then, they really only had their friends and lovers, whom they could hurt without warning like their biological families who had probably disowned them or at least had pushed them at an arm's length.

  2. Oh, I overlooked that story! There were so many quirky anecdotes in the book, I had a hard time deciding what to include in this post. Now that you mention a photo in the book, you remind me of an observation I forgot to add. Many of the photos were courtesy of a Max Kohlhaas (or maybe it was spelled Kohlhass?), who was apparently a serious Dietrich collector in Bonn, (then West) Germany. If I recall correctly, he is credited for supplying her old high school photo, in which she wears that pretty big bow. I wish Dietrich collectors were more visible and got more attention in documentaries, etc., because they are the ones who keep surprising us with new materials.

  3. Des admirateurs naïfs de Marlene lui envoyaient le livre de Higham pour qu'elle le leur dédicace... cela la mettait toujours en colère et le bouquin finissait à la poubelle... Elle n'envoyait aucune photo en compensation, comme elle le faisait quand une photo lui plaisait tellement qu'elle préférait la garder.

    Bozon dit que Hall a beaucoup aidé Marlene à rédiger ses Mémoires, mais que leurs rapports étaient très conflictuels. Ils se disputaient presque tous les soirs quand il venait collaborer. Jusqu'à ce que Marlene coupe les ponts pour de bon.