16 June 2012

Dietrich Apocrypha: David Bret's Marlene, My Friend

The beginning of a series on Marlene Dietrich biographies that have not joined Maria Riva and Steven Bach's books in the Dietrich canon.

David Bret the biographer gets a bad rap. Yes, his publications have perpetuated inaccuracies and detailed sexually explicit content. So what? Like us, many of his celebrity subjects have lied about themselves and committed crude acts. Although stars may be more revered than us, they are no less human. Likewise, Bret's status as an author doesn't predetermine our role as readers. We need not accept him as an authority simply because his words were packaged in codex form, and we can engage in his works however we please.

For some of you, this may involve debunking Bret, which is obviously your prerogative. Because debunking biographers involves knocking them off pedestals, I personally find little value in the practice. Like celebrities, biographers are mere mortals, and putting them down can't strip them of divine power that they never possessed. Instead, it can only hurt them, and this is what I observe when I read David Bret's reactions against his detractors. Don't you naysayers know that a rattlesnake only bites when it feels provoked? Perhaps some of you don't care about that consequence because you debunk Bret as if it were your crusade--your jihad--to honor your celebrity idol. Therein lies the problem. Despite your fervor, you can't demolish Bret to preserve your star's divinity because no person is godly. Dismiss my musings as speculation, but I'm convinced that what irks some of you about Bret is that he humanizes your sacred entertainment idols. Of course, I'm aware that many of you simply take issue with Bret's inept research and vulgarity. Well, I have news for you. After a tedious workday, a book of mindless trash is like a bowl of ice cream or a glass of wine, and we aren't all stupid enough to believe everything we read. If you're concerned about those who are that daft, I'd contend that you may as well help them submit their election ballots and tax returns.

Throughout Marlene, My Friend, the author Bret and his subject Dietrich's human flaws fill the pages, but Bret occasionally chronicles Dietrich's life and his rapport with her quite stylishly. The repetition of Dietrich's last call to Bret at the beginning of the preface and near the end of the final chapter before the epilogue resembles a classic French poetic form called the rondel--appropriate amidst Bret and Dietrich's discussions about French music. For those of you who find Bret's friendship with Dietrich unlikely, I must write in Bret's defense that he did indeed write the liner notes of The Essential Marlene Dietrich, apparently the final music compilation that Dietrich herself helped produce, which at least corroborates the possibility that the two were chummy. Again, I'm not interested in debunking Bret, and I suspend both belief and disbelief when I read Bret's biography, just as I do when I read Charlotte Chandler's and even Maria Riva's. Like Riva and unlike Chandler, Bret at least captures Dietrich's acerbic wit and temper.

To Bret's credit, he also emphasizes an aspect of Dietrich that no other Anglophone biographers have adequately covered--her music. In Bret's appendices, a lengthy alphabetized song list gives fans a means of navigating through Dietrich's music output, and I'd be interested to know whether any of you have vetted it against the discographies in Bach's biography or Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories. Throughout his discussion of Dietrich's music, Bret adds his critiques--much to my delight. In doing so, he injects his own personality into his book, predating the democratic commentary now ubiquitous in blogs. Bach does the same in his book but primarily sticks to what he studied in college--film. Bret tops that by telling us what he thinks about Dietrich's movies and her music, even sharing Dietrich's harsh self-assessments. To repeat what I've said before, we the readers can decide whether we believe this voice to be Dietrich's, but Bret's personal views and insights stand on their own.

For me, what makes Bret's book worth reading are his references to various chanteuses with whom I'm rather unfamiliar. Of course, I know a bit about Bret's beloved Edith Piaf, but Bret's scope extends far beyond the woman whom Maria Riva has dubbed a "guttersnipe." You'll read about Dalida's suicide, the acrimony between Dietrich and Mistinguett (in this photo of their meeting, Dietrich looks icier than usual, and Mistinguett looks uncomfortable), a French singer with a penchant for miming (which means "lip-syncing" here, my fellow Americans) whose concert Dietrich saw on T.V. (Mylène Farmer, whom I adore?), Damia's influence on Dietrich (particularly her song "Assez"--which I consider quite plausible, but thankfully without the trill), etc. Bret also elaborates on Dietrich's relationship with Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski, which was all but glossed over by Bach. Did Maria even mention him? If you've read Bret's book, please add anything else not found in other biographies that his book offers.

Shockingly to those of you who have read Bret's more recent biographies, Bret dispels some lesbian rumors, such as Dietrich's romances with Mercedes de Acosta and Jo Carstairs. In fact, Bret divulges hardly any wanton gossip--just a story from an unnamed source about Dietrich failing to ply her trade on a London street. Was Bret the first to publish this rumor? I've read it before just as Bret has written it, and it's hardly scandalous. If you enjoy sleaze, you'll have to settle for Peter Kreuder's unwitting performance for Dietrich in a sex show, apparently already revealed in Kreuder's own memoirs. Somewhat related to the lesbianism mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, Bret expresses his surprise to learn that Dietrich is "anti-gay" after hearing some lyrics she's improvised over a track, which reminds me of Higham's claim that Dietrich was homophobic. Could this be my Queer Blogathon topic?

Where does Bret go wrong? Well, if we cast aside the obvious--the lack of organized bibliographic references--he gets some minute facts wrong, such as Dietrich's birth year (which isn't 1900) and Maximilian Schell's nationality (which isn't German), but that's no reason to avoid the book. Readers interested in learning more about a subject should know that they must triangulate--read, watch, and listen to an array of resources--to determine what's true or most likely. For example, you'll realize when you watch Shanghai Express that--contrary to Bret's synopsis--Anna May Wong did not play Dietrich's maid; however, we must remember that biographers then probably lacked the same easy access to Dietrich's movies that we enjoy now. Dear Leslie Frewin, who wrote the first English-language Dietrich biography in the 1950s and then revised it in the 1960s, botched more details about Dietrich's movies than any other Anglophone biographer, even giving Blonde Venus co-star Dickie Moore a sex change! Before the advent of home video, the poor man may have only had the chance to watch old film reels once or twice.

As far as I know, David Bret's book has been translated into two other languages (German and Russian) yet was never released in the United States, which eludes me given the availability of Bret's other biographies. I'd rather read this than Chandler or Spoto's books. Aside from your opinions about the book (and please share your opinions about the book, not David Bret), I'd like to know its original release date and maybe some published reviews of it. I hope Bret himself comments on his book because I notice that his comments in it about Maria and Peter Riva are not at all disparaging as they are in his current blogs. According to Bret, Peter Riva called him about Dietrich's passing, which makes me wonder when Bret's relationship with the Rivas went sour. It seems his more abrasive blog entries about the two have disappeared, but I recall a hilarious portmanteau of sorts--"Maria Rivachefolle." You'll just have to settle for his recent comment about Dietrich loving Maria but not liking her.


  1. Pretty great post you've written here. I've read Bret's biography of Crawford and honestly, didn't care for it at all (except for the sexier/smuttier parts, which says more about me than the author!)and I've heard and read some SERIOUS hate for him on the various online Joanie forums, but on the other hand...dude's writing (and publishing!)books about his beloved classic Film Goddesses, so more power to him.
    I have some issues with the veracity of his writing and research (some of his facts seem like pure artistic/imaginative license)but hey, at least he's out there, writing his heart out and (I'm guessing) enjoying every minute of it--likr the rest of us!

    1. Rob, I play a fun game with the Google preview of that Joan Crawford bio. I search for whatever obscenity comes to mind and then have a hearty laugh as I read the results. Try it! As for the pearl-clutching fans, they need to lighten up. They act as if Bret's exhuming these stars and raping their remains when he's merely writing books that aren't to their taste.

  2. Terry Sanderson16 June, 2012 22:22

    I have known David Bret for more than twenty five years and confirm his relationship with Dietrich. I heard some of the tapes that David made of the phone calls with Marlene, and occasionally he would call me after one of these conversations to tell me about it - almost as if he needed counselling, so traumatic had the exchange been.

    I knew about this as Dietrich reached the end of her life. When the Sunday Times broke the news that Maria was going to publish her biography of her mother (contrary to a promise she had made to Marlene not to do so until after her death), I told David, who relayed the news to Marlene. He said that she dropped the phone in shock and horror.

    As it happened, Marlene was dead before the book came out.

    1. Terry, I saw your name in Bret's book and desperately want to read an article of yours that he mentions--"The Gay Man's Apparent Need for Goddesses as Icons."

      As for Maria's book, I've read news from January 1992 about Dietrich's reaction to its impending release (she was "furious and confounded") but still haven't determined whether the press was just stirring the pot or whether a date had been set for when Maria's book would hit the shelves. If Maria's book had been released during Dietrich's lifetime, it would have been a broken promise indeed, but also a means of providing a counterpoint to Steven Bach's book--unless he was awaiting Dietrich's death, too. Appropriately, Caryn James of the The New York Times pitted the two biographers against each other. By the way, was Peter Maria's literary agent for her bio?

    2. A hypothetical I almost forgot to add--Maria's book probably would have been released sooner after Dietrich's death had Simon & Schuster not chickened out.

  3. I tried to reply here, but it won't post a lengthy response. Please go to my Blog!

    much as some fat people, but largely honest!

    David Bret's Blog: Marlene Dietrich: The Last Goddess

    The trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies of a biographer and his wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful world!

  4. PS don't know where the 'fat people' quote came from--it just popped up!

  5. David, thanks for directing me to your blog, but all I saw was my post in a sort of funhouse mirror! haha