21 July 2012

Thom Nickels' "Daddy, Buy Me That" (Pt. 1)

For a blog entry, this is a long read, which is why I'm dividing it into 2 parts. When I first read about Marlene Dietrich's friend John Banks and sought information about him, I learned that a writer named Thom Nickels had published his interview with Banks in 2003. Unfortunately, it was no longer available online, which led to me emailing Nickels to obtain the text. Nickels kindly sent me what was far more than a brief interview. In fact, it's quite a substantial piece called "Daddy, Buy Me That," which I hope will be enlighten those of you who are casual Dietrich admirers and corroborate the beliefs of those of you who are hardcore Marlenephiles. I have made some minor edits (e.g., formatting, punctuation, some names, spelling, and occasional bracketed notes) and added photos, but what you'll read below is almost exactly what appears on Nickels' typed manuscript. As for whether Banks makes any inaccurate statements, I will leave that for you to highlight in the comments section because I'm far more impressed by Banks' extensive knowledge of Marlene.

Because I tend to devour as much as I can when I find writers who interest me, I'll add that I've read the Kindle edition of Nickels' Walking on Water & After All This. I suppose that the two novellas fit within the genre term "speculative fiction," but both are also imbued with humor and cultural references, which is why I intend to read more of Nickels' work. Now, for what you're here to read!

Daddy, Buy Me That!

by Thom Nickels

In Montreal's last remaining Anglo gay bar, La Mystique, the bartender, John Banks, talks with the customers.

The talk is rarely about Marlene Dietrich, if only because John says everyone he knows is sick of hearing about her. The fact is, they've heard it all. How she talked. That her favorite food was hamburger. That when she had people over she'd crave odd foods in the middle of drinks and offer to make ice cream sundaes. That she lived to be 91 years old and spent the last 14 years of her life, like Garbo, in solitude.

Banks knows so much about Marlene Dietrich because for 12 years he worked as her personal assistant both in the United States and Europe.

Dietrich, the icon--the gay icon, as Banks insists--has given the world more than 34 films, including The Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, The Devil Is a Woman, and The Garden of Allah. Discovered by director Josef von Sternberg in 1929, she came to Hollywood in 1930. A well-educated woman who played the violin and piano and spoke several languages, Banks says she was definitely "not the Hollywood movie star but the kind of well-rounded figure we don't see today."

So it's plenty good, yes, to be shaking the hand that once comforted the great legend in various hotel rooms around the world.

In his home, some 15 minutes by cab from La Mystique, the 60-something Banks opens a bottle of wine. By now I'm fully aware that the precise quality of his speaking voice is matched by a manner that is as unambiguous as his opinions. With us is Edward, a little man from Toronto who attached himself to us in a bar the minute he heard us talking about Dietrich. Inviting him to come along, in  Montreal terms, was easy, since strangers easily become friends here.

Meeting Marlene

Banks, a native of Montreal, was 15 when he met a woman who worked for a Montreal German newspaper. He'd been a self-described Dietrich freak since he was 12, so he was excited when his friend told him that she knew Dietrich in the '20s and that he was welcome to attend Dietrich's press conference before her 1960 run of concerts in Montreal's Her Majesty Theatre. Banks says he bought tickets to every one of her shows.

"I saw Dietrich and I was in seventh heaven. My idol was there," he remembers. Then came opening night. He brought three record albums for Marlene to sign. Then he asked his German friend if they could go backstage. She said okay.

He stood in line, nervous as a clam, and when it was his turn he presented the records to Marlene. She autographed the first, Dietrich in Rio, and signed the record. The third record caught her eye. "Oh, no," she told him, "I'm not going to sign that, it's a terrible record. It's old, it's taken from the movies. It's taken from various recording from the forties and it's not good."

"Well, that's fine for you to say because you were around for those songs," Banks said, getting a little snotty, "but I wasn't. It's very nice that Burt Bacharach has done all those new arrangements for you but it's fun for me to listen to something from the 30s and 40s. That sound is different. The orchestra is different. And you were around but I wasn't. I'm much too young." [Joseph's note: What was this record? M.D. Live perhaps?]

Dietrich admired the boy's bravado. "Can you stay here a minute?" she asked. Later, she invited him to "come with us."

"This was my first time in Montreal's Ritz Carlton and I was on cloud nine. I had also brought a dozen yellow roses because I had read somewhere that she liked yellow roses. I put one in my buttonhole and threw the rest of them at her after the show. The next day I was there again and she spotted me in the middle of the audience, and I threw the roses again. When she ended the curtain call she made a little motion with her head and I thought, 'I think she wants me to go backstage,' but I wasn't sure. When I arrived backstage I was received like a long lost son, and had another great night with her."

The next day Banks caught the matinee and then went downstairs for dinner before heading back to the theatre for the evening show. That's when somebody came up to him and said, "Miss Dietrich's been waiting for you." He went backstage and she said, "So where were you? I saw you were there. You didn't come to see me after the show." When he told her that he had gone out to eat, she said, "Well, you should have come here . . . we ate here . . . we had a nice time."

Her suggestion that he wait until her act was over before throwing the roses onstage offered no hints as to what was to come: at the evening concert Dietrich dedicated the song "Johnny" to him. "At that point I was putty in her hands. I would have died for her right then and there," he says.

They corresponded for months after that , and then one day she told him that she was coming to Vancouver and she'd like it if he'd be there.

"I don't know if she had a sense of how big Canada was, but I made it to Vancouver," he remembers.

In Vancouver, she wanted to know if he'd do the cues during the show and John, not thinking twice, said yes. After that there was no turning back.


The film, Shanghai Express, with the sound turned down, plays on Banks' VCR as Edward comments that it's fun to be witnessing an interview. He says that despite jibes from Banks like, "What's Marlene to you besides a poster in a gay bar?" Dietrich onscreen seems far away but very much alive. Only the living know that her tombstone is constantly knocked over or pelted with shit by neo-Nazis. "She's not liked in Germany to this day. She's considered a traitor. I think it's really neat that she's been dead for a couple years and she's still topical and giving it to the Nazis. Even in death she bothers the shit out of them," Banks says, pouring another drink.

Banks is good with autobiographical details: how Marlene left Germany in 1930 and refused to return as long as Hitler was in command. And how, when she arrived in Hollywood, as a nearly plump brunette, she said it was an honor being compared to Garbo (Garbo, rather than return the compliment, said, "Who?" when asked what she thought of Dietrich). Years later, when Dietrich was playing with her grandchildren in Central Park, Garbo happened to walk by and talked to the kids until she realized who their nanny was. At that point she walked away.

This meeting, Banks says, was the only time the two legends ever met.

"Marlene was known to be a bitch," he says, "a real bitch. But you can see why because she knew her business. Her show was so set that I swear that there was not a finger that was differently placed each night. But that was her training. When she let go, it was during the curtain calls . . . "

"She was part of the European style of singers where spontaneity is not a part of it--it's the perfection, the gilded lily. She presented onstage a live version of what she presented onscreen."

At the same time, Banks thinks that Americans are wrong when they insist she has no voice. "Americans do not have the European ear for what a voice is supposed to be. A voice is not supposed to sound lovely; a voice is supposed to give you something and tell a story."

The Best Whore Ever

After Vancouver, Banks was invited to accompany Dietrich to Milwaukee. After the concerts, Dietrich flew him home to Montreal where he'd work as a bartender until the next engagement. In between concerts he was always on his own, though separations were always punctuated with letters and phone calls in which Marlene would tell him how much she missed him.

"After the shows there was always somebody willing to take Marlene Dietrich out. But enough is enough. After you've done the mayor of a city, what else is there? So we'd go to a hotel and those were my best times with her." Banks continues, "These were the times when we'd drink a little too much champagne and scotch, and I'd try to get her to talk about the movies."

Which was very hard to do. Often, Banks says he had to make do with talking about technicalities, like asking her what she thought of a director she'd worked under.

He recalls a concert in Ottawa when they both had the flu. "We were in the toilet--it was coming out one end or the other constantly. And the orchestra conductor, who was French, said, 'Oh, you must have Pernod. It will settle your stomach.' So we had little glasses of Pernod, and it wasn't for the stomach anymore. Those were fun drinks."

If the Pernod did anything, it got Dietrich to talk about the movies. But it still wasn't easy. One film Banks says she never wanted to talk about was The Blue Angel.

"It was the film she had the least to do with, finally. Nobody wanted her for the role except Sternberg. And she didn't like the role she was playing. She thought she was a kind of tart of all tarts, which of course she was--and it might not be a good reflection on her. Shirley MacLaine said at one point that she was 'the' Hollywood prostitute, but I think Marlene was. MacLaine was always a dumb whore. Marlene was always a whore who knew what she did with her body. She used her intelligence."

Banks likes to think of that film as opening up the world to a lot of women. "Because she plays a nightclub singer who behaves like a man, in that she chooses the guy she wants to go to bed with. She goes to bed with them, and has no regrets, which is why gays can have her as a gay icon. She's totally amoral."

Morocco is a film that Banks comes back to again and again. "To this day, whenever I see it, I go crazy. In that film, she's independent, she meets Gary Cooper, and then there's the lesbian bar scene, which is kind of fun."

Marlene never hid her bisexuality. Even in her early stage acts she'd walk onstage in feathers and a dress and in less than a minute or so she'd walk off and enter the stage from the other end dressed as a man. "The lights would go out and she'd be sitting astride a chair, cigarette in hand. She did this fast although there was no Velcro in those days," Banks says.

He mentions that she would pick people of a crowd and say, "Look, isn't that beautiful!" A boy or a girl, it didn't matter . . . I don't think she would do anything about it, but if circumstances had been otherwise . . . if this were somebody who came into her orbit, she would have stepped in . . . ."

There was, he says, a probably love affair between Dietrich and Edith Piaf. "Marlene talked about Edith Piaf like a doctor talked about someone who died. Marlene's daughter Maria, in her book on Marlene, says that they had an affair. I'm not sure. Marlene never talked about it, Marlene loved Piaf very much and took her under her wing. She presented her in New York and just did everything for her. She adored Edith Piaf. The drugs are what Marlene couldn't face. Marlene couldn't understand how somebody with all that talent, with all those street smarts--she admired street smarts--could just let drugs take over. And booze--that went beyond her. . . .

"Dietrich had a soft spot for Mercedes de Acosta, and once sent her one of her own silk stockings. De Acosta wrote in her memoirs about her affair with Garbo and her friendship with Dietrich. She wrote about how Marlene was bewitched by her in a way. Maria wrote in her book that Marlene had an affair with Mercedes. But I met Mercedes. Unfortunately, she was a little old lady with crutches at the time--she was a little, withered thing--but Marlene was terribly fond of her still. She covered her with kisses and everything else. We talked a lot about Mercedes because her book had just come out--this was 1965, I guess--and Marlene liked the book. She said, 'Finally, there's a book about a woman who was born in the upper crust and who wrote about her rich life rather than somebody who comes from the downside and writes about going up.' I think that had it been an affair that ended badly or had the book not been right, Marlene would have had a grudge against her."

Banks recalls a beautiful woman violinist who played one of Marlene's orchestras. "Marlene and the girl were very close. But for some reason the girl wouldn't wear black like the other musicians. Maybe she thought she didn't look good in black. Anyway, Marlene told her, 'We'll go out and shop together. We'll find somebody to make you a dress that is flattering to you--you have such a beautiful body. I can't have somebody behind me who is not in black.'"

Banks thinks that Maria's book is unforgivable. "Marlene was Maria's mother to the end, but Maria's book is mostly skewed. It's not straight on. And Maria is a very intelligent person--we're not talking about a dummy here. She said that when she wrote the book, she wasn't doing a Christina Crawford or a B.D. Davis [sic] [recte Hyman] thing, but she did not write about the Marlene that I knew totally."

He disputes Maria's contention that Marlene never had an affair with Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Then there are Maria's allegations that Marlene slept with 3/4 of Hollywood and that she did just about every soldier she met on the Front during WWII.

"Marlene had casual affairs, but all those years I was with her, all those old lovers came back, and they still seemed to like her very much." But Banks believes there had to be a personal connection before Marlene went to bed with someone.

He says she had affairs with Generals Patton and Gavin but that she did not like Eisenhower because he was not at the Front. He mentions actors Fred MacMurray and says that Marlene wanted to have an affair with him, but MacMurray "was scared shitless of her."

"After all," he said, "he was a nice brought-up guy, probably religious, and here comes this wanton woman ready to do it. . . ."

Through it all, Dietrich avoided scandal because she was so open. "She came from a nice, upright family and slithered her way down into the theater and cinema, which was not upper class anymore. We all know what Berlin was like in the 1920s. And that's what she was. She arrived in Hollywood like that, and she didn't attempt to hide it."

Chevalier, Dietrich, & Cooper at The Sign of the Cross premiere
Banks cites her affair with Maurice Chevalier. "She is one of the few women that Chevalier actually got loose enough in his wallet to give important jewelry to. She was seeing Cooper the same time she was seeing Chevalier and appeared at the premiere for Sign of the Cross on the arms of both men dressed as a man."

"I mean, what can you say about a woman who does that publicly? When all the whispers were saying that she was having an affair with both of them, rather than cover it, she went out in public with both of them. It was the same thing in the '50s when Confidential magazine did an expose about her being a lesbian. The 'scandal' went nowhere because of her openness. . . ."

Banks has problems with Maria's assertion that John Wayne didn't want to be one of Marlene's lovers because he didn't want to be part of a stable.

"The story I got from Miss D herself is that when she went to Universal Studios and saw John Wayne for the first time, she said to her director, 'Oh, Daddy, buy me that!'" Dietrich was a big star then, Banks says, and Wayne was not. In fact, he was under a low-paying seven-year contract. Since Dietrich could name her co-star in future films, she named Wayne as her pick for Pittsburgh.

 "Wayne's star was rising, but he was making the same salary. Dietrich suggested that he disappear in the desert and not come back until he was asked to. So everything went ahead for the movie. She asked for Wayne and she got an okay, but Wayne, who was in the desert, wasn't available. Eventually John Wayne's agents told them, 'No, you have to redo a new contract with a higher salary.' That's how John Wayne got a new contract and a higher salary and became a star."

Years later, when Wayne became right wing, Banks says that Miss Dietrich didn't care for him at all.

Banks faults America for having a short memory. "In Europe, Marlene is one of the great basics of cinema, and she often supersedes Garbo in fact because her career was more interesting."

"There are so many things people don't know about her. She and Billy Wilder and several other German people in the late '30s created a fund to help get Jews and dissidents out of Germany. When she did Knight Without Armour in England in 1937, her salary, which was $450,000, was put into escrow just to get Jews out of Germany. She went totally broke during the war."

Banks recalls Dietrich's husband, Rudolf Sieber. "What had been described to me as a suave and sophisticated Czechoslovakian matinee idol ended up being a rather short, somewhat aged gentleman." Sieber was not only charming, says Banks, he was also one of the few people he knew who wouldn't take any guff from her at all.

"When Marlene would get on one of her flights of being a star, he'd cut her down to size. He caught me treating her like a star a couple times and said, 'You do that?!' as if he were saying, 'We don't let her get away with anything.'"

But stars often got away with a lot.

Marlene told Banks about her Paramount Studios days when the leading actresses of the day "behaved like a bunch of kids." In the '30s, for instance, Paramount Studios made a portable room for Claudette Colbert for a film of hers that was coming out soon. Paramount touted the dressing room in a series of film shorts. Marlene, offended that Paramount had not offered her similar privileges, called Adolf Zucker and was told to meet him the following day in the commissary. "Well," says Banks, "when Marlene showed up, there were four other big female stars at Paramount all wanting to know why only Colbert got the portable dressing room."

To Marlene, behavior like this was just playing. "She liked Claudette Colbert, it was just that she wanted one, too," he says.

Marlene Dietrich & the Rolls Royce in Morocco
Playing like children took all forms. "Take that car she used in the film Morocco. Paramount gave her that car . . . it was the first sports Rolls Royce ever in America. But after Paramount gave her that car, she got a call from the studio saying that they needed a car just like hers for a movie they were making and could they please rent the car. Marlene said, 'Well, you know I need the car to go to work in the morning and to come home at night,' and they said, 'Fine, the car will pick you up and drop you at the studio and then we'll use the car during the day and then the car will pick you up at night.' So the studio car that they'd given her she wound up renting back to them at $1,000 a day. And the film was her film, Morocco.

That's the end of the first part. In the second part, you'll read about the "turbulent" '60s, thalidomide babies, the distinction between being a bitch and a perfectionist, and much more. Read it here!


  1. Great read,but will resrve judgement.Paul

    1. Paul, you're free to write whatever comes to mind. If it weren't for you and the comments you've contributed here, there's a lot I wouldn't know or wouldn't ever have considered. This goes to everyone else, too!

  2. A few minor surprises, but nothing really big...and that's not meant as a putdown of Banks by any means (his recollections are fascinating). It's simply that the Dietrich I've come to know through a variety of books, magazine stories, etc., was full of wonder, a woman both very much of her time and ahead of it -- one of the many reasons we love her. I'm sorry I never had the chance to meet her.

  3. Great find. Thanks for bringing it to us.

  4. Loved this thanks for the post!!!

  5. OK,the only reservations I have about this is that it is so banal,same old not very revealing stuff,and from someone who knew her for over 10 years.Michael Brown managed to write a whole book,admittedly rather slim,after knowing her in a superficial way for three days only!I did find it interesting to read about Maria opening a bottle for Marlene,and Mr Banks deciding he'd had enough.This weekend we had a first Gay Pride do in my sleepy little town and forgot all about it,wanted to see if any Marlene wannabee's were on parade.I am looking forward to part 2.Yesterday a Google alert informed me that Marilyn had admitted an affair with Marlene and other older women,news to me,but not surprised at all.Paul

  6. You can find that MM+MD article at Mailonline(Saturdays)edition,by Michael Thornton who has written rubbish about Marlene before.By the way I just did an image search on Angie Dickenson,and saw lot's of pics of her wearing very familiar military style caps,and at what appeared to be the Oscars a familiar looking "nude"dress.I wonder what or who inspired these looks.Paul

  7. Off topic but I just found out about a Canadian called Hugh Pickett who represened Marlene,also a clip of him,and a nice picture of him with Marlene on You Tube.Paul

  8. I have my own off-topic bit, too! I've been reading Don't Look Back, the memoir of NYC publishing editor Patrick O'Connor (not the same guy who authored Dietrich: Style and Substance).

    In the memoir, there's a chapter/vignette about Marlene called "The Contraption" (a hat tip to Louise Brooks), which is HILARIOUS. In fact, the entire book cracks me up, undoubtedly to the disdain of my fellow commuters. I haven't done any research to confirm what it professes; nevertheless, here's a summary:

    Patrick became a secretary for Robert "Bobby" Sanford, who was apparently Dietrich's agent when she was doing Cafe Istanbul. At the time, Patrick was known by his birth name--Robert--so when a woman called the office on Patrick's first day of work looking for Bobby, Patrick blithely took the call, which became an explicit monologue about the woman's sexual escapades with Yul Brynner. Naturally, Patrick realized that he was listening to Marlene, who had mistaken him for his boss. When Patrick informed Dietrich of the mix-up, she did what we've come to expect in any story about a M.D. phone call--she abruptly hung up.

    After Patrick told his boss about the faux pas (on Patrick or M.D.'s part? You decide), Bobby decided Patrick would go by his middle name, which is, as you may have guessed, Patrick. So far, I've avoided quoting any of the text, but I can't help but do so now. Bobby told Patrick before leaving for a 4th of July holiday, "You're going to have to service the Kraut over the weekend." After further explanation, it becomes clear that Bobby merely meant that Patrick would have to be Dietrich's lackey for the day when she was taping her radio show.

    That day, Patrick picked her up at her Park Ave. apt., held her boa-like accessory which he dubbed "the thing" (a term you all must know) while she recorded her show, fetched her a pastrami sandwich, and escorted her to a club called 1,2,3, where Dietrich learned about Patrick's abject living conditions, which Marlene later alleviated by buying him furniture.

    Then, Patrick rattles off some well-known tales, e.g., Dietrich dressing like a nanny while taking Maria's sons to the park, but gives us one quirky detail at the end of the chapter--that Hemingway had sent Dietrich the 1st galley of The Old Man and the Sea via Bobby's office, which Patrick read before delivering to her. The omniscient Marlene knew of Patrick's sin and slammed the door on him after receiving the galley but later called him at his apt. to ask his opinion of it.

    If any of you happen to know of a radio program called Lee Ryan's (only in) New York, Patrick may have told this story on it, and I want to hear it!

  9. "Dietrich had a soft spot for Mercedes de Acosta, and once sent her one of her own silk stockings."

    Was this a frequent practice of Marlene's? I'm certain many of her lovers would have cherished a Dietrich stocking as a souvenir of their intimate moment, and even friends who never bedded her would have appreciated an item associated with her famous legs. And not to sound mercenary, but one would think an actual Marlene stocking, with provenance, would have considerable value. (Rex Reed supposedly requested a stocking from every actress he ever interviewed; perhaps Marlene supplied the inspiration.)

    1. Rexypoo must have been trying to method act for his part in Myra Breckinbridge. To the best of my knowledge, Rex interviewed Marlene at least twice (missladiva once posted a link to the so-called 1967 "Queen of Ajax" interview), so maybe he made 2 requests!

      I'd have to skim through Maria's book to see whether Marlene regularly sent these kinds of fetish care packages, but I would like to point out a silly stocking-related 1943 Sheilah Graham column I found in The Miami News about Dietrich hoarding stockings in a safe deposit box (wartime rationing?) and wearing diamond garters.