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10 August 2012

Dietrich At War.

Guest Blog by Poet Rehan Qayoom.

Marlene Dietrich’s reckless war service has never been put together and documented in one piece though several of her biographies describe the war years in some detail. [1] This is what the author hereby purports: as a tribute to the duty which she fulfilled “Duty to the school, duty to everybody, duty to the world to principles you stand for.” [2] He hopes the present will prove to be an averment of her being an ardent perfectionist and her strength of achievement.

Dietrich entertained over 12000 soldiers (on 20 March 1944) in Maryland – America with ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ and ‘Falling in Love Again.’ Causing them serious unease she played ‘Pagan Love Song’ on her musical saw and performed a telepathy act. She was also selling war bonds at the time.

On 2 April, Dietrich boarded a plane for the first time in her life to desultory Casablanca. She had 3 hours of sleep using her sequined evening dress wrapped in a knapsack as a pillow.

From Casablanca she moved to Rabat performing twice daily. Travelling in open jeeps she ate (regulation) tinned food which gave her a bad stomach because of the phenol it contained. ‘Whenever I went to entertain troops, there were frankfurters and sauerkraut, all over and always outdoors. Even when there was an indoors, we ate outdoors, often in the rain, with rain on the food and millions were perishing of starvation in Russia.’ [3]

Dietrich then took off to support the allied campaign in North Africa. Jean Gabin was there to greet her on arrival in Algiers on 11 April – They clutched and kissed in full public view. Colonel Dietrich gave her first performance at Algiers Opera House and even that wasn’t devoid of drama:
Danny Thomas is my friend. He can drum better on 2 dirty helmets than many can on
the best pair of pong drums. [4]
Danny Thomas announced on stage “Fellas! I’ve got bad news! We were expecting Marlene Dietrich but she went out for dinner with a General and hasn’t shown up …” Suddenly “No, no, I’m here! …” Dietrich fought her way to the stage pulling off her tie en route. Once on stage she casually began unbuttoning the khaki shirt of her New York tailored uniform before screaming soldiers (and removed her slippers) saying “I’m not with any General – I’m Here! I’ve just got to change into...” She was down to the last button and she said “Ooh! Sorry, boys, I’ll just be a second” as Danny Thomas and Lynn Mayberry hauled her off stage pushing her (down) behind a screen from which she transpired in no time in a sequined dress. She then proceeded to sing ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ and perform a mind reading act on a boy from the crowd “When a G.I. looks at me, it’s not hard to read his mind” she announced to her audience of 5000 with gusto. She was half way through 'Symphonie' when local power supplies failed. Then, she played the musical saw (repeatedly interrupted by air raid sirens during the whole do). To play the musical saw Dietrich had to sit on a stool, hike up her skirt and place the saw between her knees. Danny Thomas (whose real name was Amos Jacobs) remembered ‘Everyone got down on all fours to look up into paradise!’ Her audiences sometimes numbered up to 20000!

The following morning she visited a stopgap hospital, visiting each bedside and playing ‘Swanee River’, ‘Oh Susana’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’ on her musical saw. Louis Berg reported there not being a dry eye in the room.

A tour through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy followed where a brat begged a scarf off her to rent to G.I.s to put under their bunker pillows. One afternoon in Naples, Dietrich sent for Danny Thomas to her room. He recalls ‘I went in and there she was, stark naked, sunning herself on her balcony.’ [5]

On the eve of 15 May, Dietrich and troupe were lost nearby enemy territory when their jeep broke down in a grove: they could hear gunfire and it was a cold night.  Eventually a truck drove up and the troupe approached it. Dietrich heard their language and said in French ‘I’m Marlene Dietrich.’ The reply came ‘If you’re Marlene Dietrich.  I’m General Eisenhower.’ She proved her identity with a flashlight: with them was the actor Jean-pierre Aumont and Dietrich referred to an unusual odour rising from his uniform. He explained that he’d just had his first sleep in days, next to the corpse of a Senegalese soldier:
She was in fact being reshaped by circumstances and her own will for the new role
she was destined to play: the role of international entertainer. [6]
On 25 May whilst in Rome she sang ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ to hundreds of soldiers. Her boys provided light by beaming their flashlights at her: “If they don’t like my act, all they have to do is to turn off their flashlights. I felt as if I had passed the toughest test of my career”[7] she said.

Dietrich and troupe wheeled many of the injured (after allies broke into Rome on 4 June and the commencement of a baleful battle) to a large hall where she sang till it was dark. She recalled “It gave me the opportunity of kissing more soldiers than any woman in the world, no woman can please one man, this way, you can please many men!” [8] Now Dietrich was back in New York to attend the premier of her film Kismet. Asked whether the Reich was about to collapse, she replied ‘The Germany I knew is not there any more, I don’t think of it. I suppose if I did, I could never do these tours.’ [9]

On hospital visits she’d make beds for the wounded. Occasionally some wounded American allies would tell her of injured Germans in the same hospital. Passing boys would argue among themselves whether she was really Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich mused (in her 15 hour interview with Leo Lerman): “I’d go to these young, blank-faced, very young Nazis and they’d ask me with tears in their eyes ‘Are you the real Marlene Dietrich?’ All was forgotten and I’d sing ‘Lili Marlene’ to everyone. In that hospital. There was no greater moment in my life.”

There is a piece of newsreel showing Dietrich dancing a frenetic jitterbug with a G.I. and a photograph showing her signing her autograph in lipstick across a young soldier’s chest, right over his heart: ‘There’d be an argument and as the convoy would stop off I’d discreetly show a leg.  After that, they never seemed to have a doubt.’ Slinking around in a form-fitting gown without undergarments she had to abandon her cosmetics, talc and rouge. There were big black circles round her eyes, she’d light her fags with airplane metal.

Bunches of roses and laurels of scented bougainvillea blossoms were strung across her tent. She was accoladed with gin and tonics before her performances, she devoured cook-outs of steak and onion on campfire braziers, she’d milk cows for child refuges and the youngsters would take her autographs for their parents. In Greenland she returned to twice daily performances and played Schubert on the saw. Arriving in London in September, it was from here she made many propaganda broadcasts on the American broadcasting station in England. The program was called 'Marlene Sings to Her Homeland'. The programs were beamed all over Germany and she always dedicated her songs to allied soldiers. She said the British soldiers were “About to meet up with you boys and destroy the Reich.” In one particular program she suddenly lashed out with “Jungs! Opfert euch nicht! Der krieg ist doch scheiße, Hitler ist ein idiot!” [10] And as she began crooning ‘Lili Marlene’ she felt a sharp tug at her microphone and she was reminded that this was an English broadcast!

In the autumn Dietrich visited France, where in Nancy she suffered shaking chills for which she drank Calvados. As a result of drinking alcohol on an empty stomach she was constantly vomiting.

When returning to Belgium, the group was raided by crabs. They were told that the ladies would be permitted to bathe ‘In return for certain favours’ that is to say if the men were allowed to watch.  The ladies overcame their coyness on hearing of soap and water! At night rats with frozen feet would race across their faces!

In Aachen, she had to wash her face, hair and underwear in snow melted in her helmet.  Dietrich performed amidst the ruins of a theatre and with no heat the building felt like ice. The caretaker bought Marlene his thermos pouring out of a cup his choice coffee for her. Her entourage warned her not to drink it lest it be poisoned “No, they wouldn’t do that to me” she retorted and drank it. She thanked the bloke in her native language and asked him why he’d wanted to share something so precious when he knew she was on “The other side”? He replied “Yes, yes, but The Blue Angel – ah! I can forget what you are, but The Blue Angel? Never!” Once when her hotel was bombed the board began to panic in search of a bed for her. When Marlene heard of this she said “I’m just one of the boys, don’t give me any privileges.”  The atmosphere was later re-enacted for her 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution.

She was infected with lice in October and when the German General Sepp Dietrich put a price on her head when she was surrounded by his entire army she was adamant that she be given no star treatment ‘I’m just one of the boys’ she’d say.

General George Patton (commander of the Third Army) admired her for her guts and for her impeccable wildness. He sent her to entertain the front-line battalion presenting her a pearl-handled pistol. She slept with him on many occasions in Bastogne.

In Bari she contracted serious pneumonia, and when Alexander Fleming cured her with his antibiotic Penicillin, Dietrich, in turn, favoured him with a horoscope and a basketful of eggs for the rest of his life (until his death in 1955).

William Walton (a famed journalist in his day) had bought a hat in Paris for a lady in New York which Dietrich wore while sharing the same hotel with him and one evening while he was working with his door open Dietrich paused outside, went to her room and returned completely naked except for the hat which she wore at a neat angle and asked him “Don’t I look cute?[11]

In Ardennes, Dietrich suffered severe frostbite and influenza the effects of which remained with her lifelong resulting in her arthritis later in life. She continued her twice daily performances all through the final great German offensive on the western front in Southern Belgium. One of her numerous "War Stories" was when Field Marshal Gerd Von Bundstedt demanded that Bastogne surrender because they’d completely surrounded it. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe replied by saying “Nuts!” It took the translators 2 hours to explain its meaning to the Nazi General who still didn’t get what it implied though one cannot figure out how and why! [12] It was only when General Patton marched into Bastogne on 21 December that the Germans began to retreat after they were joined a week later by the First Army.

The next vacation was Stolberg where Dietrich was interviewed on 2 February 1945 and she said “I hate to see all these ruined buildings, but I guess Germany deserves everything that’s coming to her.” In April she visited Belsen and its concentration camp where she had to sift through corpses. Here she found her sister who was put on detention in an apartment block nearby and arranged some medical care for her.  In July she returned to New York for treatment of a jaw infection.  Later she lectured students at a G. I. University in Biarritz – France about her films.

[1] J David Riva, Dietrich's grandson, has also now edited an excellent book of retrospective articles written 
     by those who came into contact with her during the war years.  See A Woman At War: Marlene 
     Dietrich Remembered (Wayne State University Press: Painted Turtle Books, 2006).
[2] Copenhagen TV Interview, (1971).
[3] Pollock, Arthur.  'Theater Time', 1 June 1944.
[4] Dietrich, Marlene. Marlene Dietrich’s ABC. (1962).
[5] Thomas, Danny & Davidson, Bill.  Make Room For Danny.  (Putnam, 1991).  139.
[6] Walker, Alexander. Dietrich. (Harper & Row, 1984).  158.
[7] Berg, Louis.  'Dietrich Rides Again'.  This Week, 13 August 1944.  10.
[8] Frischauer, Willi.  'Dietrich, the body and the soul'.  Collier's, 14 May 1954.  27.
[9] Heimer, Mel.  'Dietrich "Home" Again'.  New York Journal-American, 26 August 1944.  2.
[10] Lerman, Leo.  'Welcome Marlene'.  Vogue, 15 August 1944.  154.
[11] Spoto, Donald.  Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich.  (1992).
[12] Riva, Maria.  Marlene Dietrich: By her Daughter.  (1992).


© Rehan Qayoom, 2000, 9 August 2012.

This article first appeared in Prose 1997 - 2008 (2009).  Rehan Qayoom is a poet, author and editor. Educated at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has featured in numerous magazines, periodicals and performed his work across the world. His books include Seeking Betjeman Country (2006), Prose 1997 - 2008 (2009), Parveen Shakir Adapted into EnglishAbout Time (2011) is a collection of his poetry in English.  He is the editor of the prose and poetry of Morney Wilson, published as Martyr Doll, Remains and The Recordings (2011) and Chiragh Jaltey Hen: The Unpublished Poetry of Obaidullah Aleem (2012). He lives in London surrounded by books.

5 comments:

  1. Rehan, you've given me several place names to add to the Mapping Marlene Dietrich project. As for your article, it reminds me that many Dietrich biographers could be more informative if they wrote in chronological order and with dates as you have. Even the great Steven Bach's book can at times be difficult to consult as a Dietrich resource because of his inconsistent use of dates. Just because Maximilian Schell successfully edited his documentary in a jumbled manner doesn't mean other Dietrich researchers ought to follow suit. In addition to your tidy arrangement of accounts, I also admire that you refrained from cloying narration. You made Marlene's courage obvious without beating it over our heads.

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  2. Wow! All of these appearances would be exhausting for a lesser mortal. What a remarkable performer.

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  3. Damn she certainly did her part to help out the war effort.

    Really wanted to stop by and say welcome to the LAMB. I saw you were the newest member and stopped by to check out your site and say hi. See you on the fourums. :-)

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  4. I see you're now a member of LAMB. Congrats from a fellow member of the flock!

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  5. Thanks for the welcome and congrats! I have been quite baaa-d for not posting anything lately, but I'm working on a little comparison between Marlene Dietrich's Dishonored and Greta Garbo's Mata Hari.

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