PART ONE: "PLEASE MAKE MR VON STERNBERG DO IT"
Her contract with Paramount is finished in February. Will she re-sign? Will she make pictures with other directors than Von Sternberg? Will she remain in this country or return to Europe as has been rumoured? That Maurice Chevalier gossip? What was behind the seeming unfriendliness between herself and Von Sternberg?
What was ll that fuss about the kidnapping of her daughter? Was this just another publicity racket?
Literally hundreds of curious, anxious questions.
Marlene has not granted an interview for seven months.
She has remained isolated behind her forbidden guard of nine detectives. Yes, I said NINE. Neither Marlene nor her daughter has moved without the protection of armed guards for many, many weeks. She had added what threatened to be an indefinite silence to her well-managed defense.
But now she has broken that silence. "It is right that the American people who have been kind enough to see my pictures should know and understand. It is right that I, myself, should tell them."
She paced the floor of her simple, yet luxurious dressing room suite while she was talking. Dressed in a white flannel suit with perfectly tailored trousers, coat, shirt and tie (the extra-wide brim of her white hat was the only concession to femininity), she paced the floor with rapid, well -balanced and concretely graceful strides. She smoked one cigarette from another. She was nervous. Breaking a protective silence is not easy for a woman as intelligent and, at the same time, as sensitive as Marlene Dietrich.
I tried to find proper words to describe her even as I sat watching her, but it was difficult. Dressed like a man, she was so obviously a high-strung woman. Her nervousness, her great grace, her rapid, high-tensioned speech made her so supremely feminine that one forgot the trousers.
She was curious about all that had been said about her. She had me repeat the rumours. When I hesitated at something which seemed to me too cruel, too absurd, she urged me on. She laughed merrily as the gossip mounted. When I had finished, she sobered.
"I didn't see anyone for more than half a year. I am stepping out from that silence because I wanted to tell the truth.
"Both of our contracts are up after the next picture. I will not remain in Hollywood. I am sure. I will go to Paris and Berlin and London and sing. I have some stage offers. Mr Von Sternberg is tired of pictures. He wants to go to Japan. And I will never make pictures in America with anyone but Mr von Sternberg."
Although Marlene did not know it, she was merely verifying what Josef Von Sternberg, himself, had told me when those two were at war with Paramount over the making of "Blonde Venus".
"I am going to retire. I had just so many stories in me. I wouldn't be surprised if I have to make 'Blonde Venus' and one more (the terms of his contract -- also Marlene's) and then never make another."
Hollywood cannot, of course, understand such an arrangement. A star of Marlene Dietrich's potentialities to retire from the screen because she will only allow one man to direct her! A woman who would reject all that money!
I wonder if America can understand her. Marlene Dietrich is so all-inclusively European. And despite the efficiency of communication in this modern era -- Europe is still Europe and America still America. Marlene's viewpoint is wholly theirs. One must bridge the Atlantic to even begin to understand her.
She tried to make me see it.
"My contract could have gone longer.I wanted to be free when he was free. I, myself, don't like making pictures. I can live without making them. I am not a movie actress.
"I haven't got to act to be happy. I can be quite happy without acting. I know so many actresses with that terrible desire to act. They cannot be happy unless the desire comes out of them in acting.
"I don't have it at all. I have other duties.
"And money. Money doesn't mean a thing to me."
I asked her if this wasn't because her family has money. She shrugged. and a shrug from Marlene Dietrich can be more expressive than an entire volume of words from another woman.
"Yes. We have money. But I could not draw from my family's money what I can draw from this."
The sweep of her arm included the entire Paramount studio.
"But money is not important. To be happy is what is important."
Ah, Europe, could you but teach this to your neighbour!
"I do not know as I can make you understand. My vocabulary is still so limited. If I am not not happy when I work, I am not satisfied. I am happy with Mr Von Sternberg because I trust him. How do I know what another director could do with me?
"I was not the big sensation in Europe that publicity stories have stated. Europe knows that. I had made a picture. I was not very good in pictures. When I met him in Europe and he asked me to make, 'The Blue Angel', I said, 'You had better not take me. I am terrible in pictures. No!"
"The studio did not want me, too. They told him I was terrible.
"He said, 'I will have to take a test to show you that you are not terrible and to show UFA, too. You are all stupid."
"And I was not a great actress on the stage, either. Not a star, as has been said. In Europe no young girl is a star. I had played leads, but that is far from being a star. It is impossible for a young woman to be a star in Europe. It takes a very long time before Europe makes one a star.
"He took a test. He made 'The Blue Angel' with me."
She did not need to tell that "The Blue Angel" was the sensation of Europe and that she because a sensation with it. She did not need to paint the picture of how she proved the exception that no young woman can become a star on the Continent. She was one by popular acclamation.
And she did not need to tell me -- although she did -- that Josef Von Sternberg, though his direction, had done it. What no other director has been able to accomplish, he had done. He had transmitted her natural beauty across the film chasm.
And now that she was a sensation in her own land where she had formally been only been a modest beseecher, they wanted her to go to America. she said, "No." Why should she desert glory and success in the hand for possibilities in the bush? No one in America knew her. It would be beginning all over again. It would mean a new language, even. Why should she leave her family for something uncertain when she had a certain Europe at her feet?
But when Von Sternberg asked her again and said, "Come over and make pictures for me. Not for Paramount, but with me --"
There was no uncertainty there. She knew what he could do with her and for her. He had done it in Europe. He could do it in America. Whether any other man could bridge that film chasm (no other had) was a huge question mark. He was the bird in the had. She came to America to make pictures with him.
She is leaving America because she will make pictures with no one except him. The only possible chance of her returning is for the same reason that she came to us originally.
"This is not because of any Svengali and Trilby influence, but because he is the best friend I ever had in the world. People have said he casts a spell over me. That is ridiculous. I am devoted, but I made the devotion myself because my brain told me so. It is only common sense to me.
"Can you think of any one casting a spell over me? I hate any one wanting to clamp a hand down on me. I would never make a contract for longer than six months because I hate the idea of being nailed down. I resent it terribly.
"But when I devote myself to some one, no one can undo it.
"People should be able to understand that. If you meet a great person, you become devoted. If they knew him -- he has no way of talking with stupid people. He has no patience with me when I am stupid. Which I understand. Why should he waste his time --"
But to change! To work with any one else! It is actually beyond her comprehension. She gave an example which she is afraid our people will not understand. I am going to risk it.
"Before I had my child, I stopped and looked at every child in the street. I was so crazy about all children. But now -- when I have my own. That is perfection. Why should I look at others? I have the best, all children for me -- right at home. I feel that way about directors. I have the best. Why should I look at others?"
I am a bit afraid, even as is Marlene herself, that America will not understand her. she is leaving us in February, for always -- unless Von Sternberg, who is definitely "sick and tired of pictures" (his own expression), should change his mind. She will have made only five pictures in her three and a half years among us, but with those five she has chiseled a niche on the portals of fame, comparable only to the one of Garbo.
It is comprehensible why she should wish to be understood "just once" before her departure.
Wednesday, in Part Two: An Understanding Husband