04 October 2012

Thom Nickels' "Daddy, Buy Me That" (Pt. 2)

Many moons ago, I shared the first part of an interview that Thom Nickels conducted with Marlene Dietrich pal John Banks, called "Daddy, Buy Me That!" Well, if you weren't sold on Banks' story, maybe this second part will sway you. Banks discusses Dietrich's envy and jealousy toward Angie Dickinson, his thoughts about Maria Riva's depiction of her mother, the time he gave Marlene a Twiggy make-over, and much more.  I'll add my two-cents in brackets. Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, I never got around to contributing to the Paramount centennial blogathon, but I will post what I had intended someday--hopefully before the studio celebrates its bicentennial. Now, please enjoy . . .

Daddy, Buy Me That!

part two

by Thom Nickels


  Turbulent Sixties

Banks says that the '60s were a hard time for Marlene because she didn't like the fact that age was waning her power.

"In her book, Maria talks about Marlene arriving home from Washington, D.C. and walking in her apartment waving her panties in the air and saying that she'd just had it off with John Kennedy, and that you could still smell him on them, or whatever." Banks thinks this is a crock and maintains that, because Marlene was 60, he doesn't think that John Kennedy would have been interested. "Especially since they'd known each other since they were [e.g., he was?] small. She and Joe Kennedy spent the summer of 1938 or 1939 on the Riviera together when Kennedy was a child. But would a child of his age have kept that image of that super woman until 1960?" Banks says he doubts it.

"When she finally faced age, she realized that things finally had to stop. She could have gone on having affairs right up until her death, but she didn't because she wasn't offering what she had before. She also began to drink in the '60s. She drank as much tea and honey as she drank scotch when I met her," Banks remembers. "She also drank beer. We went to restaurants, and I would always order a Pilsner, and she would always order a half a bottle of champagne. She'd get the champagne, and I'd get the beer, but we'd switch . . . I thought drinking champagne was still very exciting. She was very European. She drank beer at noon. She drank beer with meals. She was German, darling. She was a wonderful German broad."

Thalidomide Babies


"What she'd been all her life, even in those pictures that we see of her in the 1920s when she's kind of hefty, was a gorgeous woman. People wrote about her then as being absolutely fabulous looking. She had reddish blond hair. She had this white-white complexion, a great bone structure. I have very few photos of me with Marlene. I would have felt as if I was insulting her if I'd asked to do photographs. I couldn't say to her, 'Can I have my photograph taken with you, please?' I didn't think she would have liked that. I think she rather liked the fact that I didn't.

"She was a funny broad. She had a good sense of humor. The only thing we did not joke about was 'the image.' That was work, and you did not fuck around with work. But, otherwise, she was pretty funny, and she could laugh at herself. She liked practical jokes like tripping people. She had great gallows humor. For instance, she'd make terrible jokes about thalidomide babies and then say, 'Oh, that's terrible!'"

The "image" meant talking about herself as Dietrich, something that Maria, according to Banks, took to extremes when she claimed that Marlene wanted her to call her Dietrich, too.

"That's very untrue, Maria, and you know damn well if you ever called her Dietrich, she'd get back at you on that one," said an emotional Banks as he used the remote to freeze another shot of Marlene in Shanghai Express.

Marlene was loathe to hear herself referred to as "the living legend" and once castigated a theater impresario in Chicago for constructing a billboard referring to her as such. To her, it sounded as if she was dead.

Her bad side surfaced in her relations with actress Angie Dickinson. "Angie Dickinson was someone she did not like," says Banks. "Marlene had an enormous crush on Burt Bacharach, probably the last love of her life. She adored Burt. But Burt would go out with all these girls, and then he got engaged to Angie."

When they were married, Marlene threw a fit. "I heard her refer to Angie as the President's whore. She called Angie 'Jack Kennedy's whore.' And she'd say, 'And Burt Bacharach can't possibly marry her!' She did not accept this gracefully. Whenever Angie visited the theater, which was not often because she couldn't bear it, Marlene was not nice to her. She just wouldn't accept that Burt was married to her."

Banks recalls a New York concert that Bacharach was directing. Angie would come to his dressing room and ask him to tell Burt that she was there. "I had to do this because if Angie walked by Marlene's dressing room, that was it--Marlene would be in a bad mood for the rest of the day. The entire time Marlene was taking home Burt's socks, his underwear, his shirts to wash and iron them and then bring them back to him the next day." An exasperated Angie Dickinson confessed to Banks, "How do you think I feel? I should be doing this!"

Despite his affection for Marlene, Banks is quick to say that he disapproved of her behavior when it came to Angie.

"Angie realized that Marlene had a crush on her husband and was as nice about it as can be. But she knew how to defend herself, and she did it quite well." He cites Marlene's first Broadway appearance in the fall of 1967, an invitation-only event in which Dickinson arrived late and sashayed up the side aisle in a transparent black dress.

"Marlene onstage wore a see-through flesh-colored dress. She no longer wore black because black aged her. And Angie, very slowly, walked down with her back to the wall of the theater and just slowly walked all the way to her front row seat. I won't say she stole the show, but she stole the pre-show show."

Mama Dietrich


What to call Marlene when he wrote letters was sometimes a problem. Usually Banks wrote "Dear Miss Dietrich." Or "Dear Miss D," but one time he asked her what she wanted to be called, and she said, "Just call me mother."

"All I could think of then," he says, "is that she was doing a Papa Hemingway. I think she just decided, 'Well, if he's going to be Papa, I'm going to be Mama.'"

Marlene was close to Hemingway, but--according to Banks--they never had an affair. Their friendship often aroused jealousy in Hemingway's various wives--at least until they realized that there was no competition. Banks says that Marlene made him read all of Hemingway, a chore he wasn't crazy about. "Marlene never forgave Hemingway for his suicide. Never. That suicide was not one that she accepted at all.

"Marlene always said that when she died, she wanted to be buried in France in a small town near a three- or four-star restaurant so people could go to the cemetery and see her and then go and have a good meal. She adored the French. After all, a Frenchwoman taught her in childhood, but when WWI came, her world fell apart. All of a sudden, they were supposed to be against the French," he says.

When Marlene died in Paris at age 91 [she was still 90], she was not buried near a restaurant.

Here, Banks shuts off the tape recorder and pours himself another drink. I know what's happening: he's debating whether to go on. He's never talked to a writer about Dietrich before, and he's worried about committing an injustice. He regains his composure the minute he sees Dietrich's face in the Dietrich in London tape he's just put on. He tells me that the concert was orchestrated by Maria and done "terribly." The lighting is bad, he says, and the camera angles are even worse. He also tells me that Marlene was stewed during the concert. "There, there," he says, "you can see it in her eyes--too much scotch!" Marlene was over 65 at the time, and her face was held back with tape to hide the wrinkles.

"Marlene was very American, you know," he says, reaching for a cigarette, a gesture that makes him remember that all but one of the cigarette lighters given him by Marlene have been stolen. "She always said she was beholden to America because they had taken her in, and although she hated the tax system, she would never not pay American taxes, even when she became a French resident."

But old age changed much for Dietrich. One change was her view of Cary Grant. "They were the greatest friends for the longest time, but her thing was that he was very cheap and only came to see her when it was a paid trip. She told me, 'He wouldn't pull 10 dollars out of his pocket to pay for a ticket, and he had to get married to five women to show the world that he wasn't gay.' She just couldn't take that.

"She was an enormous respecter of knowledge and intelligence." Banks cites a dinner they had with an acquaintance. After the meal, Marlene asked him what he thought of the guest, and Banks told her, "Kind of dumb," to which Marlene replied, "Yes, but remember what they're working with."

A Mother's Recognition


"Let me tell you about my mother and Dietrich. When we started hanging out together, my mother asked me what I was doing with this woman. She was afraid that Marlene Dietrich, the siren, was taking advantage of her little young child. I somehow communicated this to Marlene and immediately she started writing my mother, saying how happy she was to have met me, and that obviously she had done it right because I was such a well-mannered kid. They wound up corresponding for years till 1967, when they met."

Figuring out how long it would take people to recognize Marlene when they were out in public was a game Banks says he never grew tired of.

He remembers sitting in a window seat with Marlene in New York's Lindy's restaurant in 1968. "We were having this big discussion. Next to the window is this enormous sign from the theater with Marlene's picture, yet nobody notices us. But once our discussion is over, all of a sudden she becomes 'Marlene.' And suddenly all these people are stopping outside the window until a crowd forms. To this day, I don't know how it happened: maybe we all turn on sometimes, and we're not aware of it."

Whenever Marlene felt she was being recognized, she'd say, "Oh, they recognize us." She always used 'us.'" John recalls. "As soon as she'd say this, everybody was there. The maitre d' would run over and bow six times. But had she ever thought of going without the wig, the make-up, and looking like a 65-year-old woman, nobody would have recognized her."


The Bitch vs. the Perfectionist

Banks has seen her tirades onstage. Maybe she'd notice that stage lights no. 3 and no. 6 were amber and not pink. "They're amber. I want them removed," she'd say. "They are pink," came the reply. "Take them out, and you'll see!" she'd say. And she was always right--always. And when she proved that she was right, they would curse her and call her a bitch behind her back. "Fucking bitch," Banks says they would say, "'how can she tell under 60 gels that these two lights were not pink!' So they hated her."

Sometimes she'd take the stepladder and change the lights herself. Banks is certain that if a man had been doing this, he would have been seen as a perfectionist. She was labelled a bitch.

Her contracts were often not signed until the day an engagement was finished. Her two Eider duck coats, worth $20,000 each, were the only two in the world. They could not be cleaned or duplicated because they became illegal to make, and in time they fell apart because the skin broke. The idea was not to get them too dirty, so Marlene wrote it in her contract that the stage had to be washed exactly one hour before a performance. Banks says that this caused many to label her a "weirdo."

"She adored reading. All I remember about her apartments is that they were filled with papers and books. The first apartment I walked in in New York, books and papers were piled everywhere. And that was what her old age was like. She read several newspapers a day. She watched CNN, read the bestsellers--books that she would read for several pages and then cast aside with disgust. Then she'd read the most obscure books that were not bestsellers. She was very disciplined, very Germanic. I miss her--I miss her terribly," he admits.

He also says that it hurt him terribly that he was not permitted to visit Marlene during the last 14 years of her life.

"Whenever I went to Paris, I would let her know. Sometimes I'd stay with friends, but I'd always phone her when I came in. Now, either she or the housekeeper would answer and say, 'Madam is not in. She's in Hong Kong.'"

The routine upset Ginger Rogers, whom Banks quotes as saying, "Oh, that bitch! How can she tell me on the phone that she's not there when she is!"

"A lot has been made of the last 14 years of her life. Why should she have shown herself?" Banks says. "Rogers, who was a real straight-looking arrow, couldn't understand this. I mean, if you've been one of the most watchable people of the century because of your beauty and everything else, why should you show yourself when you're not looking like that. When Marlene was old, she walked with a limp. Both hips had been replaced. She was ninety years old . . ."

Banks freezes a frame of Dietrich in another film smoking a cigarette. "Oh, that I love," he almost whispers. "Look at that!"

It is, he explains, the way she uses the cigarette as a prop. "A cigarette to Marlene was a fan that hit her. It was a phallic symbol. It was a warning sign or a green light. When Marlene smokes, it's almost like a prayer."

It's getting late, but he still has time to tell me one more story.

He recalls a time he made her up to look like Twiggy, the hollow-cheeked fashion model icon of the '60s. "Until the mid-'30s, you know, models had plump faces. Dietrich changed that. Models became hollow-cheeked and had that definition, the gaunt look. So one day, we were talking about Twiggy and how everyone like Twiggy was doing her, and we thought, "Well, why don't we do it?" So for a matinee, I painted a Twiggy on her, and she wound up looking like a very bad caricature of Marlene Dietrich. Between the matinee and the night show, the face was off, and it was right back to what she could do. It was not a good thing we'd done."


If you'd like a copy of this piece without my typos, it's available in Thom Nickels' Tropic of Libra.


  1. JFK was not a "child" in 1938-1939. He was 21-22 years old...

    1. That part of Banks' commentary confounded me, and it made me wonder whether his knowledge of Marlene's life before he met her in the '60s came from his readings or from what Marlene told him.

    2. He's probably confusing Jack for Teddy, who was like 12 that summer.

  2. Banks was/is a very Old World type. To him, anyone aged 21 was a "child."

    1. I've seen many an Anonymous stop by, but never an Unknown! I was thinking Marlene had some influence on Banks' choice of the term "child" precisely because the word could have some "Old World" connotation. I skimmed through Maria Riva's book to confirm my recollection that Marlene apparently called Maria all kinds of juvenile nicknames (Darling, Angel, Kater, etc.) until before Maria had her first child. After that, Maria became--well--Maria! Incidentally, Fabrice is an Old Worlder yet must not be so old-fashioned.;)

    2. I probably speak nonsense but somehow I always wondered why she used the name Kater for Maria. Kater is a male cat, the female version is Katze. In Dutch there is an expression including a cat, wich would mean in English something like - someone to handle with kid gloves, because of their sharp paws - read someone who is difficult to handle. Besides "Kater" has another meaning, also in German which is hangover....

      Or is Kater just an endearing pet name and I'm trying to find to much hidden meaning in this. I guess it's the latter :)

    3. First, I must rebuke myself for omitting the most obvious nickname--The Child! Second, I don't think you're talking nonsense. I don't know German but had the sense to know "Kater" and "cat" are cognates. After I checked, I learned it meant "tomcat," which I found odd (I saw "hangover" as well, which I found WTF). Maybe it had something to do with MD grooming her daughter for lesbianism? All jokes aside, I just remembered that MD had a childhood nickname that is a boy's name--Paul.

    4. EDIT: They always talk about "the child" as it's about Maria, but they don't use it directly towards her, right?! The child or in German "das kind" is IMHO a somewhat unaffectionate nickname, I don't know how it is in English? But if you would use "the child" and you are actually talking about your own child, it would be nicer to say "our child" or "my child" in front of your partner and others, no? (in German "unseres Kind" or "mein Kind"). The child or das Kind sounds at least to me very distant, like you talk about a child you don't know. Maybe it's something Prussian or it's just a difference in perceiving/meaning of language.

      I didn't know the meaning of tomcat, but now I get your remark :) You might think wtf with the hangover, but still it is a very common meaning for Kater. The first thing that comes to mind with kater is hangover, not cat. Could it be that her gallows humor was so advanced that se was kind of mocking using Kater as a nickname. Which doesn't make sense by the way she is talking about and loving Maria. I'll let it go.

      I don't remember MD having Paul as a nickname, is it in Maria's book? When or why did they use this? Pretty unconventional as well, no?

    5. If MD had directly addressed Maria as "the child" in Maria's book, I would have laughed every time I read it because I always thought that the way MD used it--to refer to Maria--made Maria sound exalted, as if she were the Savior or the Dalai Lama's heir. I never thought about how distant it sounds, but I certainly agree with you.

      The "Paul" nickname appears in MD's memoirs. "Which one?" you may ask! The American edition that I consult is a translation of the "second" German "edition," and I plan on writing about the eBook version that was published yesterday. Anyway, MD wrote that when her mom was happy, she called MD "Paul." I find that reason unsatisfactory, but lots of explanations in that book are. Steven Bach discusses it in his book, citing MD's memoirs as his source, so everything he says--while intriguing--is merely his speculation. Specifically, he makes it sound as if MD called herself Paul because she identified with her father and wanted to replace him. Someone correct me if I misinterpreted that (p. 19-20 here).

    6. Interesting. You definitely have a point with "The Child" sounding exalted. I never thought of it like that, even though I had the feeling that to Marlene, Maria stood high above on some pedestal and she was worshipping her. In this case I also think it isn't unaffectionate anymore, it is more like honouring her daugther, it remains distant though but in a very different way.

      Now I remember indeed, I got that father replacement too from Steven Bach. I'm curious about the ebooks, i'll check them.

  3. I've been looking forward to read this, nice recall, thanks!

    Being tripped by Marlene imagine. I wonder who her victims were ;)

  4. I have been without a computer for a month,and am enjoying catching up,enjoyed this second part very much.Thank you.Paul