12 April 2013

Dietrich at the Café de Paris: Perfume from Spain

Marlene's 1954 debut at London's Café de Paris  has become as legendary, and was  judging by the recording made of the evening  as lovely as the star herself, who was  introduced to the nightclub's chic clientèle by Noël Coward. 

Less remembered are her return visits to the club, in 1955 and 1958  making the article republished below (shared thanks to the generosity of the Crees Collection!) a delightful read. The clippping, while not dated and sourced, is likely a later recounting by journalist and wit Nancy Spain of her introduction to, and for, Dietrich in 1955.

MY evening out with Marlene Dietrich began when the Café de Paris — London's glittery night-spot — came on the telephone and said, ‘We’d like you to introduce Miss Dietrich on Wednesday. Douglas Fairbanks does it on Monday . . . Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American theatre, on the Tuesday . . .' And I began to babble incoherently.

How would you feel if you were suddenly to come face to face with The Legend, the Top Girl of the movies for the last twenty years, the woman to whom author Ernest Hemingway always takes his manuscripts for literary approval, the most glamorous woman in the world? And now, let alone coming face to face with her, I was to introduce her to a crowd of the celebrated and near celebrated, the distinguished and near distinguished who go to make up the clientele at the Café de Paris. ‘You may bring two friends,’ they told me.

So the Editor and the Art Editor and l dressed up in all our finery and swept out by taxicab in a heavy downpour to the Kayf.  (That is what the clientele always call it, in their smart and witty way.)

Crowds stood gawping on the pavement (Marlene had just arrived), but the Art Editor got a little cheer all to himself. Not surprising really, for in addition to his faultless hired dinner jacket he carried a lady's red umbrella in his right hand. Then we were inside and I was suffocating with nameless terrors. These were not soothed by Mr. Amori, the manager, who led us to our seats, murmuring, ‘It is a very distinguished audience tonight . . . the Mountbattens, the Sultan of Johore and the Editor of SHE."  (He didn’t really – but it’s a nice idea – J.W.L [Joan Werner Laurie])

The place seemed hideously overcrowded to me. We were given a teeny weeny table under the band where everyone trampled on us and our trains. Everyone, that is, except the Mountbattens who danced very nicely indeed with one another and didn't come within a mile of tripping over us. Free food, free champagne were lavished on us. ‘What a pity you're too frightened to eat and drink,’ said my chums, eating and drinking absolutely regardlessly.

And then Major Donald Neville Willing took me by the hand and led me to the dressing room with the star on the door. In we went. And my eyes promptly stopped focussing. It took a good ten minutes (it seemed to me) to discover Marlene, who was much smaller than I expected and somewhere under my right elbow. The last time I had seen the dressing room was with Noel Coward who is a dear chum, and everyone had been gloriously relaxed and we had sung a few rousing choruses together, with him in sock suspenders and a dressing gown. Even the dressing room was transformed by the rosy glow of Marlene's personality. And she really did seem to be as nervous as I was. This put new life into me, I can tell you. Rene was there (Princess Margaret's hairdresser) putting a few final touches to the perfection of the hairdo. There was an American dresser called Doris Herrick, a very nice girl ‘who had come all the way from Hollywood.’ And what was that? Marlene wanted to know what I was going to say to introduce her? You bet she did. So did I.

I muttered the few broken fragments of adoration that Gilbert Harding had compiled for me (‘I only wear this dress on great occasions, when l meet the Pope, or the Queen . . . or get engaged to Gilbert Harding . . .') and explained that l would be as quick over it as I could. And then I crept out of that dressing room and down to the table where my chums were still happily laughing, drinking, talking and having a lovely time. Two muscular young gentlemen fitted up extra pieces of stage: there was a fanfare, a roll of the drums . . . I was led  daintily to the microphone. I had my moment of madness when I nearly said, ‘And now I will lead you all in a rendering of “Land of Our Fathers." ' I bellowed my little piece and got back to my seat and then Marlene came. And she was wonderful, she was beautiful, she was oncoming and sultry, she was withdrawn and icy, she promised everything to all men and then hastily took it away again  ... she sang, gloriously, jauntily: ‘ Knock 'em in the Old Kent Road’ and brought the house down . . . It was at this mad moment that a lady called Doris White, who said she came from Glasgow, leant across to our table and said, ‘Can l have your autograph?’

But then Marlene reappeared: and she had miraculously changed into a gallant little boy in white tie, top hat and tails, which is the way I like her best, and she sauntered on with her hands in her pockets and sang ‘All of me, why not take all of me?’ (‘Why not?’ said the Art Editor with a heavy sigh), and then with the spotlight blinding us both, she gave me the carnation from her button hole . . . her carnation . . . Marlene's carnation. Think of that . . .

And a man from a table on my right hissed at me, ‘ Were you at school together or something?’ and I hissed back, ‘ Yes, she was in the First Eleven with me at Roedean.’

That was just the beginning of getting to know Marlene.

For afterwards when the Editor, the Art Editor and I went to see her in that dressing room and they told her how wonderful she was . . . and promised to send from SHE a boiled spotted dog (her favourite pudding), we really had a cosy time. She showed me how she did her quick change: ‘ Oh lor’, ma'am,’ said Doris Herrick, the dresser, ‘it's gettin’ out of that rhinestone dress that's the nightmare, the tails is easy.’ And the tails are only easy because waistcoat, collar, tie and shirt front are all stitched firmly in one piece that zips up the back. Marlene talked about her critics . . . very fairly I thought . . . she talked about doctors and healing and she told me about one eminent writer who had in a phrase revealed the mainspring of her personality, ‘And then I met him,’ she said, in disgust. ‘He was just a boy. . .a fan . . . and I had been expecting a man.’

Oh, yes, she talked about everything, because she is interested in everything. She is, indeed, the most fascinating woman in the world. And I can tell you one thing. . . the woman behind the legend is better than The Legend.


  1. What a wonderful piece, thank you very much for sharing!!

  2. It is marvellous to read this sort of obscure stuff over fifty odd years later that would otherwise have been forgotten.It is amazing the impact MD had on people really and hard to comprehend in this day and age.She was way ahead of her time in every way,and still influencing current perfomers(Madonna,who?)it is a shame current stars just do not have the same class.Can you imagine Madonna doing the same act when she is seventy.I saw her on TV about five years ago from London strumming a guitar and found it embarassing and a bit pathetic,and running round the stage trying to be current.Sad really.Marlene outshines them all,on stage Marlene was just a vision,sure the voice wasn't great but she was herself magnetic.The TV show did not do her justice at all,a little too late,but she carried on in theatre and was superb.She herself said she could never sing,but people came to see a survivor,of many things.I have met people who saw her on stage and thought she was awful.To me she was just a supreme artist and manipulater of her legend.I read recently she turned to her dresser and said "OK lets fool them again"How honest and down to earth is that?Genious really to get away with it for so long,and to be admired for doing it,Of course you can't get away with it without some talent,and she had it in spades.For me her sheer physical beauty was what drew me to her.Devil is a Woman,Seven Sinners,Stage Fright,has anybody bever been so beautiful?And then to carry it on into the 70's on stage.I could go on,Shanghai Express,Desire,Manpower.I know some of the films were awful,but her beauty will live on forever thanks to film.She was one of a kind,and they don't make them like that anymore.