(Thank you to the Crees Collection for sharing yet another gem: this interview with Marlene, preparing for her performances at London's Grosvenor House in 1974.)
by Roger Falk
by Roger Falk
The omens were not promising. At midnight she had railed at photographers who ambushed her at London Airport. “Why aren’t you all home in your beds?” she snapped, and then, rather than be photographed in a wheelchair, had endured the painful long walk to the terminal building from the aircraft. The next day a surprised radio reporter was bundled away from her suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. His crime: asking silly questions. A national newspaper writer, awaiting audience, was being softened up by her publicity man. “Now you won’t ask her about her age, her family or her leg ?” he implored. “Don’t be so bloody wet,” came the robust retort. “‘If I don’t ask her about her leg, it’ll be like interviewing Nelson and not mentioning the eye and the arm.”
An air of backstage hysteria prevails. Marlene Dietrich is back in town amid rumours that she is being forced to hang up the sequinned dresses and the mink eye-lashes for the last time, that the famous legs will no longer carry her on to a stage. Her young English promoter, Robin Courage, blanches at the possibility, and says: “What would I do? There is no one quite like her. And only half a dozen performers in the whole world who could fill this room when the customers are paying up to £20 a plate.”
Reports on mood and physical condition filter down from her fifth-floor suite every half-hour, borne by jumpy acolytes. She managed a continental breakfast and some orange juice . . . a Dover sole for lunch . . . she’s making phone calls . . . Princess Margaret is definite for the opening — if there’s an opening . . .
Then an aide wails: “She’s not answering the phone to me. I think she’s sulking." Her merest expression of displeasure loosens an avalanche of paranoia in her camp. I’ve noticed before that Dietrich has this curious unsettling effect on those who surround her. She likes ‘em off-balance and incapable of predicting the immediate future. However, she is wise enough to make essential exceptions.
Stan Freeman is a burly man, her musical conductor for the past ten years. On stage he sweats and seems to live in a state of terror, with the alert eyes of a lion tamer darting between his orchestra and his star.
“My God, I even breathe with her,” he says. “She is acutely aware of everything going on — the music, the lights, the sound – and makes sure she gets everything to her benefit. I now know her so well that I can sense, even before she steps out, how it‘s going to be. A lot depends on her audience, how happy she is and even which city she’s in.”
Having listened to Freeman and the rest of the Dietrich circus, I take a private bet that the drama and the tension is self-generating and that, up on the fifth floor, their mistress is calmly preparing to fulfill her contractual obligations.
Accordingly, I hide away on the balcony of the guarded room where she is to perform her cabaret act. Twenty-two session musicians, among the best in the business, many of whom she has worked with before, are already running through their sheets on an open stage upon which carpenters have worked all night.
Her lighting man since the old Cafe de Paris cabaret days in London, Joe Davis, is busy positioning her favourite peach spotlights when at three thirty-five p.m. Dietrich suddenly appears at the run-through. Freeman leaps up: “Let me introduce you to your beautiful orchestra.” She bows to them, they to her. She gives an energetic, wide wave to the drummer.
She is wearing a trouser suit with a cheeky cap, is limping a little and is being cautious about where she places her feet on the newly erected structure.
She always inspects her stages minutely. The first time she neglected what had hitherto been part of her iron discipline was at the Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London, on 7th June, 1972.
The shimmering, remote goddess stepped back to take a bow at the conclusion of La Vie En Rose, and tripped backwards over a protruding piece of linoleum. A cruel story was published describing her humiliation as she crawled to the side of the stage.
I was there and this simply did not happen because Stan Freeman immediately restored her to her feet in her tight gown. But for a moment the illusion was fractured, Dietrich was seen to be mortal. And she knew it. She pressed on with her act, but afterwards could not resist asking the audience, “Did it look awful?” From the circle came a bluff, male voice, “No, you did it beautifully.”
Among the millions of printed words of homage, together with the vocal worship of renowned men like Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and Noel Coward, she ranks that anonymous remark as one of the most graceful compliments ever paid her.
So on this day she is examining the stage and the twenty-five foot walk she will have to make to the microphone. “I don’t think you will have very much further to travel than usual,” says Freeman, anxious with a vision of the whole stage having to be redesigned. She nods her acceptance and makes her observations for lighting and amplification changes in a small, tentative voice as if they are really only suggestions and not orders. But everyone knows the score. And it isn’t just sitting on the music stands.
She runs through a couple of numbers to test the acoustics, politely thanks the gentlemen of the orchestra and is gone.
I am, much later, in the bar drinking when a messenger arrives: “Miss Dietrich says, ‘Why aren’t you upstairs with her?’ ” Already I am in the wrong! Going up in the lift I get that old visit-to-the-dentist feeling. Then there she is, opening the door herself, giving me a brisk handshake and ushering me in.
I remind her of our one previous meeting and she doesn’t even pretend to remember. Somehow I find this comforting. If you stop acting like a nervous, gushing jerk, I think she is happier. She meets honesty with honesty. Far from not suffering fools gladly, she does not suffer them at all.
She is quite capable of returning an audience’s delirium with a sardonic, cutting smile, or turning her back to sip water or speak to Freeman while they are still on their feet applauding.
I’ve seen her frankly amazed at the excesses of the horde of rather precious young men who seem to be present at every performance she gives. They squeal, rush down to the footlights and strew the entire contents of florists’ shops before her unheeding feet. The more aloof she remains the greater their frenzy.
“Bah!” she says in private, with a sublime unsentimentality, “sometimes I think those flowers are thrown to see if I can still bend down to pick them up without breaking my back.”
She asks me, “Can I pour you a drink?” “Thank you, scotch and water.” “Evian Water OK?” “Fine.”
I make to sit in a deep sofa but she says, “No, dear. You’ll be much more comfortable with your drink if we sit at the table. And you’ll have somewhere to rest your note-pad.” Is this really the lady who has them terrorised five floors below? Her voice is soft. She speaks the sort of American-English that a whole generation of post-war Germans learned from listening to the US Armed Forces Network. But, of course, Dietrich came much earlier.
I have no need to upset either her or her press agent by asking age. I already know. She was born Maria Magdelena von Losch in Berlin on 27th December, 1902.
“Age! Age!” she says scornfully. “Why is it only me that they ask? Plenty of people have seen my passport. Anyway, I am not seventy.”
Suddenly she stops. Trouble? Something is bothering her. Her suite, exquisitely furnished and dust-free — the hausfau in Dietrich always insists on this — overlooks Park Lane and Hyde Park but a western sun, tumbling down into distant Bayswater, is shining straight into her blue tinted glasses. Her publicity man leaps up and switches the curtain across the window.
“Too far,” she says. “Back a bit. A bit more.” The publicity man carefully lets the orange glow inch back into the room until she is perfectly lit. Dietrich is in total control of her environment. She sighs happily, and gives me a radiant smile. She is wearing an unremarkable white blouse — oddly similar to one that she wore in The Blue Angel, the German film that made her famous more than half a lifetime ago. An ordinary bra shows through the silk. Her bosom is surprisingly large. The famous legs are hidden in black slacks and I fear we shall see them no more.
“I am a Capricorn. We always hurt our knees and legs,” she says. In fact, I have traced her tendency to tumble over, presumably a fault of the middle ear that controls balance, as far back as 1936 when she took a spill while making a film at Denham Studios in England. Her first fall while singing in public was the one at the Queen’s Theatre, But in 1973 there was a more serious incident when she toppled from a revolving stage in Washington.
She shrugs: “I fell into the orchestra pit, opened the left side of my leg but kept on working. Finally, I had to have a graft.” She placed a finger on her left buttock. “They removed the skin from here and I think it has taken.”
Close up she is a nice-looking old lady. The truth is as prosaic as that. She is blessed with good bones, the finest lines that disappear when she slaps on make-up and a svelte figure that is betrayed by only a minor roundness at the stomach.
When she coos The Laziest Girl In Town she still has the confidence in her body to let her hands slither languorously up and down her flanks, drawing attention to every contour.
In show business there are more rumours about the amount of plastic surgery that is supposed to have been perpetrated on her face than there are about the amount of silicone allegedly pumped into Raquel Welch. Naturally, plastic surgery is a verboten subject with Dietrich — though recently, a girl I know tried to work round to the subject by cunningly opening up a conversation about her beauty secrets. Dietrich looked into the girl’s eyes and saw the real question forming. Says the girl, “Dietrich suddenly thrust her face close to mine and said, ‘Go on, look for yourself.’
“She lifted her short blonde hair and insisted that I examine the hair line. Then she made me look behind her ears. I swear to you that there wasn’t a single sign of scar tissue or any trace of surgery whatsoever. I was really embarrassed at her insistence.
“Then she said to me scornfully: ‘You can see my face and my lines. It isn’t ageless, is it?’”
Dietrich’s act, both in the theatre and cabaret, is a twentieth century artifact, a brilliant work of engineering that still enchants the movie generation and exercises a fascination over the young for its freaky, camp qualities that have found their way into many pop singers’ bizarre cavortings.
“The young!” she explodes. “I haven’t the faintest idea what is right for this day and age. And I don’t think they know themselves what they want.”
Consequently, she does not change the act to accommodate them. In fact, it is years since she changed anything. She still does the mocking send-up of her film career and she still delivers her speech about the “three long years” that she sang to the troops during the war, through Africa, Sicily, Iceland, France etc etc that precedes the singing of Lili Marlene. A distant martial trumpet sounds as she goes through this unvaried recital and in the audience lips are moving, silently following every familiar word.
She says: “I’m not a singer. I deal in emotions. I take chances, dear. I stand out there alone and I know that some of the songs I sing may not be quite the right songs for people who want to have a good time.
“But so far it has worked: they understand what I have to do. Theatrically speaking, but not in everyday life, people would rather cry than laugh.
“I am one of the few performers who believe in what they say and the songs they sing. When I sing songs against the War and I touch only one person in the audience, that is enough.”
As we talk, expensive bouquets of flowers from admirers are being wheeled into the suite. She says, offhand: “Stack them against the wall.” She glares at the blooms as if some ecological misdemeanour has been committed.
She says she would like to include in her repertoire songs about the threat to the environment and urban blight but that Burt Bacharach, who is responsible for her superb arrangements, is always too busy to oblige with his services. The unavailability of Bacharach has been her stock answer to the why-don’t-you-change-the-act question for the past five years.
“There are songs I have to sing because my audiences would not permit me not to sing them,” she insists.
Myth, legend . . . they belong to the stage creature. She takes pleasure in deflating private expectations of glamour. She pounces on me when I mention the word. “I don’t even know what it means. What does Webster’s Dictionary say?” As We do not have a copy available I tell her what glamour means to me: “That which is desirable yet unattainable.”
“Desirable, yes,” she agrees. “But I’m not unobtainable.”
“Unattainable,” I correct. I am thinking of a star that cannot be reached, never mind possessed.
“Oi vay, what is happening to my English?” she says.
She married only once: to a German film studio worker, Rudolf Sieber, when she was a drama student struggling to become a serious, dramatic actress. They celebrated their golden wedding this year.
But Dietrich lives in an apartment on Park Avenue in New York, and in Paris, and Rudi, now seventy-seven and ailing, in a run-down farmhouse at Sylmar, in California’s San Fernando Valley. She has been known to cook and clean his house and shop for him and then fly away again.
While her career was breaking out and through the language barrier, Rudi’s career headed for nowhere. While Josef von Sternberg, her director in The Blue Angel, was weaving magic around her, he would condescend to have Rudi sit alongside the camera as a “student director”. Rudi ended up a chicken farmer. But he and Dietrich still have a relationship: distant and heavy with regret for what might-have-been. She says — and it is all she says: “He is the only man who has ever understood me. We have, for us, the ideal relationship. I do not have a strong sense of possession towards men. Maybe that is why I am not particularly feminine in my reactions.”
From the marriage came her one abiding joy: her daughter Maria, now a middle-aged housewife who gave her the four grandsons that made Dietrich “the most glamorous grandmother in the world”. After being title-holder for a quarter of a century, she was more than relieved to surrender that tiresome label to Elizabeth Taylor.
These are the dependents for whom she says she must continue working. “I have no money,” she says. This takes a lot of swallowing and I tell her so. know she gave large sums to rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany (Dietrich saw the horror to come long before most politicians), but all those years of Hollywood stardom, and the twenty years of singing? She never steps on a stage for a nightly sum much less than £1,500.
“I pay American taxes, dear. I pay on every penny I make even if it is earned in Russia where I am not allowed to take the money out. Entertainers cannot become rich today unless they are rich already. Entertainers are workers like everyone else.”
You have to concede that she is a worker. She is capable of rising at six a.m. to scrub her own floors. On tour she prefers to iron her own dresses — exotic, light-bouncing creations, mostly suggested by Jean Louis, the designer she first met at Columbia Pictures.
When I arrived she had just finished curling her own hair. The hausfau says: “I like doing things for myself. I clean a wall and I see the result right away. In other undertakings you never know. Make a film and you have to wait at least six months to find out if it is successful. It is the same with my theatre act. I know immediately when I am good. I also know immediately when I am not good. To be bad, there just has to be one person in that audience from whom I get the wrong reaction or vibration.”
And what then?
She gives an amused smile at my expectation of tales of tantrum. “No, I don’t throw vases. I don’t make a fuss. I quietly take off my dress and go home. Anything else isn’t logical, right?”
Pursuing her own logic, she will, in private, ruthlessly analyse and demolish the Dietrich mythology.
“I was pushed into it by Mr von Sternberg. I can’t say I enjoyed it when I was in my twenties. I was too young and dumb to know what was going on. If I had been older I might have enjoyed it more. I am not after glamour and I don‘t like publicity very much. Stars built on publicity have no lasting power.
“If you have talent you don’t need publicity. That’s why I never appear on television talk shows. Who needs it? They are for exhibitionists.
“I hate television. What an idiot box! The British are the only people with good television. Do they know that? Otherwise, it should be left for the lonely.
“Me? I am not that important. Henry Kissinger came to see me backstage in Washington. I was struck dumb — and he speaks German. I was in awe. Now there is a human being of real accomplishment. I get on with my own work but the accomplishment simply isn’t comparable.”
America, Canada, Mexico, South America, Japan . . . she recently added Honolulu to her ports of call. She ceaselessly sings her songs and takes a chance, and finds rejuvenation in the acclaim.
She is returning to Britain in February because she finds the British the best audience of all — “a serious people” — and likes the way young police constables blush when they lift her into the Black Maria to rescue her from the Marlenomania that erupts at the stage door each night.
Predictably, the night after we talked she had a huge triumph and after the performance Princess Margaret came up to her suite to renew an old friendship and admiration. Dietrich, typically, slipped off her shoes and stood wriggling her toes luxuriously in the royal presence.
She tells me she intends going on and on and on until . . . “Supply and demand, dear,” she said. “It’s all supply and demand.”
The same principle carries over into her act. She makes no effort to flatter an audience. She just is. Take her or go see Liberace.