10 August 2013

10 Great Women, As Chosen by Marlene Dietrich

In 1942, as publicity for The Lady is Willing, Marlene shared her selection of the ten greatest women of the time with Hollywood magazine's Jack Dallas. Her choices:


Dorothy Thompson, the distinguished journalist, because she has finally proved that a woman’s opinions concerning the troubled world in which we live can be as searching, profound and constructive as those of male minds; because her soundness has come to be generally recognized and her influence universally felt; and because she has managed to combine a successful career with successful motherhood.


Helen Keller, because, despite the terrifying handicap of being born without sight, speech, or hearing, she has become an international symbol of the triumph of the human will against all-out adversity; because she has turned her handicaps into assets; and because, above all, she is living a rich and useful life.


Queen Elizabeth of England [later Queen Mother], because she is attractive  without intent, charming without effort, impressive without guile, and ladylike without apology, she is the most ultra-feminine woman in the world; and because she has always managed to be effacing enough to highlight the personality of her husband, the King.


Amelia Earhart, that slim, spare figure of a woman, because she set her compass on Life and never changed her course; because she lived for a purpose; and because she died heroically, a falling star plunging into an uncharted ocean and, surely, saluting with a smile and a wave of the hand the sun or the moon as her plane plummeted her to an unknown destiny.


Alice Marble, the tennis champion, because she is the perfect embodiment of athletic femininity, healthy without being horsey; and because, in her capacity of National Director of Physical Training for Women she is using her gifts for the general good.


Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, because she is one of the world’s most brilliant women; because she is aiding her great husband, the Generalissimo, in preserving China in the face of unending peril; and because she is bringing a new freedom to the women of China.


Clare Boothe, because she undeniably is one of the most fascinating conversationalists; and because she knows women and has held up a mirror so we could see ourselves. (Or did you miss The Women?)


Eve Curie, because she is of the bandbox type; because she can travel light and appear to be convoyed by a trailer filled with Schiaparellis; because she does not follow fashion but leads it — gently.


Greta Garbo, because where there’s Garbo there’s tension; and because she has proved that furbelows are foolish and mystery is marvelous.


Nellie Manley, my hair-dresser for eight years, not only because she does her job well but also because she has no apologies for its lack of lustre; because she is neither amused by glamour, deceived by glitter and tinsel, or ravaged by ambition; because she is a true philosopher and can take life as it comes, and be cause, totally free from complexes and frustrations, she is at peace with herself and wouldn't change places with Marlene Dietrich for the Taj Mahal.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I'll have revisit Marlene Dietrich's rejection of Women's Lib because she's expressing in this piece a nuanced pro-woman stance (perhaps not pro-woman enough to some of you or perhaps not pro-woman at all) with which I associate her. Throughout this text, MD endorses women's equality with men and freedom, as well as a balance of femininity, motherhood, and marital relationships. When MD makes the statement in the Schell documentary against Women's Lib and about women, "If they were like men, they would have been born like men. So then they are women, so stay women," I gather that she endorses biological determinism, which seems to be her main (and perhaps only) grievance with Women's Lib--as least how she perceived it. Did Marlene ever articulate her stance against Women's Lib? Did she ever express a belief that Women's Lib rejected what she endorsed--femininity, motherhood, and/or marital relationships?

    1. In the Schell documentary she also goes on about how women's brains weigh less than men's- indicating that they are therefore less intelligent, though there are occasionally exceptions like her mother and her daughter.

      I get the feeling, and I could be way off here, but I get the sense that this is part of her upbringing which stuck with her. Women of her generation were taught that it was a biological fact that men were smarter and that women couldn't/shouldn't live without one guiding them.

      So- I think that even though she's seen evidence to the contrary she's rejected it outright because it didn't fit her 'facts'.

      Which is a shame because I wonder if this attitude had anything to do with why she ended up the way she did. Because maybe if she'd thought there was intrinsic value in her as a person she could have been directing films or something instead of wasting away in a bed.

      Also, I don't feel as if Marlene in the Schell documentary and Marlene at the age of this interview in the same place mentally, so that could be a factor as well. Either way- the article is a great read! I'd love to read a bit more about her varying opinions on this matter!

    2. I have no idea what sort of education MD may have had in science or what sorts of ideas about gender relations were expressed during her upbringing, but that is an interesting conjecture worth investigating.

      I agree that MD limited herself by only playing the role of star throughout her life rather than investing her time more seriously in behind-the-scenes endeavors such as directing or producing like--say--Mary Pickford. Unlike MD, Mary Pickford didn't have much of a formal academic education, and everything I have read or seen in documentaries about Pickford indicates that she had such chutzpah, demanding so much verbally and contractually from the likes of D.W. Griffith and Adolph Zukor. Still, I understand that Pickford ended up very much a bedridden recluse in her final years as MD later did.

      Even though MD espoused some outrageous beliefs in the Schell documentary, they were not a shock because she had expressed now-antiquated views (at least among liberal Americans) on gender and gender relations throughout her career. Here is one example from 1973. Reverse the digits, and read her view of women and men in 1937.

  2. Thank you for the links! You are such a wonderful resource! I'm not very familiar with Mary Pickford (just did some *very* light reading) though I'm now curious to find out exactly why she decided to become a recluse! What is with these ladies?

    As for Dietrich's views, I'm basing my assumption on my understanding of other aristocratic/well-to-do ladies of that same time period (Queen Mother for instance- though there is obviously a BIG difference between the moors of Scotland and the streets of Berlin!) I get the feeling this view of women as the weaker sex is the same across the board.

    Kind of a strange sentiment coming from women with such strong personalities! It seems Marlene's switch from hotpants to the hotplate came pretty closely on the heels of Rudi's death. While reading Maria's book I wondered whether or not that was a factor- that maybe she felt like she didn't have someone "guiding" her anymore and just became lost without someone to give her "orders".

    Curious to hear if anyone else had this same impression!

  3. Something similar was printed by Look magazine in 1938, when it asked Carole Lombard to select her 10 most interesting men outside of Hollywood ( Whereas Marlene chose Mme. Chiang Kai-Shek, Lombard chose her husband, and tennis champ Alice Marble was a close friend of Carole's.