09 August 2014

An Interview with Sauli Miettinen

Marlene Dietrich: Nainen ja tähti 
[Marlene Dietrich: A Woman and A Star]
by Sauli Miettinen
Last year, I interviewed Sauli Miettinen, the author of the Finnish language Marlene Dietrich biography, Marlene Dietrich: Nainen ja tähti [Marlene Dietrich: A Woman and A Star], which will hopefully be translated into German and English. The questions that I posed to him had developed out of my interest in factors such as one's geographical location, linguistic abilities, age, as well as technological and media access that can affect one's ability to receive and seek information about a celebrity such as Marlene Dietrich. I also wanted to discover how Miettinen researched Dietrich's life and career and what his thoughts were on other Dietrich biographies--and on biographies in general. Miettinen answered these questions and more, and I now eagerly await the day when I can read his book in English translation. As you read this interview, please think of any questions that you may have. Hopefully, Miettinen will be able to respond in the comments section and turn this interview into an ongoing conversation about biographies and biographical research in relation to Dietrich and in general.

Joseph: When and how did you become interested in Marlene Dietrich?

Sauli: After my book was published, this question has been asked in every interview. It's always a bit difficult to answer. Why does someone attract you and awaken your interest? Sometimes it can't be explained. I remember that the first film with Marlene Dietrich that I ever saw was The Scarlet Empress. I was ten years old at the time. Very soon afterwards I saw other [Josef] von Sternberg-Dietrich films except for Dishonored. I remember how my parents discussed Marlene Dietrich, and they told me that the beautiful lady is an old woman now, a grandmother. I started to imagine how would Marlene Dietrich look now and was stunned when my father showed me an article with a photo of that grandmother: she was on the stage looking fabulous. I hadn't known there were grandmothers like that! I think my interest began at that moment. After a year or two I started to cut out articles and photos of Marlene Dietrich from newspapers and magazines. That's how my modest collection got started. Most of the time I listened to ordinary pop music, was interested in sport and so on. Marlene Dietrich was not a very important part of my life then, though. I Wish You Love was also shown on TV; I remember that I saw it twice as a teenager. There were no VHS at that time, so I couldn't tape it.

J: Was I Wish You Love on a major Finnish network? Do these kinds of concerts still air on Finnish T.V.? I guess what I'm asking is how Finnish T.V. has changed. In the U.S., there used to be a few networks, so I suppose people either watched what was on, or they turned off their T.V. sets and did something else. Now, people have so many choices with network, cable, and satellite channels, streaming videos on Hulu or Netflix, and--of course--YouTube. Thus, people could very well never stop watching something. About when you became interested in Marlene Dietrich, I think that there is a common link among Marlene Dietrich fans that they developed an interest in her when they were young--particularly during their teenage years. Even I became interested in Marlene Dietrich as a teen, but I first learned about her through Madonna's "tributes" to her. I wonder whether any teenagers now are discovering today's living legends--such as Barbra or Liza--and developing an interest in them. In a way, it would be easy because so much content is on sites such as YouTube and Tumblr, but teens first must be exposed to these legends. I imagine that initial exposure is harder given that teens now have so many choices of what to watch.

S: In my childhood there were two channels on TV. YLE (like BBC in UK) was in charge in both of them but commercial networks bought time from it; there were commercials in some programs, in some not. At one point the commercial network established its own purely commercial channel, then another. By now there are very many channels, mostly with commercials. YLE has three channels in Finnish, one in Swedish. As far as I can remember Marlene Dietrich's TV special was shown on YLE. If it was shown today, I think, the YLE THEME (so it is called) would be the one to show it. It shows often older films, documentaries etc. I think, all Marlene Dietrich related documentaries and films which were aired recently were shown on YLE (sometimes in Finnish, sometimes in Swedish).

J: What Marlene Dietrich songs, performances, and films were available to you in Finland when you were learning about her? In what formats? Did the films have Finnish subtitles, or were they dubbed in Finnish? How did you watch them?

S: When I was a child and in my teens Dietrich's Hollywood films were shown quite often in Finnish television. I found them exciting, adventurous. Marilyn Monroe's films I found boring - they were all about love, so I thought at that time. Except von Sternberg's films I remember that I saw Seven Sinners, Destry Rides Again, Kismet, The Garden of Allah, Golden Earrings, Stage Fright and some others. The Blue Angel I saw much later. All the foreign films that are shown on Finnish television are subtitled. In Finland they dub only films for the kids. After Marlene Dietrich's fall in Sydney in 1975, I listened to a radio program of her life and career. I taped it on C-cassette and listened it many times. From that program I heard many of her songs for the first time. Her LP records were on sale and I bought some of them. It was the time before CD. Charles Higham's book was published in six parts in a magazine (with a lot of photos), and I read it. It was, of course, a shortened version. Marlene Dietrich's autobiography (its first edition) was published in Finnish in 1980 and I got it as a Christmas present. Naturally I believed every single word of it! Two years later I saw her home address in a German magazine and wrote her a letter. She answered with a couple of words on a signed photograph.

J: You know, I always imagined that if Marlene Dietrich were around now, she'd be on Twitter because she corresponded with her fans and admirers. I suspect that the attention she gave her to fans and admirers fueled their interest in her. By the way, I must admit that I still have yet to read the first edition of Marlene's autobiography! I'll have to get the French or Spanish translation--or learn German. It interests me that readers get different editions of Marlene Dietrich's life story depending on their linguistic skills. Even if there were only one edition of Marlene Dietrich's memoir, I wonder whether we would still get different versions of Marlene Dietrich's life because so much editing can take place during the translation process. Also, certain expressions or words may have meanings that can't be adequately translated. Sometimes, I wonder whether native English speakers (including me, of course) take this into account because English is so widespread, and they can get the gist of most things without learning another language. Of course, are they really getting the gist at all? I think native English speakers know a lot less than they realize and take for granted the wealth of untranslated information about globally-discussed topics and people. In fact, this untranslated information may challenge or disprove the information available to them in English. When your book is translated into English and German, are you concerned that some of your research and other content will be lost? Is there anything in particular that you know or believe won't be retained in translations of your work?

S: Please, don't forget that Marlene Dietrich wrote her memoirs in English. The German version is also a translation. She sent some parts to Max Colpet for translation but his work didn't satisfy her According to her remarks, she wasn't very happy with the French translation either. She found many mistakes in it. As far as I know, she didn't take any action, though--she was just pleased that the French book sold well and it was published also in pocket book. Now it's too early to think about any problems with the possible translation of my book. Naturally it would be a pity, if significant parts were lost in translation. They wanted to publish just some parts of Marlene Dietrich's memoirs in Italian but she refused--it's all or nothing, she answered.

J: Did you have to buy imports or travel abroad to experience Marlene Dietrich’s body of work? If so, how did you find these foreign products?

S: In the eighties, I traveled a bit (London, Paris, Rome) and bought some Marlene Dietrich related items in the cities that I visited. Mostly photos and books in English and French. I couldn't read any French then but I decided that some day I will read them--and I did! Some of the books I had already bought in Finland. When I was in Paris the first thing I did was to go to 12 Ave. Montaigne. I stared at the building and wondered if Marlene Dietrich was looking out of her window! At that time I didn't know that she had moved to another apartment in the building and that her windows were not facing the Avenue Montaigne any more.

J: Has access to Marlene Dietrich’s work changed in Finland? If so, how? I am asking about the Marlene Dietrich-related merchandise that has become available in Finland. Eventually, were her movies and music sold in stores? Have there been screenings of her movies? I think there is a common bond shared by almost all Marlene Dietrich fans that we became interested in her as teenagers. How would a ten-year-old or a teen in Finland discover and learn about Marlene Dietrich nowadays?

S: When I was in my early teens, I was happy to see films of Marlene Dietrich on television or find an article about her in a magazine. There were no Internet, YouTube videos, etc., then. On the other hand, there were not so many celebrities either. We all used to know the same actors, singers and pop groups by name. Nowadays it's very different--the possibilities to find information are better but it's harder to concentrate on somebody, I think. When films started to be released on VHS format I don't remember seeing many Marlene Dietrich films on VHS in Finland. I bought her TV show, though. Some VHSs I bought in London (Pittsburgh, Witness for the Prosecution, etc.). With DVD it all changed--I found very many Marlene Dietrich films in Helsinki, just some I had to buy on Ebay. I have no idea how a ten-year-or-so-old kid would see Marlene Dietrich today. The times are so different now, tastes and styles have changed so much. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich is seen by a kid or a teenager of today in a same way as I saw a star like Mary Pickford in my childhood. I don't think many teenagers find Marlene Dietrich's image very interesting now. She represents a totally different era. To see her quality one must be a bit older and experienced, I would say. Of course, every now and then, her name still appears in magazines and her films are still shown in television (though not prime time) and her films and CD's can be bought. If a teenager is interested in Madonna (or is she, too, too old to be interesting?) he might read about comparisons of Madonna and Marlene Dietrich.

J: What led you to write a book when there are already so many Marlene Dietrich biographies in publication? Are any of those books translated into Finnish? Are there any other books originally in Finnish about Marlene Dietrich, or is yours the first? Is it of any significance to you to have your book in Finnish? If so, please describe why that is significant.

S: It's true that there are very many biographies on Marlene Dietrich in many languages. After Marilyn Monroe she must be the most written of film star. I can read in Finnish, English, German, French, Russian and Swedish (when reading in French and German I must turn to the dictionary quite often). I have dozens of biographies and other books on Marlene Dietrich, about 80, I think. In Finnish there are only Marlene Dietrich's own memoirs (in two editions) and the biography by Donald Spoto (originally from 1992). And my own book, of course. Why did I want to write my own book? Marlene Dietrich's life and career as a singer, her tours, friendships etc. were not described fully enough in those books that I have. She was seen very much as a film star, the years as a stage singer were not ignored, but there was no detailed story of it in any book before my own. Also her final years needed closer research. I did my research and wrote to fulfill my own curiosity, I wanted to tell about things that were not told in other books on her. It was also very important for me that my book is based on original documents as much as it could possibly be. I also wanted to correct some mistakes that are told in many previous books - and some lies, intentional or unintentional, as well. At first I was foolish enough to think that as I have read so many books and articles about Marlene Dietrich and have seen her films, I was capable to write a book on her. Now I understand that without MDCB [Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin] my book would have become a disaster. A book based on previous books and articles wouldn't bring any new value. The same story copied from other books in a new package wouldn't have been interesting.

J: I agree that many biographers have glossed over Marlene Dietrich's concert career, which initially perplexes me because I think the people who are now impressive collectors became interested in Marlene Dietrich during her concert years. At the same time, I can understand why biographers have focused on Marlene Dietrich's film career--there's already plenty of information to copy from other secondary sources! Also, it's relatively easy to go to libraries where one can watch Marlene Dietrich movies and fill pages by critiquing or giving summaries of them. In contrast, writing about Marlene Dietrich's concert career would have required extensive research. Now, are you a writer by profession?

S: I'm a philologist, and this is my first book. The next book might be a biography but I'm not sure yet. Yes, I agree with you. Though it was very interesting to watch those films - once again. Surely former biographers have affected me. I am not a film critic but I assume I am able to see a film as it should be seen, as a product of its time. I also wrote about some films that Marlene Dietrich was supposed to make but didn't. For example, she received telegrams from her agent at the time when she was entertaining the troops. Charles K. Feldman was very worried for her career in Hollywood, he was afraid that her name would be forgotten. "It's very important that you make this film, etc.," he wrote a couple of times but she had no intenton to return to Hollywood as the war was still going on. Afterwards there were other offers like one (at the beginning of the '70s) from Orson Welles, the other one from Jörn Donner (in 1964) etc. After Just A Gigolo there was an offer to appear in a German film, but I don't know any details of that. We all know that after Just A Gigolo, she didn't wish to face the camera anymore. Though I have tried to do as careful research with her tour dates as possible, there might have been a performance or two that I am not aware of. What a pity some of the diaries are not at MDCB! Marlene Dietrich was such a practical person, she wrote her trips and shows down and also the numbers of the flights. For a person like me, that makes her diaries the most valuable source that can be. It was also important to write about her concert repertoire. There is some false information about that too. For example, I have read absolutely ridiculous information about her repertoire during her Russian concerts. After all this work and research, there still remain open questions like the year 1970 with shows in Osaka only. I have tried to find answers for non-performances in that year in her correspondence but haven't found any fully satisfactory explanation. It's easier to write about Marlene Dietrich the film star, yes. Her stage career as singer suffers from the fact that there are so little documentation about it. The I Wish You Love television special wasn't that bad but it still doesn't do her justice. Nor does The Magic of Marlene from Melbourne 1968. There are still some sources that claim it was filmed in 1965, but the right year is 1968. Television hardly can show her talent and her stage presence. She wanted to be remembered as a singer not as a movie star. She made many of her films just because of money but in her concert repertoire there was no song without a special meaning or purpose.

J: Your book includes findings from your research at Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin (MDCB), correct? How did you gain access to this collection? How did you approach researching MDCB? Who did you contact? Is there a finding aid? Who helped you?

S: Without MDCB I wouldn't have published anything on Marlene Dietrich. There are my main sources--the original documents that were inevitable for a decent biography on Marlene Dietrich. It took some time to gain access to that collection of treasures. I was in Berlin in the summer of 2004 or 2005 and called Mr. Werner Sudendorf. We had a cosy chat but as it was in July, there was no one there to show me the collection. He advised me to contact them in August. At that time I even didn't have a computer as I'm a very old fashioned guy and had no interest in them whatsoever! Mr. Sudendorf was astonished when I told him that I would write them a letter. He said that nowadays they have contacts by email. So I had to buy a computer to make an email contact with Silke Ronneburg. I explained to her my plans about writing a book on Marlene Dietrich and told some basic information about myself. Then we agreed to meet at MDCB and I sent her a list of the questions to which I wanted to find the answers. When finally at MDCB, I signed some documents and then Silke Ronneburg showed me some parts of the collection. After the tour she brought me the documents and told me how they should be handled (very carefully, sometimes with gloves on my hands). I also visited the other department of MDCB, the textile archive where I met Barbara Schröter. She showed me some gowns, shoes, coats, foundations, stage jewelry, wigs, Marlene Dietrich's correspondence about dresses, books from Marlene Dietrich's personal library, furniture, etc. This first visit to MDCB lasted five days. I was thrilled and fascinated. I also realized that I have to focus on certain things--the collection is so big that it would take ages to research everything they have. As I had decided to write mainly about the years from 1953 till 1992 I started to read Marlene Dietrich's diaries and correspondence from those years. If there were any problems, Silke Ronneburg and Barbara Schröter did their best to help me. I admire them very much and I'm very grateful for their help and efforts.

J: What were your questions to Silke Ronneburg, and did they change at all while you were researching at MDCB?

S: There is the list of the first questions but unfortunately I can't find it right now. As far as I can remember there were questions about the book by Constantin Petru who had changed almost all the names in his book. I wanted the real names. I also wanted to know about the Gigolo contract (it isn't at MDCB). After that first visit I always sent my list of questions in advance. Therefore Silke Ronneburg could find me the needed documents. She is a professional and she knew in which documents I should try to find the answers. There were new questions for every visit to Berlin. Of course, the diaries took a lot of time. The busier Marlene Dietrich was, the less she made remarks. In her diaries there's nothing about her German tour! During her first Broadway gigs she wrote only about the wigs she wore during the shows! After her retirement, the diaries are full of text because she had a lot of time to write.
Sauli Miettinen

J: Do you know when Marlene Dietrich transitioned from German to English in her diaries? And why? I always found it fascinating that she wrote her diaries in English. Even though she became fluent and quite stylish in English (e.g., her ABCs), I would have expected her diaries to be in her native language because I think of diaries as personal and private, but then I also suspect that--once she became an international star--she wrote her diaries so that others would be able to read them and easily understand them. Also, I have always got the impression that Marlene Dietrich truly did become an American (or at least an Anglophone) at heart. Oh, were any diary entries in French as well?

S: Marlene Dietrich didn't think other people (surely people like me!) would ever read her diaries. That's not the reason, she wrote them in English. I had to think a lot about that question, if they were written for posterity (as Noël Coward apparently did). Secondly, Marlene Dietrich's diaries are not very easy to understand--sometimes they are, but often I realized that quite a lot of work should be done to understand the meaning of certain things, names, etc. Before Hollywood she wrote in German. Then she stopped writing for many years and continued only in 1948. You know, her life was full of English, she even spoke English with her daughter very often. As she wrote to [Friedrich] Torberg, she sometimes felt as "a poor emigrant". She longed for people with whom she could have spoken German. Marlene Dietrich's diaries are sometimes very personal and intimate, sometimes very formal: Flight this and that to N.Y. 993 at 9 P.M., etc. She wrote a lot about her feelings towards [Yul] Brynner but not that much towards [Hugh] Curnow, [Michael] Wilding, etc. Details about her relationship with Curnow are mostly in their correspondences. Especially in the '80s, she wrote about things that were not meant for others to read. Naturally I didn't write about them in my book either--Marlene Dietrich also has the right to privacy, no?

J: This information about Marlene Dietrich returning to her diaries in 1948 is new to me and very interesting. I was asking about why Marlene Dietrich wrote her diaries (meaning her later ones) because Maria gave the impression that Marlene Dietrich sometimes wrote them for others to read them. I am without Maria's book at the moment, but I remember Maria citing entries in which Marlene Dietrich wrote that she was all alone and Maria wasn't calling her--as if to make Maria look like a bad daughter. Now, that's a difficult distinction that you had to make--determining what was too private for your book. Obviously, most Marlene Dietrich biographers didn't have your ethics.

S: There's Maria Riva's handwriting in a November 1978 diary: "Maria here." Yes, I also remember that Maria Riva wrote something like "Marlene Dietrich wanted people to think that she was left alone to starve." There were moments when she really was left alone, such as when people around her had vacations. But to starve? She had a telephone and could have easily asked someone to bring her food, if she had wished. Of course, there were days and especially nights when she suffered from loneliness and more than once she waited in vain for her daughter to come or call. There surely has been a lot of tension between the mother and daughter but that isn't anything new, right? In her book Maria Riva could have been more objective--she told HER version of the story and for her it might have been the truth, her truth. Who am I to blame her for her feelings? Of course, I had expected her book to be more informative. More tour dates, more facts. In an interview Maria Riva talked about her "photographic memory," but even she didn't always remember things right. But it's not just Marlene Dietrich's diaries that sometimes testify against Maria Riva's book, it's also some of Marlene Dietrich's correspondence. But again, it must have been quite a life to be the daughter of Marlene Dietrich. Marlene Dietrich was one of a kind and her daughter might be one of a kind, too. Anyway, she made a wonderful gesture selling the estate to Berlin. She could have done otherwise--there was another offer, more generous, but she did the right thing for the posterity. I respect her very much for that decision!

I don't know about the ethics--the things that I didn't want to write about were a bit "humiliating" but not significant at all. The book wouldn't become any better, if I had written about them. And, as I said before, even a world famous celebrity like Marlene Dietrich has the right to some privacy. About certain health problems I wrote only because Maria Riva had already told about them in her book. I also wanted to prove that Marlene Dietrich wasn't drinking all the time and she could get excellent reviews even in her 70s though some biographers let us think otherwise.

J: You don't think your attitude toward a celebrity's privacy isn't an ethical concern? By ethics, I mean that you've got a sense of "right and wrong," which I don't think other biographers have with respect to their subject's privacy. The only reason why they might not write about something private is because they fear legal action, which isn't at all ethical and is instead self-serving.

S: Thanks Joseph. No doubt you are right about ethics. In this case it came exactly out of respect towards Marlene Dietrich.

J: What exactly did you research at MDCB, and how long did you research? Were you able to understand everything you saw/read? Did anyone at MDCB explain anything to you?

S: Mostly I researched Marlene Dietrich's diaries, her correspondence (letters to and from Marlene Dietrich - she had copies of letters that she had sent) with various people--friends, family, lovers and people connected with her professionally. There were some notes that she had written for herself, like some written after a fight with Jean Gabin and Hugh Curnow. I also read all the set-ups for concerts that could be found. There were cuttings from newspapers with Marlene Dietrich's remarks on them, biographies on her with her remarks. I also read some contracts, like for Grosvenor House. They have four (as far as I can remember) VHS cassettes of the I Wish You Love television show at MDCB. I watched them, too. Diaries were important because I wanted to see her daily life behind the image, people whom she met, how often did she visit her husband, how much she saw her daughter and grandchildren, how much did she travel besides the touring. The touring dates were also very important as they have been wrong everywhere. I ALMOST got them right (one canceled performance in Malmo, Sweden, was unnoticed by me). Most of the time I understood everything. You see, I also took lessons in French just in order to understand documents written in French (and books by Bozon, Bosquet, etc., plus French magazines). I didn't read her diaries written in German. Silke Ronneburg told that they are very difficult to understand. As I wasn't so much interested in Marlene Dietrich's childhood and her life before Hollywood, I saw them but didn't research them. My book contains over 600 pages--if I had research her early life as carefully as I did with her later life, the book would have been over 1000 pages! It was necessary to drop something out. Therefore there is not so much about Marlene Dietrich's early life in my book. Naturally there were difficult issues. For example, it was a challenge to find out the reasons for cancellation of the South American tour of 1974. Silke Ronneburg helped me with that problem. In diaries there were some remarks the meaning of which remained a mystery. Very often I had to work like a detective. It wasn't easy but it was very rewarding to eventually find answers.

J: Was there anything at MDCB that you wanted to research but couldn’t? If so, what? Was there anything you expected to find at MDCB but didn’t? If so what?

S: On VHS tapes of I Wish You Love there were no out takes that are seen in Maximilian Schell's documentary. The diaries of 1961, 1962, 1963, 1969, and 1970 are not at MDCB. Nor is the contract of Just A Gigolo. I had wished that I could find out how much she was paid for the role. Naturally I couldn't listen to unused tapes of Maximilian Schell's documentary, but that I knew beforehand.

After that first visit to MDCB there were many others. Between 2006 and 2010 there must have been perhaps 6 or 7 visits. A week each time, once just 3 days. I was there every morning at 10 o'clock and left at 5 p.m. when the archive closes. Of course, I had a break for lunch every day. If somebody from the archive staff was staying at work after 5 p.m., I was allowed to stay, too. Every time I sent Silke Ronneburg a list of documents that I wanted to research beforehand. We also had discussions - during every visit I had a chance to talk with her for an hour or so. Barbara Schröter was very helpful too. I visited the textile department for a half a day perhaps three or four times.

J: Where and what else did you research?

S: A friend of mine in Amsterdam bought the Norma Bosquet archive--mostly hand-written notes by Marlene Dietrich and the Bernard Hall archive--his manuscript of the book which he had tried to write plus some notes--and I naturally traveled to Amsterdam to research these documents. There are many other interesting items in that collection of that person, many of them genuine (like some belongings of Marlene Dietrich). I was also lucky to get some rare newsreels and taped telephone conversations to watch and to listen. Because some of the diaries are still in Maria Riva's possession, I purchased a lot of magazines with articles on Marlene Dietrich from those years (1961-1963, 1969, 1970). I had collected articles on Marlene Dietrich for many years and they very very useful, too. In film archive of Finland they have files on foreign film stars and directors. So I got an opportunity to research them. Of course, other biographies of Marlene Dietrich helped, though not all of them are reliable. I read a lot of books on people who were connected with Marlene Dietrich. Some of them had published their autobiographies and they very also very interesting to read. It was fascinating to visit places which have something to do with Marlene Dietrich. Therefore I traveled to Paris, New York, London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Berlin.

J: Was there anything interesting in Bernard Hall's manuscript that hasn't already been written?

S: The manuscript by Mr. Hall didn't contain anything very interesting. There wasn't much to read and it's possible that some of it has been lost. Bernard Hall was a very, very restless, unstable person, he hardly could have the stamina to write a whole book on Marlene Dietrich. From Schell's film, we got a totally different impression about his personality! By the way, Hall's scenes were shot in Munich and Marlene Dietrich learned about that only afterwards, which made her feel furious and betrayed. Before Norma Bosquet he tried to work as Marlene Dietrich's secretary when she was writing her memoirs. Of course, it didn't last for long. Later Norma Bosquet claimed that Hall never was Marlene Dietrich's secretary but for a short period he tried to be one.

J: Are there still efforts to get your book translated into German? How about into other languages?

S: The publisher contacted a few German publishers with some pages of my book translated into German and a description of the content of my book. A review (an excellent one!) was also attached. Haven't heard anything since They say it can take years to get your book translated, if the subject isn't very current at the moment. Who knows? The book by Spoto was published in 1992 and it came out in Finnish in 2010! I have been told, however, that my book will be at Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

J: What do you think about the most widespread biographical materials about Marlene Dietrich (e.g., Marlene Dietrich’s own memoir, her daughter Maria Riva’s book, Steven Bach’s book)? Have you read the other Dietrich-related books (e.g., Higham, Frewin, Spoto, Bret, Hanut, Chandler, etc.), and what did you think of them? What’s in your book that isn’t in any of the widely available books---or any other books, for that matter?

S: This is a very large question! I have always liked a lot of Steven Bach's book. He did excellent work and never was showing off by his contact with Marlene Dietrich. After Marlene Dietrich learnt about his plans to write about her she cut contact with him and warned everybody (Max Colpet, etc.) not to talk to Bach. Marlene Dietrich's own memoirs is a very interesting book because it's her own statement and reveals very, very little. Maria Riva's book is in a way a bit the same--she is also very subjective and selective with the facts. Her facts are not always the real facts. Of course, there's a truth in her book, too. In a way it's more a story of her than of Marlene Dietrich. She made her point big time. It would have been wonderful if she could have waited a couple of years before the book was published. Perhaps it would have been more objective, with a bit less of Maria Riva's personal emotions. David Riva made a very good documentary and in it Maria Riva talks without bitterness. Perhaps it's the bitterness that disturbs me in her book the most. She tells stories which justify her bitter feelings to the reader. Dietrich Icon is also a very interesting, academic book. It's not a biography but contains a lot of valuable information. The books by Eryk Hanut and Constantin Petru are at least harmless which can't be said about David Bret's book. Bret's book contains too many mistakes to be taken seriously. I also don't like his attitude: "I heard this from Marlene Dietrich - if you don't believe it, it's your problem." Constantin Petru really knew Marlene Dietrich, so did Louis Bozon and Norma Bosquet. To be honest I expected more from Norma Bosquet. The book by Werner Sudendorf is naturally a very reliable one. Unfortunately it's not a large biography. Books by Morley, Higham, Wood, Walker, Sheppard Skaerved, Dickens, Spoto, Frewin, Bemman, Martin, etc. are all on my book shelves but it was so long ago when I read them. Charlotte Chandler's book I couldn't read, I simply couldn't after she didn't get right even Stan Freeman's name and claimed that Yul Brynner was still in Marlene Dietrich's life in the 70s. There's a lot of information in my book that can't be found in any other biography. Bach wrote much more about Marlene Dietrich's Hollywood years but her singing career is told in my book more carefully than anywhere else. I have also told much about Marlene Dietrich's relationship with her sister, Maria Riva's boys, lovers, friends like Marti Stevens, Ginette Vachon, Tatjana Liberman. The end of romance with Gabin can be read in details in my book too. Also some unknown facts about Marlene Dietrich/Brynner, Marlene Dietrich/Wilding, Marlene Dietrich/Hugh Curnow, and Marlene Dietrich/Burt Bacharach. Some film project that never came to anything are also told, like one with Orson Welles, the other with Jörn Donner. And much more--Marlene Dietrich's life behind the legend, tour dates--you name it! Marlene Dietrich's remarks in her diaries and personal letters gave me an opportunity to let Marlene Dietrich's own voice to be heard in the pages of the book. Conclusion: my book should be available in English and German

J: I have read Dietrich Icon and written lots of notes in the margins. I find some of the arguments tenuous (such as the Garbo-related one by Garncarz), but that's less important to me than the fact that the book positions Marlene Dietrich as a subject of serious research. I really don't know anything about Petru's book. To discuss yet again the issue of language, I'd probably have to read every sentence of it with the help of a German-English dictionary. I understand, however, that it was translated from French. That, I'd be able to read! About Bret, Hanut, and also Maria Riva, I think that their biographies rely too heavily on their "authority" as people who knew (or claimed to know) Marlene Dietrich. This to me is problematic. Obviously, you have insights about a person whom you know, but personal relationships are no substitute for research--especially when you are discussing where and when events took place. One striking example of this is in the article "A Legend's Last Years," which was published in the June 1, 1992 issue of People magazine. The author of this article, Marjorie Rosen, included Hugh Pickett's comment about Marlene Dietrich touring in Ottawa at the age of 78 in 1978, which is wholly inaccurate. Marlene Dietrich wasn't touring in 1978 let alone in Ottawa, and she wasn't 78 years old at any point during that year. The inclusion of this inaccurate statement in the article would indicate that Rosen didn't thoroughly fact-check, and I doubt most readers fact-checked either because we tend to accept the testimony of insiders, especially in published sources. In my opinion, readers should always be aware of the privileges they assign to family, friends, lovers, or even experts when it comes to biographies and history because these special people can certainly get facts wrong.

S: You are right, once again. The last question of your message: Louis Bozon also got some things wrong, for instance, he claimed in a Paris Match interview that Marlene Dietrich moved to the second apartment at 12 Ave. Montaigne in 1978, though the right year was 1976. I'm not sure, if he gave the same year in his book. One of the problems with those personal friends is that many of them were in troublesome terms with each other, everyone of them trying to overshadow the others. Their message seems to be: "Without me Marlene Dietrich wouldn't have survived". M. Riva didn't even mention Norma Bosquet, Louis Bozon or Bernard Hall by name. Bosquet and Bozon didn't like each other either. Now I can't remember, if they wrote about each other in their books. Constantin Petru writes about Hall but calls him "John" who was an alcoholic. In Petru's book there's nothing very interesting, I think. No doubt he was important to Marlene Dietrich as one of concierges who helped her and had access to her apartment.

One more thing about Bozon: He was one of those really close to Marlene Dietrich. But again, we know only his version of their relationship ... in the latest documentary he played tapes and we hear Marlene Dietrich asking for forgiveness and telling how much she values Bozon's friendship. Yes, but Bozon also was a human and at some point Marlene Dietrich wrote in her diary that she feels like a sugar daddy--Bozon comes to her only when he needs something from her. Without doubt Bozon was very good to be around--he arranged Marlene Dietrich's speech for the Moulin Rouge festivities, etc.

J: Do you think biographers should write about facts and history, or do you see a place for gossip, rumors, and legends?

S: A serious biography should be written seriously, I think. Everything should be checked and double checked. Any biographer is responsible for his subject and about people like Marlene Dietrich there are already too many lies going around. Many of them keep on going, because biographers rely too much on other books that were written about Marlene Dietrich. A biographer must note if he tells a story that can be just a legend or a rumor. Some of those stories are juicy and funny, and they can make the book easier to read. It's necessary to cite the source, too. A biography without sources and footnotes is very suspicious, I suppose. For uncertain things there are words like "possibly," "apparently," "perhaps," "maybe," etc.

J: Where do you think new Marlene Dietrich admirers should start learning about her? What should they read? What sites should they visit?

S: If a new admirer is an adult and knows languages (English, German, French) there are many possibilities. One should read Steven Bach's book and the Photographs and Memories book, the biography by Werner Sudendorf, and A Woman at War by David Riva is also very much worth reading. A new admirer should watch Marlene Dietrich's films and listen her songs; they are quite easy to find nowadays. There are good documentaries, too, like Her Own Song by David Riva. I wouldn't recommend Maximilian Schell's film or Maria Riva's book for beginners because one should know the circumstances behind them. It's a horrible thought that a beginner would start from Charlotte Chandler or David Bret! Naturally Marlene Dietrich's own autobiography and her ABC book are very interesting, but again, if one knows their background I didn't know much when I read Marlene Dietrich's memoir for the first time, and therefore I was very confused later.

What sites one should visit? There are many who could answer this much better than me! Marlene Dietrich's official website is a must, of course, and Falling in Love Again by Ulrich Puchstein. I hope I'm not forgetting something very important. Marlene Dietrich is a very curious person, because she can be interesting from so many points of view--cinema, music, politics, fashion, photographic art, the image of a woman in general, because she was ahead of her time in many ways. She is so much more than a movie star (like Garbo, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, etc.).

J: Do any other celebrities fit into this "much more than a movie star" role to you?

S: Marlene Dietrich is the only one that I can think of. Today there might be other ones but I don't know much about the celebrities of today.

J: Do you have anything else to add?

S: Before I started my research at MDCB I thought that I knew quite a lot about Marlene Dietrich--then, I realized I didn't know that much. Now I know more, but still not enough! But what is enough? Even after reading her diaries, letters, after listening some of her telephone conversations where she is not playing Dietrich, I can't really "know" her. All I can do is tell facts and my thoughts about her. In a way I have got a glimpse of a woman behind the image, but I would like to see the diaries that are not at MDCB. And I would like to see more taped film performances. There must be some, because there are short clips from them. Would be interesting to see her singing in tails--I have seen just a bit.


  1. Really interesting interview, I am looking forward to reading this book. Most of the biographies are so bad, I haven't read more than a few pages! Yes,and she was much more than a Hollywood star, that is what makes her an object of fascination.

  2. Thanks Joseph and Sauli for this interesting dialogue. It's been a long time since Marlene's has been the subject of a serious biography, based on original research. (Sauli has invariably been generous with his time and knowledge whenever I've asked him about aspects of Dietrich's concert career, and he treats his subject with respect.)


  3. Now I want to read this - in English! At first, I thought, not another book on Marlene, but the research on this seems to be a lot more comprehensive and if it involved the MDCB, it must be well worth it!

  4. I agree, Alistair. During my correspondence with Sauli, I realized that there will perhaps always be another Marlene Dietrich biography worth writing given the sources that have yet to be accessed or fully utilized. Like Sauli said, there were several years' worth of MD diaries not at MDCB, which makes me think that--if they are ever accessible--someone could write a biographical work based on those diaries. Also, Sauli mentioned the existing sources on Marlene's early life. Again, if anyone ever wanted to research those materials extensively, I also think that would make for a refreshing new biographical work on MD. On the other hand, there may already be books out there that make thorough use of these early sources that have yet to be translated into English. If that's the case, I hope the readers of this blog inform me of those books so that I can bring attention to them as well.

  5. Thank you both for a very interesting read,Enjoyed it enormously.Paul

  6. Jeroen de Beer11 August, 2014 04:56

    Great interview, fingers crossed for either a German of English translation. It surprises me Sauli states that it has been so long ago he read the Bemman book, MD - ihr Weg zum Chanson, since it also focuses on Dietrich's singing career.

  7. This book deserves and needs to be published in German and English (and many other languages if possible). Sauli did such an amazing job with his extensive and enormous research and the incredible amount of work he has put in to making this not just another "biography" but a true document about Marlene's stage and later life! HAYO

  8. What an interesting interview Sauli and Joseph! Yes! All the colleagues and employees from the MDCB are friendly, professional, cooperative and nice! And it is important to say all have a wonderful sense of humor! Greetings – Peter

  9. Fascinating interview! The book sounds wonderful - I hope to be able to read it in English in the near future!

  10. That is absolutely a real interesting book, maybe the best after Bach's book and Maria's biography. It should definitely be published in english.
    As we all know the David Riva book and dvd Documentary "her own song" carried his name but he hardly did any of the work, that was all done by the production staff. He just "lent" his name to these projects so don't credit him for his "work" cause he really did not do much, if anything!

    1. That's an interesting claim. Were you among the staffers? Sometimes, I think it's easier to credit a single person for a work as a sort of shorthand. It's kind of like how unknown songwriter/producers create hit songs that a pretty young woman sings, yet the pretty young woman gets all the credit for it when all she may have done was change a few words.

    2. You are right about that, in this case 95 % (or more) of the hard work was done by the production staff. David Riva was certainly not qualified for the job and everyone involved was aware of this. He should have listened to his grandmother: " if somebody wants to do a job you should know about it, or he should go home and do something else".
      Pitty he did not listen to her.

    3. Having a Dietrich grandson attached to the documentary to promote it at least helped disseminate the fruit of the staff's incredible labor more widely, didn't it? I'm very intrigued by your revelation, by the way. Who should be created for the intellectual content of the documentary? Or was it really the work of too many people to credit just one or a few? If you would be more comfortable discussing this privately, you can reach me at

    4. The credit goes to the production staff and the people who prepared this whole project. And of course a Dietrich grandson attached to this project helped raising the funds to get the whole thing started!
      So in that way his contribution as such was necessary.

  11. WOW this book I absolutely want to read! Sounds fantastic.
    Drucke die Daumen for a german edition :()

  12. As a huge Dietrich admirer I would love to read this book, would be very interesting to read about her stage career. Seems her movie career was always highlighted so this angle is most welcome to find out about.

  13. Loved this interview and I think I would love the book even more!

  14. Thanks for your kind words, everyone!

  15. It has been a pleasure to read these encouraging comments. The extraordinary life and amazing career of Marlene Dietrich still continues to fascinate people. There surely will be new books on her as there still are questions that need to be researched. I did my best to write a good biography which tells something new about Marlene Dietrich's life and career. But as I told in the interview, I know far from everything about this lady. During her life she knew so many people that it was just impossible to tell about all of them. There might also be performances that we still don't know about. Hope, someone will be able to write more about the years 1961, 1962, 1963, 1969 and 1970. Somebody here questioned David Riva's part in the documentary Marlene Dietrich - Her Own Song. Whatever the truth is to me that film is the best documentary of MD that was ever made. With kind wishes, Sauli

  16. What a great interview and great book promises! ... I would love too ... that was published in Spanish, my English and French are not bad, maybe I would lose details in reading. I have a blog in Spanish: that I surrender my personal tribute, always subjective and no aseptic, about Marlene. I want to read that biography, Sauli, I sense totally that will be the definitive biography. Greetings and thanks to Joseph for this unexpected and captivating interview. Kisses. Sorry for my English ...

  17. Thank you for your message, miguelmarlene. It was great to know about your blog. What a shame I can't read Spanish. Will try anyway .... Sauli

    1. shush who cares ? ....

  18. Wonderful interview! I had never heard about this book - probably because it's not available in English - but if there's a Swedish translation I can read that one too :) I just finished Maria Riva's lengthy book at last (which I almost gave up on at one point... let me just say that book could have been a lot shorter, and less bitter), which left me wanting for more as it clearly was incredibly subjective.

    I also watched Schell's documentary and am astonished at his conduct. He may have been a good director, but certainly not a good interviewer. Not only did I not find the subject cranky and uncooperative, but in fact agreed with a lot of Dietrich's remarks towards Schell about his manners and what she called his 'masochistic' tendencies, or what I would call the ego of the director. It felt to me like he was trying to get what he wanted out of Dietrich by making her respond to silly setups and questions rather than approaching her with understanding, without thinking of the direction of his film all the time. But perhaps that is the director's way.

    In any case, it sounds like this is a very well-researched book with plenty of love and respect for the subject. I look forward to reading it in whatever language I can!

    1. Hello, Klara! Unfortunately, the most recent efforts to find a translator for this book have not panned out, but I hope some publisher out there will recognize the value of making this book and its unique perspective more widely accessible.

      I can read Maria's book again and again, but I can't argue against it being subjective. I hope you get a chance to read Bach's biography if you haven't already because it covers a lot of the same content as Maria's, although you may probably notice that Bach is rather subjective himself and takes several digs at Maria.

      I haven't ever thought about the Schell documentary in terms of how Schell may have directed Marlene with his set-ups and questions, but I can certainly see it now. There is something about the way that Schell pushes Marlene's buttons that reminds me of how a reality TV show producer manipulates a reality TV star to provide funny or outrageous comments and emotional reactions. I can understand why Schell would rile up Marlene, though, because he needed her voice to be even more expressive given the absence of her face.

      Schell explained the behind-the-scenes drama that ensued in this YouTube clip, and I must say that if he didn't prepare well by researching Marlene or come up with questions that required more than "yes" or "no" answers, he wasn't acting as a professional interviewer at all, and that could have certainly rubbed Marlene the wrong way because she has expressed a belief in professionalism in whatever job a person performs. Most of Schell's questions really were answered in Marlene's book, and Schell should have expounded on them rather than ask Marlene to repeat the content of her book. He at least did this a few times, such as when he asked her asked her why she thought The Devil Is a Woman was her best film, but she gave him an amusingly bratty answer. I'd like to know whether Schell asked her this later during their conversations, as the editing would suggest, because Marlene may have been quite hostile toward Schell at that point.

    2. I haven't read Bach's book yet, but I may pick it up after a while. First I need to recover from Maria's lengthy chronicles!

      I've seen Schell discuss the documentary and how he didn't prepare for the interviews. He wanted to approach the whole thing as an experiment, and that's understandable coming from a director's perspective. However, where I think he misbehaved a bit is precisely his lack of preparation, and then being confrontational when Marlene did not give him the answers he wanted. It sounds like he wasn't even sure what he was looking for, and it's unfair to vent that frustration on the interviewee. And if he had indeed done his research, maybe he would have known the right questions to ask her so that she wouldn't say it's in her book all the time.

      Obviously the results were interesting to say the least, but I'm not sure if the effort was worth the invasion of privacy. Perhaps Schell should have elaborated that this was not going to be a straight documentary, in which case Marlene may not have consented to the whole thing at all. It is difficult to make one without filming the person of course, but if that was the condition it was Schell's job to figure it out, not Marlene's.

      In any case, I got a real good laugh out of Marlene pointing out that Schell was basically Swiss with some German thrown in, so I have to thank Schell for that at least!

    3. Also, if it weren't for Schell's unprofessional style of interviewing, I may have never learned to word "Quatsch," which has become a favorite exclamation of mine!

      In what way do you think the documentary was an invasion of privacy? It's clear that Marlene didn't realize how the film would be distributed because she balked at it being a feature film and saw it as a potential television documentary. With that understanding, I wouldn't have ever thought--if I were Marlene--that most of the comments that I had made would make their way into the documentary. In that regard, I could see a sort of invasion of privacy, regardless of the fact that I spoke while being taped. What I could also see as an invasion of Marlene's privacy was the recreation of her apartment because--if she didn't want it filmed--she clearly didn't want us to see it in any way, shape, or form.

    4. I agree with you about the apartment. And as a writer myself, it's clear to me that Schell went far beyond the scope of basic journalistic etiquette since he wasn't a journalist but a director. By that I mean most of the comments in the documentary would normally be off-the-record, but clearly Schell used whatever was necessary to make a film out of very little, and was contractually allowed to do so as it did not specify what could or could not be used from the tape. I wonder if Dietrich could have sued him for defamation of character -- which of course would only have exacerbated matters.

      From Marlene's remarks in the documentary, it also seemed like she had very clear ideas about what this 'documentary' would look like, and her expectations were completely reversed, so I think there was a communication problem there!

    5. Schell stated in at least one interview that was published in several newspapers (for example, see here) that Marlene looked into suing him and even claimed that Schell didn't turn off the microphone when he was supposed to during their interviews. I don't know what exactly Marlene wanted the lawsuit to be, but if any of you know and can cite a source to confirm this, please let us know!

    6. Wow, I had not seen this interview before and it certainly touches upon all the things I wondered about the film. I wonder why Marlene didn't sue him, and also if in the end she came to accept the film for what it is even though she clearly did not commission it to be what it turned out to be! Also very interesting that Schell admits he did not know what he was looking for. I think it must be difficult to work with a director who doesn't know this, and considering Marlene's past filled with very straightforward, professional directors, that must have been unusual.

  19. I agree with you about the apartment. And as a writer myself, it's clear to me that Schell went far beyond the scope of basic journalistic etiquette since he wasn't a journalist but a director. By that I mean most of the comments in the documentary would normally be off-the-record, but clearly Schell used whatever was necessary to make a film out of very little, and was contractually allowed to do so as it did not specify what could or could not be used from the tape. I wonder if Dietrich could have sued him for defamation of character -- which of course would only have exacerbated matters.

    From Marlene's remarks in the documentary, it also seemed like she had very clear ideas about what this 'documentary' would look like, and her expectations were completely reversed, so I think there was a communication problem there!