01 November 2014

Dietrich Interviewed: Advice from "An Old German Shoe"

Marlene had recently completed her annual Las Vegas stint and was in the midst of her South American concert tour when this interview, by Lloyd Shearer, was published in an August 1959 edition of Parade:

BOOKERS WHO SCHEDULE the stage appearances of famous show business personalities loosely classify these celebrities in two groups  — talent and freak attractions. 

Marlene Dietrich, who each year is booked into the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, the Copacabana in Rio and several other night spots throughout the world at $25,000 a week, is classified as a freak attraction. 

The reason? People will pay to see her regardless of her act — an act in which she sings badly because her tremulous voice lacks timbre and range, and in which she dances inadequately because her dancing is limited to a series of offbeat kicks and cakewalks. And yet Marlene is always a sellout.  Wherever she plays she draws enthusiastic crowds. She stimulates tumultuous ovations. She arouses such awe and envy-inspired audience comment as, “How does she do it at her age?” or “Doesn't she ever grow old?” or “Look at the figure on that woman.” 

At 55, onstage, sheathed in a shimmering side-slit creation designed by Jean Louis, languorously slinking up to a microphone, incredibly immune to the ravages of age, Grandma Dietrich generates more glamor and sex appeal than any other actress you can think of, even those half her age. 

How does she do it? The honest answer is money, technique and style. 

“Let's not fool anyone,” Dietrich candidly declares. “It takes money to be glamorous nowadays. Glamor is what I sell in my act, and it costs plenty. 

Feathers from Argentina

“Take this dress I'm wearing. It costs around $12,000. I know that's fabulous but it's true. I bought two of them and the final bill came to something over $23,000. The beading alone for the two dresses came to $11,000. The rooster feathers I had flown up from Argentina. They cost more than $1,000. Jean Louis, who designs clothes for Columbia Pictures, was paid $6,000 for the design and the overall work. 

Vital statistics on La Dietrich:
she stands 5'5'', weighs 106 pounds,
enjoys measurements of 34-22-34.
“But it's worth it to me,” Marlene continues, “because glamor is my stock in trade. People say, 'Have you seen the dress Dietrich is wearing in her new act?' My clothes arouse more comment than anything except maybe my figure. On that I spend absolutely nothing. Fortunately I don't have to diet. Nature's been very kind to me. I think I've weighed 106 or 108 pounds for the past 20 years. I don't really know. The last time I got on a scale was in 1946. Other women aren't so lucky. But if they have money they can go to expensive reducing farms or health resorts. They can have their faces lifted and their bodies massaged, and they can hire cosmeticians to hide facial flaws.

“Then if they want to, they can learn style and technique. To be glamorous a woman must be intensely feminine. She must be glad and proud to use the attributes of the female figure to the best advantage, A good pair of legs, amply shaped bust, smiling or naughty eyes — these should rarely be hidden. 

“A woman should enter a room gracefully but at the same time as if it were an occasion. Truly glamorous women don't stride into a room, flop down on a sofa and say, 'Where are the martinis?' They study the art of making an entrance. They pause at the door until eyes are upon them, then slowly flow into a room.” 

The acquisition of glamor, according to to Marlene, takes time and painstaking effort even when one does have the money. She herself, for example, had 17 fittings before approving the dress on the next page.  Fitters, designers, seamstresses who have worked for her say Dietrich is a perfectionist who will never compromise when it comes to a professional appearance. 

Back to Hollywood 

Recently she flew one of Hollywood's crack photographers and his entire staff to Las Vegas to photograph her for poster art. When the proofs were submitted to her she refused to approve a single one. She paid the photographer his fee of $1,500, sent him and his assistants flying back to Hollywood. “I kept telling him,” she explains, “that he was using background that was too busy. It was detracting from me.” 

Dietrich knows that her trim figure, her famous legs, her bony face and seductive eyes are her primary physical attractions and she tries to perpetuate and combine these with what an old friend calls “the appearance of a world-weary woman.” 

But this glamor is reserved solely for the stage and the now infrequent screen job. 

Offstage Marlene Dietrich is “an old German shoe.” She goes around in slacks and open-throated shirt. A dab of lipstick is her only make-up. She has a penchant for scrubbing floors and cooking meals for herself or her daughter's family. Daughter Maria, a sometimes TV actress, has three sons — John Paul Riva, 2; John Peter Riva, 8, and John Michael Riva, 9, on whom Grandma Dietrich dotes.

Family resemblance is seen in smiles of Maria Riva, TV actress,
and her mother, glamorous Marlene Dietrich.
The one reason Marlene lives in New York (in a two-bedroom apartment) on Park Avenue is “because I want to be near my daughter. She needs me more than my husband does.”

Few people know it, but Dietrich has been married 35 years to Rudolf Sieber, a German motion picture director she met in Berlin in 1924. Sieber today lives on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood where he raises chickens. Here Marlene, unpublicized, spends as much time with him each year as her career permits — “sometimes three months, sometimes, four, it changes. He has been my only husband, and I try to make him as happy as I can.”

An authority of sorts on happiness — she runs a twice-a-day radio program over NBC entitled Dietrich Talks on Love and Life — Marlene says, “It's getting more difficult to be happy, but it can be done. I myself have found it hard to be happy because I'm part of such a two-war miserable generation. As a little girl I only knew my mother in mourning. She was grieving for my father, a cavalry major who was killed. In World War II my grandmother had 13 grandsons who were killed. I lost my original country, my original language, my original home. In 1937 I became an American citizen, and just when I was settling down another war broke out. So it's been hard for me. But even so I think I have learned some secrets of happiness. 

“First, you must give yourself away but only when you're wanted and needed. To do something for a man when he doesn't want you around, that's awful. But when a man needs you, then a woman should give everything. She should not hold back. She should also work with her hands, clean, cook, iron. Physical work is good happiness therapy. 

Second, you should try and earn a lot of money. Anyone who tells you that money is not an essential part of happiness hasn't lived. With money you can help those you love. You can afford good health protection. The reason I work nowadays is because I need the money to help others. [Ed. note: Marlene Dietrich has long been recognized as one of the softest touches in show business. How many people she currently supports on her annual income of $150,000 is anybody's guess. The figure, however, is sizable.] 

The Sin of Idleness 

“Third, I think it is very difficult to be happy without working, without taking some pride in achievement, however small. I was brought up in the old Germanic tradition, which holds that idleness is a sin, that men and women are put on earth to do something, to contribute to society by their labor. The happiest people are those who work hard at a task they enjoy. 

“Fourth, know your own limitations and be realistic about them. If you are a good carpenter, take pride in being a good carpenter. Try to reach any horizon you set for yourself, but if failure comes consistently, return to your original skill and perfect yourself in it.”

Marlene averages 3,000 letters a week on her radio program from problem-perplexed listeners who want her advice. From this ever-increasing mountain of mail, she is convinced that she knows what is bothering most people. 

“Today's women,” she declares, “are dissatisfied because their husbands are disappointing … sexually or in terms of humane consideration. 

“Today's men are unhappy because in my opinion they are essentially polygamous and feel guilty about their deeds or inclinations. 

“As for teenagers, they resent their parents, whom they classify as 'square' and with whom they cannot communicate.”

Marlene's solution to these problems: “Men are so easy to love. All women have to do is to orbit around them, to make them the center, the hard core of existence. The trouble with so many modern women is that they want the men to orbit around them. They want more to receive than to give.

“Men can please women very easily by being dominant in the major decisions, the major actions and considerate in the minor ones.

“Teenagers must be patient. Sure, we have botched the world into which we've brought them. But they should be more tolerant of our failures. We have love and some wisdom to give, and if they can be taught to communicate with us who knows? They may even profit from our errors end make the future world a happier and healthier world in which to live.”   ■

(Photos courtesy: Marlene Dietrich Collection)


  1. she was the age Madonna is now

  2. I hadn't seen the b&w feather shots. Thanks!

  3. Marlene Dietrich was a very intelligent woman, smart in many fields, and a real professional entertainer. She could make you puzzle, and also fascinate you just with her presence. She was a very private person too. She belonged to another era that is gone now. What a pity. I keep watching her old movies just to look at her and to see if I can find something else that I overlooked before. Her book Marlene's ABC is a must to know her. She also wrote her memoirs but she was short there, she could have said much more. Now she is gone. Her legacy is there for everyone, but the tragic part is that the new generations are so ignorants and perverted in their senses that she is ignored or misunderstood.