27 February 2015

A Bilingual Review of Alfred Polgar's Marlene: Bild einer berühmten Zeitgenossin

Polgar, Alfred (2015). Marlene: Bild einer berühmten Zeitgenossin. Wien: Paul Zsolnay Verlag. [160 pages; € 17,90]

Blog reader Horst Zumkley has kindly contributed the following reviews in English and German of the latest Marlene Dietrich-related publication, Alfred Polgar's Marlene: Bild einer berühmten Zeitgenossin, edited and with an afterword by Ulrich Weinzierl, which is currently available at

During the 1920s, Alfred Polgar (1873-1955) was a well-known Austrian critic and columnist who lived in Berlin. He later had to flee the Nazis and relied on the help of others also in exile. Through the mediation of a Swiss friend, Polgar received financial support from Marlene Dietrich. Sort of in return, Polgar agreed to write a portrait of her, which he composed during 1937 and 1938.

In 1984, Ulrich Weinzierl, who had edited Polgar's posthumously published works and written a biography about Polgar, found the biographical portrait in a suitcase in the New York apartment of Selma (Sally) Ell, the widow of Polgar's stepson Erik G. Ell. At that time, Weinzierl did not publish it because the circumstances under which the manuscript was written were still unclear.

Now, 60 years after Polgar’s death and nearly 80 years after its creation, Polgar’s manuscript finally appears in print as the first part of the book, Marlene: Bild einer berühmten Zeitgenossin. Polgar’s text traces the career of Marlene during the period between 1927 and 1937 and describes the "famous contemporary" as a quasi-god, gifted artist, and perfect human being

The second part of the book was written by Weinzierl, who retraces "the history" of this manuscript and contextualizes its emergence and meaning in Polgar's life as a Jewish emigrant.

This portrait of Marlene is more a book for Polgar fans than Dietrich admirers. The text, until now unknown, is pure hagiographical prose and brings nothing new; nevertheless, its belated publication is welcome.

Likely, Polgar played no special role for Marlene; he was one of many emigrants whom she helped. In Dietrich's autobiography, the name Polgar does not appear, and the manuscript, in which she participated, is not mentioned. Nor is the name Polgar mentioned in the Dietrich biographies by Maria Riva (Marlene's daughter), Bach, Freeman, Higham, Spoto, Walker, etc. Only in the biography by Werner Sudendorf (2001, p 124) is there is a mention of Polgar's support by Marlene and their cooperation in his book about her.

In contrast, Dietrich and the portrait that Polgar wrote about her were of particular importance for Polgar during his emigration period. This is convincingly pointed out by Weinzierl in his epilogue.

The best and most unique parts about this book are the subject, the previously unknown history of the origin of the manuscript, and its subsequent odyssey. It is a document of emigration history, interesting, sometimes grotesque, and certainly characteristic of that time.

--Horst Zumkley

Please read Zumkley's German-language review as well:

10 February 2015

Interview: Marlene Dietrich – bourgeois, geranium-lover

Betty Best interviewed Marlene Dietrich, backstage at London's Golder's Green Hippodrome, in 1965. Special thanks to the Crees Collection for sharing this material.

Marlene Dietrich in her dressing room.
It had been a month since I'd seen her. A month since she'd held out a delicate, tiny hand and agreed to the idea of a private interview with a brief, "Yes, yes, call me at Claridges" –  and sounded as if she meant it. 

But I'd made at least ten telephone calls every day since then, from Brighton to Birmingham and back to London, without ever once getting through to that inimitable, halting voice. A month of pleading with agents and publicity officers, all of whom sounded terrified at the very thought that I should claim a whole hour of Miss Dietrich's time to myself. 

By then my mental picture of her was becoming a little unsure. Perhaps that brief meeting among a horde of people in the excitement of a first arrival had been misleading. Perhaps the apparent ease and friendliness of the magic Marlene was just an effect, switched on like her magnificent stage personality, for an audience which expected it. 

Police cordons 

In between times I'd heard of the packed schedule of a tour which stopped in each city for only a week, which included intense rehearsals with each orchestra, with her arranger Burt Bacharach (who flew from the U.S.A. especially), an entire one-woman radio play for the BBC somehow jammed into the London week; of fantastic hold-ups every night after each show while fans besieged the stage doors so that Dietrich could not emerge without special police cordons.

Perhaps I was hoping for too much. Then I got word that she was fed up with English reporters asking about nothing but her age, her looks, her clothes, and that most forbidden of all subjects, her family – about whom she will never speak.

All the signs were against my ever getting to see her at all. Yet, throughout I had a curious belief that it would come off – because of the geranium.

Miss Dietrich had, that first night, told an endearing story: ''I've just made a new LP. The songs of old Berlin as I remember them as a child. They are beautiful songs, real songs of the people. And because they always meant so much to me, I wanted to do everything about this record myself. Even to designing the cover. Me, I'm not an artist. But I had my ideas. I always see Berlin as a grey city – grey walls, streets, everything.

"So I got paints and made a beautiful grey pattern. Then, because I'm not an artist, I went to a stationer's and bought those letters children use to scratch with a pencil and that come out on paper.

"Then on the bar of the 'H' at the end of my name I put a lovely little pot of bright red geraniums. When I took it proudly to the publisher, he said, 'Why the geraniums there?' I tried to explain that it is the flag of the little people in grey cities everywhere. The big gesture of the bourgeois toward beauty. And I am a bourgeois and I love geraniums.

"But, of course, he couldn't understand. Never mind, I kept my geranium on the cover – just as I always keep one in my dressing-room wherever I go."

And sure enough, when finally, after many cancellations, I got to her dressing room at Golder's Green Hippodrome on the outskirts of London, there it was. Not a grand florist's specimen,but a simple little scarlet single in a common terracotta pot sitting on the wash basin in the corner. 

Beside it on the wall was a symbol of that very private side of Dietrich's life she seldom mentions, a
large framed and inscribed portrait of Ernest Hemingway, wearing a polo-necked sweater and looking young and adventurous.

On a previous occasion I had once managed to get her to touch on her great friend ship with this man who wrote of her: "I think she knows more about love than anyone. I know that every time I have seen Marlene Dietrich she has done some thing to my heart and made me happy.''

It was when she was railing against the agonies of work on tour: "It is not the performances I mind. They are fine. Once I am in front of people I can recharge my batteries from them.

''It is the terrible chore of packing and unpacking. Of never having a minute to myself or a second for reading."

Then someone asked who was her favourite author and, suddenly, the whole face softened and glowed. She replied with the single word, "Hemingway."

She began to speak of the great respect and love she felt for him; her voice broke, she turned away with a final, "Life is not the same now he has gone."