01 December 2015

Marlene Dietrich, American Friend of the Hebrew University

Israel Demchick, Marlene Dietrich, Joshua Ellis, Selma Ellis. At American Friends of Hebrew University event, Philadelphia, October 2, 1971
L-R Israel Demchick, Marlene Dietrich, Joshua Ellis, Selma Ellis.
The partially obstructed banner behind them reads in full: "American Friends of the Hebrew University," the organization that sponsored the event. Philadelphia hotel.
October 2, 1971

During one of my regular Google searches, I stumbled upon a photograph of Marlene Dietrich that led me to the site bio of Joshua Ellis, who has had an illustrious career as a theatre press agent. Curious, I contacted Ellis to learn more about this photograph, and he surprised me with his kind and informative responses. Not only did he provide me with a fuller image, which you can see above, he also recalled the evening when he met Dietrich, which had nothing to do with the theatre at all. Everything italicized in this post comes directly from Ellis, including this anecdote of his enviable encounter:
I was a big fan of Marlene Dietrich and adored her one-woman show on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1967.  I was 18 at the time. 
In 1971 or 1972, Miss Dietrich was given an award by Israel's Hebrew University for her fund-raising efforts on their behalf.  The award was given at a Philadelphia hotel, but I do not remember which one. I was there that night because my grandfather, a Philadelphia-based architect named Israel Demchick, was also being honored for his fund-raising efforts on behalf of the university.
I think many in the audience were intimidated by Marlene Dietrich and she was very much alone during the early meet-and-greet part of the evening.  I decided to go over to her and introduce myself.
First, I explained to her my connection to her fellow award recipient.  It was just the two of them being honored.

Miss Dietrich:  "You are very young.  Are you in school?"
Me:  "Yes, Miss Dietrich."
MD:  "What are you studying?"
Me:  "I'm getting my masters degree in theatre."
MD:  "The theatre?  That's ridiculous!  You should be studying something practical like chemistry or physics.  It's a good thing I'm not your grandmother!"
Could she be any more Dietrich?

Thanks to Ellis, I became aware of the event that had honored her and Ellis' notable grandfather, Israel Demchick. On the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings site, I learned that Demchick had been named Man of the Year in 1971 for endowing a chair in Architecture to the Hebrew University, and I surmised that this must have been the year in which Dietrich was honored as well, perhaps as Woman of the Year?

Ironically, the most information I discovered came not from a Pennsylvania institution but, rather, the Hoosier State Chronicles, an online archive of--you guessed it--Indiana periodicals, which included a run of The Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion. If you have an problems with accessing its site, you should also try the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis digital collection, which appears to mirror the online holdings of this run.

In the October 15, 1971 issue of The Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, a blurb snarkily entitled "Older Than The University" noted that the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Friends of the Hebrew University had "honored the ageless German actress of the captivating legs with the Distinguished Service Award on Oct. 2." This blurb also mentioned Dietrich having been recognized in Philadelphia 11 years earlier for something else related to Israel, but the text has been smudged. It appears to say something about Israel Bonds, no? I failed to find any articles or memories that specifically mentioned Dietrich's involvement with Israel Bonds in Philadelphia around 1960, even though other sources have tied her to such endeavors in other cities (New York City, Toronto, possibly also Toronto). Even in 1965, Dietrich received the Medallion of Valor of the State of Israel at a dinner in behalf of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Club of 1933's Israel Bonds committee.

As if the previous week's coverage wasn't colorful enough, the October 22, 1971 issue of The Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion published another piece called "The Guest of Honor Is Late," which would have us believe that Dietrich endured an odyssey that took her from Paris to New York City, then Hazlet, New Jersey, and accidentally the outskirts of Atlantic City before she finally arrived at her Philadelphia destination at 11:30 p.m. For the record, Ellis doesn't recall Dietrich arriving late at all!

If any of you have any photos or stories of Marlene's work with Jewish organizations, or anything to add about this 1971 occasion, please don't hesitate to share. Your stories and photos bring life to the newspaper articles and blurbs that many of us might otherwise overlook, and you also raise doubts about whether events truly transpired as they were published. 

Also, I have a few questions that some of you may be able to answer. 1) Where is Marlene's plaque from this event? 2) Who is she wearing? 3) At what hotel did this dinner take place?


  1. Looks like a Chanel suit. Not at all certain.

    1. That's what I was thinking, too, and--via email--that seems to be the consensus so far.

  2. Replies
    1. You think so? I'd live if Miss Dietrich were around now to school me!

  3. Thank you to Mr Ellis for sharing his memories, I loved reading about this. And thanks Joseph for all the background info you managed to dig up, love that story about her being late! I wonder what that other Philadelphia award was (the only thing I can think of offhand is a fashion award she received there in the late fifties but this can't be it).

  4. Must be Chanel, I think. MD had been two times at fittings at Chanel in Paris just before leaving for N.Y. on 1. of October (with 15 pieces of luggage).

  5. I have four Dutch magazine clippings where she is wearing the same Chanel suit .
    But it's not on this occasion , because her hair is quite different .
    They are dated later and all have to do with " lying about her birth date ".
    I also wonder about the " Edison " she received in 1963 .
    Do you think it's in the Filmmuseum in Berlin , Joseph ?

    1. Thanks for your reply. I have recently seen a photo of Marlene wearing this suit while attending "Little Night Music" at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles [misspelled in the link page] on April 16, 1973. As for the Edison award, that would be a good question to ask Silke Ronneburg, who is perhaps the only Dietrich expert left now that Werner Sudendorf has retired. I haven't ever been in direct contact with her but know she's very kind and helpful, and if you are curious enough to contact her, I hope you can ask her for a more comprehensive list of awards and such that the archive may hold.

  6. Thank you Joseph for the link to Silke Ronneburg .
    I did write to her in German and got her answer the very next day !

    The Dutch Edison award is in the archive of the Filmmuseum in Berlin .
    The wooden plaque shown in the picture here is not .

    Can it be that mister Israel Demchick is holding his own plaque ?
    Marlene got a framed calligraphic certificate on the same event , dated O2-O3-1972 . This certificate is also in the archive of the Filmmuseum in Berlin .

    1. Silke is an angel! I'm glad she responded so quickly. Indeed, I think that Mr. Demchick is holding his own plaque; in a larger version of this photo that Mr. Ellis sent me, I can almost discern Demchick's name. What's clearer is the month and day on Demchick's plaque (October 2), which corresponds to the date in the publications I cited. I wonder whether Marlene's certificate was dated when it was created?