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20 June 2019

Who was Tamara Matul?

Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg, Rudolf Sieber, Tamara Matul at Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, 1934
Rudolf Sieber, Tamara Matul, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg at Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, 1934
An androgynous woman gazes into the camera lens. What does her expression convey? The mustachioed man beside her glances tensely in the same direction, while the sharp-jawed woman behind her stares ahead--perhaps at a boxing match? Only the thin-lipped man in the back appears to be thoroughly at ease and enjoying his surroundings. Who are our players in this frame? Marlene Dietrich with her director Josef von Sternberg and her husband Rudolf Sieber ("Rudi") with his mistress Tamara Matul ("Tami") at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The caption accompanying this image, which was published in the September 1934 issue of the fan magazine Modern Screen, makes no secret of these people's identities, but only one relationship is clearly indicated--the marriage between Rudi and Marlene. Readers would have known Von Sternberg, but this mystery woman, Tamara Matul, would have eluded them. She is presented without explanation as if she were a star of Marlene's caliber when she--in reality--stood in Marlene's shadow as Rudi's lifelong mistress. If you thought people were only granted fame for doing nothing in the 21st century, here a woman is immortalized in print during the Great Depression for doing little more than being adjacent to a famous actress.

August 6, 1933 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Daily News New York (European edition)
A clipping about the Siebers in Paris, 1933
In her social column published in the August 6, 1933 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Daily News New York (European edition), Carol Weld also acknowledged Tami by name while reporting on the Sieber clan's stay at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, referring to her as Mrs. Tamara Matul. Was "Mrs." a way to acknowledge her unofficial marriage or to throw readers off it? Whatever the case may be, Tami again received press by virtue of her vicinity to a world-renown celebrity. Even in French-language publications such as Paris-soir, Tami basked in this attention. Here she was in the October 27, 1934 issue, erroneously called Tamarn. Poor Rudi got the shorter end of the stick, though, having been left unnamed and relegated to his role as "le mari de Marlène" [the husband of Marlene]--again a possible ploy to distract readers from his relationship with the otherwise unknown woman beside him:

English tennis player Fred Perry, Marlene Dietrich, Tamara Matul, and Rudolf Sieber in Palm Springs, California, 1934
English tennis player Fred Perry, Marlene Dietrich, Tamara Matul, and Rudolf Sieber in Palm Springs, California, 1934


Tamara Matul modeling hat in Das Magazine. May 1930Tamara Matul modeling hat in Das Magazine, September 1930
Tamara Matul in the pages of Das Magazin

Back in Berlin, however, Tami (credited as Tamara Matull) had managed to get her image in the May 1930 issue of Das Magazin by showing readers the value of a hat as a cover-up when one's clothes and shoes suddenly go missing. Later that year in the September issue, she modeled a fashion that Marlene has often been credited for popularizing among American women--trousers. In the December 1929 issue of Scherl's Magazin, Tami served supposedly Romanian looks:

Tamara Matul portraying Romanian features in Scherl's Magazin. December 1929
Tamara Matul portraying Romanian features in Scherl's Magazin. December 1929
Even with the press Tami received on both sides of the Atlantic, she faded into obscurity until the publication of Marlene: The Life of Marlene Dietrich by Charles Higham in 1977. Higham wrote that Tami danced in the chorus of Eric Charell's "Von Mund zu Mund" ["From Mouth to Mouth"], a 1926-1927 revue in which Marlene replaced actress Erika Glässner as mistress of ceremonies. Several photos exist of this revue, but--unless Tami was one of the performers in an animal costume--I haven't been able to spot her. Maybe those of you with a keener eye have seen her in these images? Higham suggested that Marlene and Tami became acquainted during the production this revue and that Rudi fell in love with Tami around this time. 

Higham also described Tami being seen everywhere with two other Russian girls, Varya and Hopé ["Hopy" in a June 22, 1937 letter from Tami to Rudi]. Higham noted that Rudi and Tami stayed together for the rest of Tami's life, that Marlene kept the apartment at 54 Kaiserallee available to them until their move to Paris, and that Rudi and Tami settled at the "chicken ranch" in Sylmar thanks to money from Rudi's friend, Hans Kohn, whose wife was named Varya. Was this Varya one of the three Moscow musketeers from Tami's youth in Berlin? At the chicken ranch, Tami--in her declining mental state--cluttered the tables with small china and glass figures. Her mood swings led Rudi to call friends and complain, "Tamara is impossible today." Higham was aware that Tami eventually ended up in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital but incorrectly stated that she died in 1968.

Tamara Matul admiring Van Gogh
Tamara Matul admiring Van Gogh
Higham may not have always stated his sources, but he did cite Martin Kosleck and Mercedes McCambridge for some pieces of information. One of the more disturbing anecdotes came from Kosleck, who claimed that Rudi and Tami showed pornographic images to Maria, Rudi and Marlene's daughter. McCambridge revealed that Tami received shock treatments, speculating that wearing Marlene's cast-off clothing and never marrying Rudi contributed to her mental downfall.

Following Marlene's death in 1992, Steven Bach's In Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend added perhaps alternative biographical details to Tami's life. According to Bach, photographer Alexander Choura introduced Rudi to Tami, and Tami later danced in It's in the Air, in which Marlene co-starred. When Marlene took a trip to Sylt with Maria in 1929, Rudi stayed behind with Tami. Tami lived apart from Rudi in Berlin when Marlene first went to the U.S. but once Rudi moved to Paris to work at Paramount's Joinville studio, Tami cohabited with him. Tami wore a wedding band as if married to Rudi, and Bach's source for this is one that interests me immensely: Rolph. Th. Branner. "Mister Marlenes merkwurdige Memoiren," Esslinger Zeitung, June 27, 1958. If any of you have read it and can tell me about its contents, please comment. Bach appears to have found it while researching at the Deutsche Kinemathek.

Despite all his research, Bach got some facts wrong when he asserted that Tami's real surname was "Nikolaeyevna." The confusion about this stems perhaps from a misunderstanding of Russian naming
Tamara Matul death certificate
Tamara Matul's death certificate
conventions. Tami, as the daughter of a man named Nikolai, would have had the patronymic Nikolayevna, but her surname was still Matul. Additionally, Bach stated that Tami was "murdered by another patient at Camarillo, the California state mental institution." Unless Bach knew that Tami's death certificate was falsified, nothing in it indicated that Tami was murdered. Rather, she died of a less sinister cause.

To Bach's credit, he did help guide curious Dietrich admirers to Tami's grave by pointing out that it was in the Russian Orthodox section of the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, Bach astutely speculated that the "1930" birth date on Tami's stone was the year Marlene "left Rudi and Tamara to go to Paramount, which (no one could invent the irony) backs onto the cemetery."

As for Tami's death certificate, what does it confirm, add, or even reveal about her? Her name was indeed Tamara Matul, she died at 3:50pm on March 26, 1965 at Camarillo State Hospital of bronchopneumonia due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease with hypertension, with "involutional psychotic reaction, mixed type" as a contributing condition. The length of her stay in Ventura County, where Camarillo is located, indicates that she had been hospitalized there for one-and-a-half years. She was 59 years old at the time of her death, having been born in Russia on September 30, 1905 to Nicolai Matul and Eudoxie née Zwereva, both of Russia. She was a U.S. citizen with the Social Security number 112-22-5711. Her last place of residence was the chicken ranch at 14265 Polk Street in what was called San Fernando (Sylmar is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles). In total, she had been in California for 12 years. She was listed as never married, with her last occupation as "helper- chicken ranch" and her last employer as Rudi--a formal erasure of their true relationship.

Regarding Tami's family, German-language records of them exist at the United Nations Archives in Geneva that confirm the status of Tami and her family as Russian refugees in Germany. While I may be far from Switzerland, there is perhaps someone reading this now who is much nearer and can request these records. In what is perhaps the German rendering of their names, Tami's father is recorded as Nikolaus Matul, her mother as Eudoxia (née Swjerewa) Matul, and her brother as Sergius Matul. I could find little on Tami's parents, but a search of her brother in Berlin telephone directories led me to conclude that--unless he had a son with a similar name--he went by both Sergius and Serge and was a musician by occupation. The Marlene Dietrich Adressbuch includes more information about him, with a facsimile of Marlene's address book that showed she knew him as Sergei. According to this book, Sergei was born November 30, 1907. He had a wife named Hella and sought Marlene's help to obtain a U.S. visa in 1939. He remained in Germany, though, and his visa application was rejected for health reasons. He didn't stay in touch with Tami and wrote a letter to Rudi after her death, acknowledging her trauma.

Tamara Matul smiling in the snow. 1935?
Tamara Matul smiling in the snow. 1935?
Marlene's death also was also followed by Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich by Donald Spoto, whose sole original source seems to have been Stefan Lorant. Lorant remembered Marlene calling Tami several times to obtain Yul Brynner's favorite bagel, as if Tami were her personal assistant. Of course, in her book Marlene Dietrich, Maria Riva echoed the gossip of other biographies, but she--as a first-hand witness--was able to flesh out Tami's personality and thoroughly describe the causes of Tami's mental decline, which Maria attributed to her parents' mistreatment of Tami that began in the 1930s. While I can only find a ship record of Tami leaving Cherbourg for New York City on February 21, 1934, Maria recalled that Tami came to Los Angeles with Rudi while Marlene was filming The Song of Songs. Whatever Marlene didn't want was given to Tami, and Tami's bedroom was next to Marlene's and across from Rudi's, the same sleeping arrangement as when they stayed in hotels that forced Tami to awkwardly cross a hallway to enter Rudi's room. Only when Marlene was absent did Tami share rooms with Rudi. Around the time The Garden of Allah was in production, Tami received treatment at "an exclusive spa," and when Tami returned to the family in Paris, Maria learned Tami had undergone multiple abortions. Although Maria stated that the press gave Tami the identity of "governess," I failed to find any print sources to confirm this. Despite Maria's portrayal of Tami as an utterly tragic figure, photos of her in the '30s suggest that she experienced happy times as well and was a beloved member of the Sieber household.

Rudolf Sieber & Tamara Matul. Cap d'Antibes, 1933
Rudolf Sieber & Tamara Matul. Cap d'Antibes, 1933.
See more photos at the Rosenbach here and here
Tamara Matul sailing to NYC from Cherbourg on SS Queen Mary, August 30, 1939
NYC-bound Tami on SS Cherbourg, 1939
After Marlene Dietrich's FBI file became available online, more details emerged about Tami. Multiple documents dated throughout 1942-1943 referred to a "girl" living with Rudi at the Croydon Hotel in New York City in separate but connecting rooms, usually correctly identifying her as Russian. Tami's name was always redacted; nevertheless, the context made her identity obvious. One document referred to Tami as "some girl that Dietrich wanted to bring into this country," and a source indicated that she could be Rudi's girlfriend. Yet another document provided a history of where Tami lived throughout her life: Tami was born in Moscow and lived in Russia from 1905 to 1916, Constantinople [Istanbul] from October 1919 to November 1920 (what accounts for the three-year gap?), Berlin from 1920 to 1931, Paris from May 5, 1931 to August 1939, and then New York from September 1939 at 12 East 86th Street--the address of the Croydon Hotel.

As these FBI documents reveal, when Rudi moved into the hotel with Tami, the management
Rudolf Sieber in the 1940 U.S. Census
Rudolf Sieber in the 1940 U.S. Census
assumed they were married. Rudi, however, referred to Tami as his ward and never displayed affection with her. Some informants referred to Rudi "considerably under-sexed," which would corroborate Rudi's contention that there were no acts of "misconduct" between him and Tami.

When Marlene made trips to New York, she was greeted by both Rudi and Tami, both of whom occasionally appeared in newspaper photos. During Marlene's visits, Tami also acted as Marlene's secretary, handling her travel arrangements and appointments. Another informant stated that Tami identified herself as Rudi's secretary and stayed in the apartment most of the day, not accepting calls for several hours during the afternoon while she napped. Maybe she was fast asleep when census-takers arrived in 1940 because only Rudi's name appears in the 1940 United States Census. As much as Rudi and Tami tried to keep their relationship under the radar, two anonymous letters about it led to an Immigration and Naturalization Services investigation that delayed Rudi's citizenship application process. Marlene believed she knew who wrote the letters, but the name of this person has been redacted.

Amidst the complications of Rudi's U.S. citizenship application process, Tami made some kind of international trip, returning to the United States from Canada at Niagara Falls on January 19, 1942,
Tamara Matul's signature
Tamara Matul's signature
where a border crossing card provided even more statistics on her. Her nationality was recorded as "White Russian," her height as 5'5", and her destination as Marlene Dietrich at the Beverly Hills Hotel. A family member of hers is also recorded--her godfather Serge Ilvovsky, who lived on Rue Lecouve in Paris, France. On the verso of the card, she signed her name.

As for Tami's citizenship process, she finally had a state to call her own when she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in July 10, 1947:
U.S. Naturalization card for Tamara Matul
U.S. Naturalization card for Tamara Matul

Benefiting from access to the Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin (MDCB), Karin Wieland cited in her book, Dietrich & Riefenstahl, personal correspondences and diaries that confirmed some of the gossip culled by earlier biographers such as Higham and Bach. After Germany's political changes in 1933, moving to the United States became a viable option for Rudi, but the complications of Tami's stateless refugee status kept him in Europe, which he implied in a letter to Marlene. Wieland also found in Rudi's diaries lists of pills that Tami consumed, and she quoted a letter Rudi wrote to Marlene about Tami's electroshock therapy, which Tami underwent in March 1963. Sometimes, Wieland omitted her sources. She wrote that Sieber confided in Erich Maria Remarque his fear that Tami planned to leave him for a Russian man and return to Berlin. Wieland also asserted that Tami's Nansen passport (which you can see here) was issued in 1933 in Paris, but the documents at the United Nations Archives in Geneva suggest a date as early as 1927--and in Germany.

Finally, there's Marlene Dietrich's own memoir, Marlene. Although she doesn't mention Tami specifically, Marlene does acknowledge the arrival of Russians in Berlin after World War I and her interest in their culture. She also states that she made many Russian friends and that Rudi spoke Russian fluently and reinforced her "Russian mania." Can we read somewhere between these lines her affection for Tami? Was it for Rudi alone that Marlene supported Tami over the decades, albeit in some incredibly misguided and harmful ways?

Two friends with Rudolf Sieber and Tamara Matul during happier times
Two friends with Rudolf Sieber and Tamara Matul during happier times

6 comments:

  1. So great to see you posting on here again! Welcome back x

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    1. Thank you! Let's hope I get some more ideas so this blog doesn't lie fallow for another couple of years.

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    2. Joseph, thanks for the excellent research! Where are the beautiful snaps from? If I remember correctly, according to Dietrich's FBI files, Tamara acted in some US movie but I haven't been able to find any corroboration. (Rudi was also supposedly, according to the file, an assistant director on one of Marlene's movies in the mid 30s).

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    3. It's so nice to hear from you! A Palm Springs-area storage locker rented by Maria wasn't paid for, so the contents were auctioned off and ended up circulating in flea markets around Southern California as well as on Ebay. One of the Ebay sellers had these photos. If you could find that mention of Tami in a U.S. movie, that would be great to see. Those 5 PDF files are so dense, I may have overlooked certain details!

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  2. What an interesting article,!
    There is a really interesting German novel called Im Schatten der Diva (In the shadow of the diva) by Birk Meinhardt. Unfortunately it hasn't been translated into English, but maybe some of you can read German.
    I read it about 12 years ago, when it first came out, as I was and am a great admirer of Marlene Dietrich.
    The book centers around Tami and her relationship with Rudi and Marlene. It's a very sad book overall, but written beautifully and I'm rereading it on a regular basis.
    Tami for me was just a minor character in the many Marlene biographies I had read, but the book brings her to life.
    Birk Meinhardt did extensive research in the Marlene Dietrich archive at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin for the book, but the author has always emphasized that this is his interpretation of the events that took place, it's a novel.
    In the book Tami's descent into mental illness is described in chilling detail, neither Rudi, nor Marlene are very sympathetic figures. The personal history of Tami is interwoven with the political upheaval of the 20s and 30s, the war and the immigrant existence with its constant fear and uncertainty.
    The book is also an example that truth is often stranger than fiction - when I read it for ths first time, I was slightly annoyed by the scene where Rudi asks for an incorrect birth date to be put on Tami's grave stone. Was the author trying to hit me over the head with this heavy-handed metaphor? But lo and behold - it was really what Rudi Sieber did, as if Tami didn't exist before she met him and Marlene.

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    1. I wonder why Meinhardt novelized his research and whether he ever put together any of his research on Tami in biographical form.

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