Marlene Dietrich Biography

Marlene Dietrich Biography on Monsters and Critics


"Marlene Dietrich" ; (December 27, 1901 - May 6, 1992) was a German-born American actress, singer, and entertainer. She is regarded as being the first German actress to become successful in Hollywood.

Throughout her long career, starting as a cabaret singer, chorus girl and film actress in 1920s Berlin, Hollywood movie star in the 1930s, World War II frontline entertainer during the 1940s, and finally as an international stage show performer from the 1950s to the 1970s, Dietrich constantly re-invented herself and eventually became one of the entertainment icons of the 20th century. The American Film Institute ranked Dietrich No. 9 amongst the Greatest Female Stars of All Time.



She was born "Marie Magdalene Dietrich" on December 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, a district of Berlin, Germany.

She was the youngest of two daughters (her sister Elisabeth was a year older) born to Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Dietrich (née Felsing). Dietrich's mother was from a well-to-do Berlin family who owned a clockmaking firm and her father was a police lieutenant who had served in the Franco-Prussian War. Her father died in 1907, whereupon her mother took a job as housekeeper for Eduard von Losch, a first lieutenant in the grenadiers. Wilhelmina Dietrich married von Losch c. 1916, but he died soon after as a result of injuries sustained during WWI.

Von Losch had never officially adopted the Dietrich children, hence Dietrich's surname was never von Losch, as is sometimes claimed. She was nicknamed 'Lene' (pronounced Lay-na) within the family. Around the age of 11, she contracted her two first names to form the then-unusual name, Marlene.

Dietrich attended the Auguste Victoria School for Girls from 1906 - 1918. She studied the violin and became interested in theatre and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short when she injured her wrist.

Berlin in the 1920s: Early Career

In 1921, Dietrich auditioned unsuccessfully for theatrical director and impressario Max Reinhardt's drama academy; however, she soon found herself working in his theatres as a chorus girl and playing small roles in dramas, without attracting any special attention at first.

She made her film debut playing a bit part in the 1922 film, "So sind die Männer". She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of another film made that year, "Tragödie der Liebe".

Dietrich and Sieber were married in May 1923. Her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born in 1924.

Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. On stage, she had roles of varying importance in Frank Wedekind's "Pandora's Box", William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as well as George Bernard Shaw's "Back to Methuselah" and "Misalliance". It was in musicals and revues, such as "Broadway", "Es Liegt in der Luft" and "Zwei Krawatten", however, that she attracted most attention.

By the late 1920s, she was also playing sizable parts on screen - the most notable films being "Café Electric" (1927), "Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame" (1928) and "Das Schiff der Verloren Menchen" (1929).

In 1929, though, she got the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a hitherto respected schoolmaster, in UFA's production, "The Blue Angel" (1930). The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who thereafter took credit for having 'discovered' Dietrich. The film is also noteworthy for having introduced Dietrich's signature song 'Falling in Love Again'.

Film star

On the strength of "The Blue Angel's" success, and with encouragement and promotion from von Sternberg, who was already established in Hollywood, Dietrich then moved to the U.S. on contract to Paramount. The studio sought to market Dietrich as a German answer to MGM's Swedish sensation Greta Garbo. Her first American film, "Morocco", directed by von Sternberg, earned Dietrich her only Oscar nomination.

Dietrich's most lasting contribution to film history was as the star of a series of six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount between 1930 and 1935: "Morocco", "Dishonored", "Shanghai Express", "Blonde Venus", "The Scarlet Empress", and "The Devil is a Woman". Von Sternberg had seen potential in Dietrich that other German directors had missed (and which, even in retrospect, is not necessarily obvious even in "The Blue Angel"). In Hollywood he worked very effectively with Dietrich to create the image of a glamorous femme fatale. He encouraged her to lose weight and coached her intensively as an actress – she, in turn, was willing to trust him and follow his sometimes imperious direction in a way that a number of other performers resisted. A crucial part of the overall effect was created by von Sternberg's exceptional skill in lighting and photographing Dietrich to optimum effect — the use of light and shadow, including the impact of light passed through a veil or slatted blinds (as for example in "Shanghai Express") — which, when combined with scrupulous attention to all aspects of set design and costumes, make this series of films among the most visually stylish in cinema history. Critics still debate vigorously how much of the credit belonged to von Sternberg and how much to Dietrich, but most would agree that neither consistently reached such heights again after Paramount fired von Sternberg and the two ceased to work together.

Without von Sternberg, Dietrich by 1939 was being labeled 'box office poison' after her 1937 Korda film "Knight Without Armour" proved an expensive flop. In 1939, however, her stardom was revived when she played the cowboy saloon girl Frenchie in the light-hearted western "Destry Rides Again" opposite James Stewart. The movie also introduced another favorite song, 'See what the boys in the back room will have.' She played a similar role in 1942 with John Wayne in "The Spoilers".

While she arguably never fully regained her former screen glory, she continued performing in the movies, including appearances for such distinguished directors as Wilder, Hitchcock and Welles, and in successful films that included "A Foreign Affair", "Witness for the Prosecution", "Touch of Evil", "Judgment at Nuremberg", and "Stage Fright".

World War II

In 1937, while her film career stalled in Hollywood, she made a film in London for producer Alexander Korda. In later interviews, she claimed that, while in London to film "Knight Without Armour" (1937), she was approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany, but turned them down flat. Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939.

In 1941, the U.S. entered the World War II and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She entertained troops on the front lines in a USO revue that included future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act. Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. Like many Weimar era German entertainers, she was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised anti-Semitism.

She recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German for the OSS, including 'Lili Marlene.' She also played the musical saw to entertain troops. She sang for the Allied troops on the front lines in Algiers, France and into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, 'aus Anstand' — 'it was the decent thing to do.'

Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. Government for her war work. She was also made a chevalier (later commandeur) of the Légion d'Honneur by the French government.


Dietrich had a smoky and world-weary singing voice which she used to great effect in many of her films, on records and later during her world-wide concert tours. Kenneth Tynan called her voice her 'third dimension.' Ernest Hemingway thought that 'if she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it.'

Dietrich's recording career spanned over half a century. Prior to international stardom, she recorded a duet, 'Wenn die Beste Freundin', with Margo Lion. This song, with its lesbian overtones, was a hit in Berlin in 1928.

In 1930, she recorded English and German-language selections from her film, "Der Blaue Engel", for Electrola in Berlin. It was at this time that she recorded Frederick Hollander's 'Falling in Love Again' for the first time — it would become her theme song, to be sung in thousands of concerts and forever identified with her - although she personally hated it.

A 1933 Parisian recording session for Polydor produced several classic tracks, including Franz Waxman's 'Allein in Einer Grossen Stadt.' She recorded 'The Boys in the Back Room' from "Destry Rides Again" for Decca Records in 1939. In 1945, she recorded her version of 'Lili Marleen'.

Dietrich signed with Columbia Records in the 1950s, with Mitch Miller as her producer. The 1950 LP "Marlene Dietrich Overseas", with Dietrich singing German translations of American songs of the World War II era, was a prestige hit. She also recorded several duets with Rosemary Clooney; these tapped into a younger market and charted.

During the 1960s, Dietrich recorded several albums and many singles, mostly with Burt Bacharach at the helm of the orchestra. "Dietrich in London", recorded live at the Queen's Theatre in 1964, is an enduring document of Dietrich in concert. In 1972, Dietrich taped a television special, "An Evening With Marlene Dietrich" — also known as "I Wish You Love" — at the New London Theatre in London: the concert was re-released, with bonus material, as a 75-minute DVD in 2003.

In 1978, her performance of the title track from her last film, "Just a Gigolo", was issued as a single. She made her last recordings from her Paris apartment in 1987: spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.

Asked by Maximillian Schell in his documentary "Marlene" (1984) which of her own recordings were her favorites, she replied that she thought "Marlene Singt Berlin-Berlin" (1964), an album featuring her singing old Berlin "schlager" (popular songs) was her best recorded work.

Stage and cabaret

From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, Dietrich worked almost exclusively as a highly-paid cabaret artist, performing live in large theaters in major cities world-wide.

In 1953, Dietrich was offered a then-staggering $ 30 000 per week to appear live at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. The show was short, consisting only of a few songs associated with her. Her daring sheer costumes, designed by Jean Louis, attracted a lot of publicity and attention. This engagement was so successful that she was signed to appear at the Caf? de Paris in London the following year, and her Las Vegas contracts were also renewed.

It was the start of a new phase in Dietrich's career. When she signed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger in the mid-1950s, her show started to evolve from a mere nightclub act to a more ambitious one-woman show featuring an array of new material. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Bacharach's arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's limited vocal range and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect.

Her return to Germany in 1960 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin's Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, 'Marlene Go Home!' On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin mayor Willy Brandt. The tour was an artistic triumph but a financial failure. She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, including a German version of Pete Seeger's anti-war anthem Where Have All the Flowers Gone, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel.

Bacharach left as Dietrich's conductor in 1964. She appeared on Broadway twice (1967 and 1968), winning a special Tony Award for her performance. Her costumes (body-hugging dresses covered with thousands of crystals as well as a swansdown coat), body-sculpting undergarments, careful stage lighting (by Joe Davis) and temporary mini-facelifts helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.

In November 1972, a version of the show she had performed on Broadway was filmed in London. She was paid $ 250 000 for her co-operation, but Dietrich was unhappy with the result. The show was broadcast in the US and UK in January 1973.

Final years

Her show business career largely ended on September 29, 1975, when she broke her leg during a stage performance in Australia. She appeared briefly in the film, "Just a Gigolo", in 1979, and wrote and contributed to several books during the 1980s.

She spent her last decade mostly bed-ridden, in her apartment at no. 12 avenue Montaigne in Paris, during which time she was not seen in public but was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. Maximilian Schell persuaded Dietrich to be interviewed for his 1984 documentary "Marlene", but she did not appear on screen. She began a close friendship with the biographer David Bret, one of the few people allowed inside her Paris apartment. Bret is thought to have been the last person outside her family that Dietrich spoke to, two days before her death: 'I have called to say that I love you, and now I may die.' She was in constant contact with her daughter, who came to Paris regularly to check on her. Her husband, Rudolf Sieber, had died of cancer on June 24, 1976.

In an interview with the German magazine "Der Spiegel" in November 2005, her daughter and grandson claim that Marlene Dietrich was politically active during these years. She would keep contact with world leaders by telephone, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000. Her contacts included Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Dietrich died peacefully of renal failure on May 6, 1992, at the age of 90 in Paris. A service was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris before 3,500 mourners and a crowd of well-wishers outside. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin where she was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45, in Friedenau Cemetery, not far from the house where she was born.

Private life

Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich's personal life was kept out of public view. She married once, to director's assistant Rudolf Sieber, a Roman Catholic who later became a director at Paramount Pictures in France.

Her only child, Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born in Berlin on December 13, 1924. She would later become an actress, primarily working in television, known as Maria Riva. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed 'the world's most glamorous grandmother'. After Dietrich's death, Riva published a relatively critical memoir of her mother.

Numerous affairs of Dietrich are known, not only with the director who made her famous, but also with other actors, among them Brian Aherne, Maurice Chevalier and John Gilbert. In 1938 she met the writer Erich-Maria Remarque, in 1941 the French actor and military hero Jean Gabin. Their relationship ended in the mid-1940s. During the 1950s, she had relationships with Edward R. Murrow and Yul Brynner. Her husband, with whom she stayed in touch, lived on a chicken farm in California with his unstable long-term mistress, Tamara Matul.

A few people have claimed that Dietrich engaged in same-sex affairs. Mercedes de Acosta, who published her autobiography "Here Lies the Heart", claims that she was once her lover. Also, Klaus Kinski wrote a book, "Klaus Kinski: All I Need Is Love" (1988), where he claimed that Marlene was a lesbian. It was removed from circulation after threats of a libel lawsuit were made. It was re-released after Marlene's death and re-titled "Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski" (1997).


On October 24, 1993, the largest portion of her estate was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek — after U.S. institutions showed no interest — where it became the core of the exhibition at the Filmmuseum Berlin. The collection includes: over 3,000 textile items from the 1920s through the 1990s, including film and stage costumes as well as over a thousand items from Dietrich's personal wardrobe; 15,000 photographs, by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hurrell, Lord Snowdon, Eugene Robert Richee, and Edward Steichen; 300,000 pages of documents, including correspondence with Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner, Maurice Chevalier, Noel Coward, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Lagerfeld, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Erich Maria Remarque, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder; as well as other items like film posters and sound recordings.

The contents of Dietrich's Manhattan apartment, along with other personal effects such as jewelry and items of clothing, were sold by public auction by Sotheby's (Los Angeles) on 1 November 1997.

Image and Legacy

Dietrich never integrated into the Hollywood entertainment industry, being always an outsider for mainstream America. Her German accent gave an extra touch to her performance but made her look 'foreign' in the eyes of Americans.

Dietrich was a fashion icon to the top designers as well as a screen icon that later stars would follow. She once said, 'I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men.' Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality.

In 1992, a plaque was unveiled at Leberstraße 65 in Berlin-Schöneberg, the site of Dietrich's birth.

A stamp bearing her portrait was issued in Germany on 14 August 1997.

After some controversy, it was decided not to name a street after Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, her birthplace. Rather, on November 8,1997, the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz was unveiled in Berlin to honor Dietrich.

She was made an honorary citizen of Berlin on 16 May 2002.

Pop Culture References

Her distinctive voice was satirized, along with that of Lotte Lenya, in the song 'Lieder' by cult British trio Fascinating Aïda.

Marlene's picture also appears on the cover of The Beatles' iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. She is just behind George Harrison.

Mel Brooks stated on the commentary track of the "Blazing Saddles" DVD that Dietrich was the inspiration for Madeline Kahn's character, Lily Von Schtupp in that movie.

Madonna paid homage to Dietrich's looks and style several times throughout her career, most notably in the video of 'Express Yourself' and during the 'Like a Virgin' performance of The Girlie Show Tour. She also included Dietrich in the famous spoken part of her 1990 mega hit 'Vogue'.

Dietrich is mentioned in songs by Suzanne Vega ('Marlene On The Wall' was inspired by a poster of her) and Tom Russell ('Touch Of Evil' references the film of the same name).

She is mentioned in the first line of Peter Sarstedt's Where Do You Go To (My Lovely): 'You talk like Marlene Dietrich...'


"Love Tragedy" (1923)

"The Little Napoleon" (1923)

"Man by the Wayside" (1923)

"Leap Into Life" (1924)

"Dance Mad" (1925)

"The Bogus Baron" (1926)

"Manon Lescaut" (1926)

"Madame Doesn't Want Children" (1926)

"A Modern DuBarry" (1927)

"Chin Up, Charley!" (1927)

"His Greatest Bluff" (1927)

"Cafe Electric" (1927)

"Princess Olala" (1928)

"Dangers of the Engagement Period" (1929)

"I Kiss Your Hand Madame" (1929)

"The Woman One Longs For" (1929)

"The Ship of Lost Men" (1929)

"The Blue Angel" (1930)

"Morocco" (1930)

"Dishonored" (1931)

"Shanghai Express" (1932)

"Blonde Venus" (1932)

"The Song of Songs" (1933)

"The Scarlet Empress" (1934)

"The Fashion Side of Hollywood" (1935) (short subject)

"The Devil is a Woman" (1935)

"I Loved a Soldier" (1936) (unfinished)

"Desire" (1936)

"The Garden of Allah" (1936)

"Knight Without Armour" (1937)

"Angel" (1937)

"Destry Rides Again" (1939)

"Seven Sinners" (1940)

"The Flame of New Orleans" (1941)

"Manpower" (1941)

"The Lady Is Willing" (1942)

"The Spoilers" (1942)

"Pittsburgh" (1942)

"Show Business at War" (1943) (short subject)

"Follow the Boys" (1944)

"Kismet" (1944)

"Martin Roumagnac" (1946)

"Golden Earrings" (1947)

"A Foreign Affair" (1948)

"Jigsaw" (1949) (cameo)

"Stage Fright" (1950)

"No Highway in the Sky" (1951)

"Rancho Notorious" (1952)

"The Monte Carlo Story" (1956)

"Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956) (cameo)

"Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)

"Touch of Evil" (1958)

"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961)

"Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler" (1962) (documentary) (narrator)

"Paris, When It Sizzles" (1964) (cameo)

"An Evening With Marlene Dietrich" ("I Wish You Love") (1972) London concert film

"Just a Gigolo" (1979)

"Marlene" (1984) (documentary) (Dietrich insisted that director Maximilian Schell record only her voice and not film her or her face)

Discography (selected)

Selected albums

1949: "Souvenir Album"

1951: "Overseas"

1952: "M.D. Live 1932-1952"

1954: "Live At The Café De Paris"

1956: "Wiedersehen Mit Marlene"

1959: "Lili Marlene"

1960: "Dietrich In Rio"

1964: "Berlin Berlin"

1965: "Marlene Dietrich Singt Alt-Berliner Lieder"

1965: "Marlene Dietrich In London"

1969: "Marlene Dietrich"

1973: "The Best Of Marlene Dietrich"

1974: "Das War Mein Milljöh"

1982: "Her Complete Decca Recordings"

Selected singles

1930: "Falling In Love Again"

1930: "Naughty Lola"

1931: "Johnny"

1945: "Lili Marlene"

1962: "Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind"

1978: "Just A Gigolo"


Notable appearances include:

"Lux Radio Theater: The Legionnaire and the Lady" opposite Clark Gable (1 August 1936)

"Lux Radio Theater: Desire" opposite Herbert Marshall (22 July 1937)

"Lux Radio Theater: song of Songs" opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (20 December 1937)

"The Chase and Sanborn Program" with Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche (2 June 1938)

"Lux Radio Theater: Manpower" opposite Edward G Robinson and George Raft (15 March 1942)

"The Gulf Screen Guild Theater: Pittsburgh" opposite John Wayne (12 April 1943)

"Theatre Guild on the Air: Grand Hotel" opposite Ray Milland (24 March 1948)

"Studio One: Arabesque" (29 June 1948)

"Theatre Guild on the Air: The Letter" opposite Walter Pidgeon (3 October 1948)

"Ford Radio Theater: Madame Bovary" opposite Claude Rains (8 October 1948)

"Screen Director's Playhouse: A Foreign Affair" opposite Rosalind Russell and John Lund (5 March 1949)

"MGM Theatre of the Air: Anna Karenina" (9 December 1949)

"MGM Theatre of the Air: Camille" (6 June 1950)

"Lux Radio Theater: No Highway in the Sky" opposite James stewart (21 April 1952)

"Screen Director's Playhouse: A Foreign Affair" opposite Lucille Ball and John Lund (1 March 1951)

"The Big Show" starring Tallullah Bankhead (2 October 1951)

"The Child", with Godfrey Kenton, radio play produced by Richard Imison for BBC on 18 August 1965

She made several appearances on AFRS shows like "The Army Hour" and "Command Performance" during the war years. In 1952, she had her own series on ABC entitled, "Cafe Istanbul". During 1953 - 1954, she starred in 38 episodes of "Time for Love" on CBS. She recorded 94 short inserts, 'Dietrich Talks on Love and Life', for NBC's "Monitor" in 1958.

Dietrich gave many radio interviews worldwide on her concert tours. In 1960, her show at the Tuschinski in Amsterdam was broadcast live on Dutch radio. Her 1962 appearance at the Olympia in Paris was also broadcast.


Complete list of television appearances (excluding news footage):

"Unicef Gala" (Düsseldorf, 1962): Guest Appearance

"Cirque d' Hiver" (Paris, 9 March 1963): Cameo as 'Garcon de Piste'

"Deutsche-Schlager-Festspiele " (Baden-Baden, 1963): Guest Appearance

"Grand Gala du Disque (Edison Awards)" (The Hague, 1963): Guest Appearance

"Galakväll pa Berns" (Stockholm, 1963): Concert, with introduction by Karl Gerhardt and orchestra conducted by Burt Bacharach

"Royal Variey Performance" (London, 4 November 1963): Guest Appearance

"The Stars Shine for Jack Hylton" (London, 1965): Guest Appearance

"The Magic of Marlene" (Melbourne, October 1965): Concert, with orchestra conducted by William Blezard.

"The 22nd Annual Tony Awards" (New York, 21 April 1968): Acceptance Speech

"Guest Star Marlene Dietrich" (Copenhagen - for Swedish Television, 1970): Interview

"I Wish You Love (An Evening with Marlene Dietrich)" (London, 23 & 24 November 1972): Concert TV Special, with orchestra conducted by Stan Freeman.

Further reading

Books by Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich, Marlene and Attanasio, Salvator Translation (1989). 'Marlene'. Grove Press. ISBN 0-802-11117-3

Dietrich, Marlene (1962). 'Marlene Dietrich's ABC'. Doubleday.

Dietrich, Marlene and Helnwein, Gottfried Photographs (1990). 'Some Facts About Myself'. Edition Cantz.


Bach, Steven (1992). "Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend". Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-42553-8

Bret, David (1993). "Marlene, My Friend". Robson, London

Spoto, Donald (1992). "Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich". William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-688-07119-8

External links

(Official website)

(Marlene Dietrich UK Website The Legendary, Lovely Marlene)

(LEGEND : Marlene Dietrich's concert career.)

('Lost Marlene Dietrich Love Poem to Ronald Reagan Found')

(Gay Great - Marlene Dietrich)

( ABC Nightline (03/28/07): 'I Want to Kiss You Forever': Romance and Friendship Mix in Rare Dietrich, Hemingway Letters Set for First Public Viewing)

(Marlene Dietrich's mascot dolls)

(Marlene Dietrich Collection, Berlin (MDCB))


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article about Marlene Dietrich.