Prolific biographer Chandler (I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, a Personal Biography, 2010, etc.) delivers an evocative portrait of film icon Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), perhaps cinema’s ultimate manifestation of the mysterious, dangerous, unknowable woman.
The author covers the actress’ career but foregoes in-depth analysis of the star’s films and technique, focusing instead on Dietrich’s enduring persona. Chandler is greatly aided in this by the inclusion of copious reminiscences by Dietrich herself, who recounts the triumphs and tragedies of her life in her inimitable grand manner, full of rueful irony and Olympian hauteur. Dietrich is candid about her various affairs, which included the likes of James Stewart, Yul Brynner and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose own recollections reveal a supremely witty and urbane man clearly still in erotic thrall to the legend years after the conclusion of their physical relationship. Among the narrative’s most delightful surprises are Dietrich’s wartime plan to seduce and murder Adolph Hitler—she would consistently denounce the Nazis and maintain a troubled relationship with her homeland throughout her life—and her many-years-removed trysts with Joseph and Jack Kennedy, the latter dismissed with a withering report of his abbreviated performance. One time accompanist Burt Bacharach waxes appreciatively about Dietrich’s courage and tenacity, and various family members weigh in on the star’s conflicted filial relationships, but the heart of the book remains Dietrich’s account of herself as simultaneously an earthy, maternal woman, who was happiest cooking and cleaning for friends and loved ones, and an impossibly glamorous camera subject who retired into near total seclusion when her looks began to fade. At the end of her life, Dietrich, holed up in her Parisian apartment, eccentrically answered the phone in the guise of her own nonexistent maid in a gambit to preserve her dignity and ward off unwanted visitors.
A poetic and indelible portrait of the great star.