International movie star Marlene Dietrich relates her eventful story in a first-person fictional account.
Maria Magdalene Dietrich, known as Marlene, was born to a distinguished but threadbare family in turn-of-the-20th-century Berlin, where her hardworking widowed mother instilled in her the motto Tu etwas—do something. This work ethic and constant struggle against insolvency in a defeated Germany propels young Marlene to a music conservatory, where, upon learning that she will never be a top-notch violinist, she promptly seduces her instructor, beginning a lifelong journey of balancing her middling talent with her overwhelming sexual charisma. Set loose in the cabaret world of the Weimar Republic, Marlene works her way up from the chorus to bit parts in the burgeoning German film world, marries a promising director, and then meets Josef von Sternberg, who makes her a star and takes her to Hollywood. Author Gortner (The Vatican Princess, 2015, etc.) skillfully evokes the cross-dressing, sexually fluid atmosphere of the seedy nightclubs that helped Marlene define her unique appeal; the scenes are lively and authentic, though overpopulated. When Marlene moves to Hollywood, the story becomes a litany of lovers—Gary Cooper, Mercedes de Acosta, and Jean Gabin—and interchangeable films in which Marlene plays a chanteuse or spy while coping with numerous domestic problems that are raised but never fully examined. It's only when Bette Davis badgers Marlene into joining the USO that the novel finds its heart. The scenes of Marlene entertaining the troops and visiting hospitals in Europe during the second world war are well-detailed and truly moving.
An ambitious but occasionally overbroad account of the life of the German-American star whose life spanned continents, wars, and nearly an entire century.