Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in "Morocco" (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man's tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including "Shanghai Express" (1932) and "The Scarlett Empress" (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like "Angel" (1937) and "Knight Without Armor" (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich's film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), "Touch of Evil" (1958) and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.
Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler's daughter. After her father's death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt's school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, "So Sind die Manner" ("The Little Napoleon") and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, "Der Mensche am Wege" ("Man by the Roadside") (1923). It was while working on "Tragödie der Liebe" ("Love Tragedy") (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich - who later changed her name to Maria Riva - in 1924.
Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed "Eine DuBarry von Heute" ("A Modern Dubarry") (1926) and "Madame Wunscht keine Kinder" ("Madame Wants No Children") (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country's first sound feature, "Der Blaue Engel" ("The Blue Angel") (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, "Die Blaue Engel" was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM's great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.
The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was "Morocco" (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress' smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg's dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, "Morocco" was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in "Dishonored" (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in "Shanghai Express" (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in "The Scarlett Empress" (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.
With "The Devil Is a Woman" (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy "Desire" (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, "The Garden of Allah" (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, "Angel" (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop "Knight without Armor" (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" in the James Stewart Western, "Destry Rides Again" (1939). But it would be Dietrich's last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.
Though on top once again, Dietrich - who was put under contract by Universal - made a number of lackluster films, including "Seven Sinners" (1940) and "Pittsburgh" (1942) opposite John Wayne, "Manpower" (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and "The Lady is Willing" (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi - reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress - Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds - she went on to sell more than any other star - while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film "Martin Roumagnac" (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in "Golden Earrings" (1946).
Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy "A Foreign Affair" (1948), one of the director's more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as "the world's most glamorous grandmother" after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" (1950) and Fritz Lang's "Rancho Notorious" (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-'50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act - which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach - consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.
Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, "The Monte Carlo Story" (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director's film noir classic "Touch of Evil" (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, "Paris When It Sizzles" (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance "Just a Gigolo" (1978).
For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special "Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love" (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell - who starred with Dietrich in "Judgment at Nuremberg" - made the fascinating documentary "Marlene," in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.