To call this a biography of Marlene Dietrich is a bit misleading. It’s really a collection of oral histories arranged chronologically with summaries of her films inserted. The stories mostly examine Marlene herself and are often in her own words, but some are told by others and cover people and events she came into contact with in her time.
The book is broken up into four parts: Berlin, Hollywood, The Postwar World, and Paris. In Berlin we learn about her life leading up to and including her breakout performance as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. I was not familiar with her films prior to The Blue Angel and having read this book I am still not familiar with them. It is her personal life that is covered in this book, not really her films. The Hollywood part is about just what it sounds like it would be, but her movies are not really analyzed. Again, it’s the person–not her work–in this book, so instead we get her romance with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. while having a husband, daughter, and her husband’s mistress in her life. In The Postwar World and Paris, we find out what happened to Marlene after she all but dropped off the cinematic radar and why she is a hero to many and a traitor to others.
The men in Marlene’s life from her father to Ernst Hemingway to Jean Gabin provide some of the most intriguing material in the book. One of the greatest lines in the book comes from Marlene when she says, “John Gilbert, I have come to save you.” She was having dinner when she heard the sad story about him drinking himself to death. She got up from dinner and drove to his home to save him and nearly did it too.
The strongest section of the book is the final one in which Marlene lives in seclusion in Paris answering the phone with a French accent to pretend she is only the maid. The story of the “courtship” leading to her final performance in Just A Gigolo is heartwarming.
The film summaries often feel like filler and the stories a little cobbled together, but the content is strong even if the form is wanting. If you have already read a conventional biography about Marlene Dietrich and wish to supplement it, then I recommend this book. For everyone else, it’s worth a look.