10 August 2012

Dietrich At War.

Guest Blog by Poet Rehan Qayoom.

Marlene Dietrich’s reckless war service has never been put together and documented in one piece though several of her biographies describe the war years in some detail. [1] This is what the author hereby purports: as a tribute to the duty which she fulfilled “Duty to the school, duty to everybody, duty to the world to principles you stand for.” [2] He hopes the present will prove to be an averment of her being an ardent perfectionist and her strength of achievement.

Dietrich entertained over 12000 soldiers (on 20 March 1944) in Maryland – America with ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ and ‘Falling in Love Again.’ Causing them serious unease she played ‘Pagan Love Song’ on her musical saw and performed a telepathy act. She was also selling war bonds at the time.

On 2 April, Dietrich boarded a plane for the first time in her life to desultory Casablanca. She had 3 hours of sleep using her sequined evening dress wrapped in a knapsack as a pillow.

From Casablanca she moved to Rabat performing twice daily. Travelling in open jeeps she ate (regulation) tinned food which gave her a bad stomach because of the phenol it contained. ‘Whenever I went to entertain troops, there were frankfurters and sauerkraut, all over and always outdoors. Even when there was an indoors, we ate outdoors, often in the rain, with rain on the food and millions were perishing of starvation in Russia.’ [3]

Dietrich then took off to support the allied campaign in North Africa. Jean Gabin was there to greet her on arrival in Algiers on 11 April – They clutched and kissed in full public view. Colonel Dietrich gave her first performance at Algiers Opera House and even that wasn’t devoid of drama:
Danny Thomas is my friend. He can drum better on 2 dirty helmets than many can on
the best pair of pong drums. [4]
Danny Thomas announced on stage “Fellas! I’ve got bad news! We were expecting Marlene Dietrich but she went out for dinner with a General and hasn’t shown up …” Suddenly “No, no, I’m here! …” Dietrich fought her way to the stage pulling off her tie en route. Once on stage she casually began unbuttoning the khaki shirt of her New York tailored uniform before screaming soldiers (and removed her slippers) saying “I’m not with any General – I’m Here! I’ve just got to change into...” She was down to the last button and she said “Ooh! Sorry, boys, I’ll just be a second” as Danny Thomas and Lynn Mayberry hauled her off stage pushing her (down) behind a screen from which she transpired in no time in a sequined dress. She then proceeded to sing ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ and perform a mind reading act on a boy from the crowd “When a G.I. looks at me, it’s not hard to read his mind” she announced to her audience of 5000 with gusto. She was half way through 'Symphonie' when local power supplies failed. Then, she played the musical saw (repeatedly interrupted by air raid sirens during the whole do). To play the musical saw Dietrich had to sit on a stool, hike up her skirt and place the saw between her knees. Danny Thomas (whose real name was Amos Jacobs) remembered ‘Everyone got down on all fours to look up into paradise!’ Her audiences sometimes numbered up to 20000!

The following morning she visited a stopgap hospital, visiting each bedside and playing ‘Swanee River’, ‘Oh Susana’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’ on her musical saw. Louis Berg reported there not being a dry eye in the room.

A tour through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy followed where a brat begged a scarf off her to rent to G.I.s to put under their bunker pillows. One afternoon in Naples, Dietrich sent for Danny Thomas to her room. He recalls ‘I went in and there she was, stark naked, sunning herself on her balcony.’ [5]

On the eve of 15 May, Dietrich and troupe were lost nearby enemy territory when their jeep broke down in a grove: they could hear gunfire and it was a cold night.  Eventually a truck drove up and the troupe approached it. Dietrich heard their language and said in French ‘I’m Marlene Dietrich.’ The reply came ‘If you’re Marlene Dietrich.  I’m General Eisenhower.’ She proved her identity with a flashlight: with them was the actor Jean-pierre Aumont and Dietrich referred to an unusual odour rising from his uniform. He explained that he’d just had his first sleep in days, next to the corpse of a Senegalese soldier:
She was in fact being reshaped by circumstances and her own will for the new role
she was destined to play: the role of international entertainer. [6]
On 25 May whilst in Rome she sang ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ to hundreds of soldiers. Her boys provided light by beaming their flashlights at her: “If they don’t like my act, all they have to do is to turn off their flashlights. I felt as if I had passed the toughest test of my career”[7] she said.

Dietrich and troupe wheeled many of the injured (after allies broke into Rome on 4 June and the commencement of a baleful battle) to a large hall where she sang till it was dark. She recalled “It gave me the opportunity of kissing more soldiers than any woman in the world, no woman can please one man, this way, you can please many men!” [8] Now Dietrich was back in New York to attend the premier of her film Kismet. Asked whether the Reich was about to collapse, she replied ‘The Germany I knew is not there any more, I don’t think of it. I suppose if I did, I could never do these tours.’ [9]

On hospital visits she’d make beds for the wounded. Occasionally some wounded American allies would tell her of injured Germans in the same hospital. Passing boys would argue among themselves whether she was really Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich mused (in her 15 hour interview with Leo Lerman): “I’d go to these young, blank-faced, very young Nazis and they’d ask me with tears in their eyes ‘Are you the real Marlene Dietrich?’ All was forgotten and I’d sing ‘Lili Marlene’ to everyone. In that hospital. There was no greater moment in my life.”

There is a piece of newsreel showing Dietrich dancing a frenetic jitterbug with a G.I. and a photograph showing her signing her autograph in lipstick across a young soldier’s chest, right over his heart: ‘There’d be an argument and as the convoy would stop off I’d discreetly show a leg.  After that, they never seemed to have a doubt.’ Slinking around in a form-fitting gown without undergarments she had to abandon her cosmetics, talc and rouge. There were big black circles round her eyes, she’d light her fags with airplane metal.

Bunches of roses and laurels of scented bougainvillea blossoms were strung across her tent. She was accoladed with gin and tonics before her performances, she devoured cook-outs of steak and onion on campfire braziers, she’d milk cows for child refuges and the youngsters would take her autographs for their parents. In Greenland she returned to twice daily performances and played Schubert on the saw. Arriving in London in September, it was from here she made many propaganda broadcasts on the American broadcasting station in England. The program was called 'Marlene Sings to Her Homeland'. The programs were beamed all over Germany and she always dedicated her songs to allied soldiers. She said the British soldiers were “About to meet up with you boys and destroy the Reich.” In one particular program she suddenly lashed out with “Jungs! Opfert euch nicht! Der krieg ist doch scheiße, Hitler ist ein idiot!” [10] And as she began crooning ‘Lili Marlene’ she felt a sharp tug at her microphone and she was reminded that this was an English broadcast!

In the autumn Dietrich visited France, where in Nancy she suffered shaking chills for which she drank Calvados. As a result of drinking alcohol on an empty stomach she was constantly vomiting.

When returning to Belgium, the group was raided by crabs. They were told that the ladies would be permitted to bathe ‘In return for certain favours’ that is to say if the men were allowed to watch.  The ladies overcame their coyness on hearing of soap and water! At night rats with frozen feet would race across their faces!

In Aachen, she had to wash her face, hair and underwear in snow melted in her helmet.  Dietrich performed amidst the ruins of a theatre and with no heat the building felt like ice. The caretaker bought Marlene his thermos pouring out of a cup his choice coffee for her. Her entourage warned her not to drink it lest it be poisoned “No, they wouldn’t do that to me” she retorted and drank it. She thanked the bloke in her native language and asked him why he’d wanted to share something so precious when he knew she was on “The other side”? He replied “Yes, yes, but The Blue Angel – ah! I can forget what you are, but The Blue Angel? Never!” Once when her hotel was bombed the board began to panic in search of a bed for her. When Marlene heard of this she said “I’m just one of the boys, don’t give me any privileges.”  The atmosphere was later re-enacted for her 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution.

She was infected with lice in October and when the German General Sepp Dietrich put a price on her head when she was surrounded by his entire army she was adamant that she be given no star treatment ‘I’m just one of the boys’ she’d say.

General George Patton (commander of the Third Army) admired her for her guts and for her impeccable wildness. He sent her to entertain the front-line battalion presenting her a pearl-handled pistol. She slept with him on many occasions in Bastogne.

In Bari she contracted serious pneumonia, and when Alexander Fleming cured her with his antibiotic Penicillin, Dietrich, in turn, favoured him with a horoscope and a basketful of eggs for the rest of his life (until his death in 1955).

William Walton (a famed journalist in his day) had bought a hat in Paris for a lady in New York which Dietrich wore while sharing the same hotel with him and one evening while he was working with his door open Dietrich paused outside, went to her room and returned completely naked except for the hat which she wore at a neat angle and asked him “Don’t I look cute?[11]

In Ardennes, Dietrich suffered severe frostbite and influenza the effects of which remained with her lifelong resulting in her arthritis later in life. She continued her twice daily performances all through the final great German offensive on the western front in Southern Belgium. One of her numerous "War Stories" was when Field Marshal Gerd Von Bundstedt demanded that Bastogne surrender because they’d completely surrounded it. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe replied by saying “Nuts!” It took the translators 2 hours to explain its meaning to the Nazi General who still didn’t get what it implied though one cannot figure out how and why! [12] It was only when General Patton marched into Bastogne on 21 December that the Germans began to retreat after they were joined a week later by the First Army.

The next vacation was Stolberg where Dietrich was interviewed on 2 February 1945 and she said “I hate to see all these ruined buildings, but I guess Germany deserves everything that’s coming to her.” In April she visited Belsen and its concentration camp where she had to sift through corpses. Here she found her sister who was put on detention in an apartment block nearby and arranged some medical care for her.  In July she returned to New York for treatment of a jaw infection.  Later she lectured students at a G. I. University in Biarritz – France about her films.

[1] J David Riva, Dietrich's grandson, has also now edited an excellent book of retrospective articles written 
     by those who came into contact with her during the war years.  See A Woman At War: Marlene 
     Dietrich Remembered (Wayne State University Press: Painted Turtle Books, 2006).
[2] Copenhagen TV Interview, (1971).
[3] Pollock, Arthur.  'Theater Time', 1 June 1944.
[4] Dietrich, Marlene. Marlene Dietrich’s ABC. (1962).
[5] Thomas, Danny & Davidson, Bill.  Make Room For Danny.  (Putnam, 1991).  139.
[6] Walker, Alexander. Dietrich. (Harper & Row, 1984).  158.
[7] Berg, Louis.  'Dietrich Rides Again'.  This Week, 13 August 1944.  10.
[8] Frischauer, Willi.  'Dietrich, the body and the soul'.  Collier's, 14 May 1954.  27.
[9] Heimer, Mel.  'Dietrich "Home" Again'.  New York Journal-American, 26 August 1944.  2.
[10] Lerman, Leo.  'Welcome Marlene'.  Vogue, 15 August 1944.  154.
[11] Spoto, Donald.  Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich.  (1992).
[12] Riva, Maria.  Marlene Dietrich: By her Daughter.  (1992).

© Rehan Qayoom, 2000, 9 August 2012.

This article first appeared in Prose 1997 - 2008 (2009).  Rehan Qayoom is a poet, author and editor. Educated at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has featured in numerous magazines, periodicals and performed his work across the world. His books include Seeking Betjeman Country (2006), Prose 1997 - 2008 (2009), Parveen Shakir Adapted into EnglishAbout Time (2011) is a collection of his poetry in English.  He is the editor of the prose and poetry of Morney Wilson, published as Martyr Doll, Remains and The Recordings (2011) and Chiragh Jaltey Hen: The Unpublished Poetry of Obaidullah Aleem (2012). He lives in London surrounded by books.

08 August 2012

When Baryshnikov & Dietrich Met on Business

Back in 1987, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) hosted its 6th annual awards dinner at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For $750 a plate, attendees got to watch designers--who paid only $250 for their grub (beat that, AARP cardholders!)--walk like Egyptians to the podium and bask in the recognition of their peers.

Absent from the ceremony was Marlene Dietrich, who had won a lifetime achievement award, which someone less respectful than I might term a sort of "deathbed award" that Dietrich describes under her ABC entry, "Academy Award." On Marlene's behalf, Mikhail Baryshnikov accepted the award. Maria Riva tells us in her book that Dietrich rejected David Riva for this task in favor of the diminutive dancer-turned-actor, who became the object of her mother's unbridled octogenarian lust.

If Baryshnikov never had the chance to visit Dietrich's "nice and tight" nether regions, at least one of her top-shelf impersonators, played by Adele Anderson, flirted with him and Gene Hackman in the 1991 movie, Company Business. This Dietrich may be dressed like The Blue Angel's Lola-Lola, but she's singing "The Boys in the Backroom," the signature song of Destry Rides Again's Frenchy, even jiggling her Adam's apple like the saloon strumpet to whimper with vibrato!

07 August 2012

25th February 1966, Marlene in Poland for the second time

       On 25th February 1966, Marlene Dietrich was travelling to Poland for the second time.
As 'usual', she was greated by Pagart (Polish Art Agency). She wore beige coat and (it seems) floral print headscarf. Marlene went to the Bristol Hotel (the one in which she stayed back in 1964).

You can watch the airport arrival and Marlene during concert in 1966 in Warsaw here...:

...and something from a fan's private collection, including Polish magazine covers from 60s here(I hope you can watch this one).

 The plan was to give 13 concerts (6 in Warsaw, 5 in Gdańsk and 2 in Wrocław), then get back to Paris to get some rest as her health was really bad those days: in her journal she was writing about insomnia, back pain and frequent bleedings. Despite this, she gave all 13 concerts and didn't stop rehearsing with the orchestra.

She traveled by plane and train from town to town. Even though most of the organisors were able to provide decent conditions, in Gdańsk there were some problems; she didn't quite like the Grand Hotel in nearby Sopot, the stage location wasn't good either: she sang in shipyard which was just next to the railway; trains were so loud they interrupted the songs. You can find photos from Gdańsk airport right here. This Chanel (?) suit suited her so well. :)

Big highlights from Dietrich's second visit to Poland were her meetings with Polish artist: musicians (you can see beautiful Marlene with two well known pianist here), actors, among which the most important person was Cybulski. She met him in Wrocław, when she was staying in Monopol hotel, where eventually Cybulski also decided to spend some time. They got along immediately; she knew his movies; they spend quite a lot time together and when it was high time for her to get back to Warsaw, he escorted her to the railway station. Afterwars, they started to exchange letters.

After concerts in Warsaw and a glass of wine drank with musicians, Marlene headed for airport. She declared she wanted to return to Poland once more...but unfortunatelly, it has never happened.

04 August 2012

Revisiting Rosenbach's Mercedes de Acosta Trove

The Vampire & The Child (from here)
A few years ago, I briefly mentioned the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, which holds Mercedes de Acosta's papers. Shame on me for not digging deeper than a mere press release! You may recall in the first part of the Thom Nickels piece on John Banks that Marlene Dietrich supposedly gave Acosta a pair of her silk stockings. VP, the force behind Carole & Co. and a reader more astute than I, emphasized this factoid, and Nickels recently told me that his book, Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia, features a photo of the stockings, which are held by the Rosenbach.

Well, with all this in mind, I thought to myself, "Surely, this museum's got an online finding aid that'll tell me more about its other Dietrich relics." I didn't expect all the photographs! Explore the Rosenbach Museum & Library's object catalog because you'll be as impressed as I was. Aside from the stockings, you'll see a silk scarf monogrammed with "marlene" in its polka dots, a sock (which I highly doubt is polyester!), publicity shots, and candid photos (incidentally, did jealousy lead Mercedes to crop her male rivals--such as Fred Perry--out of some photos? See this and compare with this).

Oh, you probably expect me to tell you how to search this catalog. Well, if you insist!

Try this link, type a simple term like "marlene" (retrieves 294 records) or "dietrich" (retrieves 293 records) in the box, and click the "Search" button. I recommend you play with terms like "riva" (to see a few early '30s head shots and also an intriguingly butch studio shot from the same era of Maria Riva) or "garbo" (to see a surprisingly small set of 39 Greta Garbo records) as well.

You may notice the Rosenbach object catalog's request that researchers send any information that can improve their records, so do help them if you spot any errors or omissions. Just click the "Send Feedback" button on the record you're viewing, and fill out the form. You'll be aiding not only the Rosenbach, but also any future Dietrich researchers and fans. I myself have spotted several photos of Marlene with an unidentified Rudi Sieber and sent feedback about this. I haven't yet viewed all the photographed objects, but I'm hoping to see Tami Matul buried among these treasures. EDIT: I just saw two paintings of Marlene (one | two) that are surely by Martin Kosleck. Also, this woman is not Marlene, is she? She looks more like Zarah Leander . . . ?

03 August 2012

August Wishlist

Before all else, I want to attune you to Terry Sanderson's upcoming Marlene Dietrich tribute at London's Conway Hall on September 7-8. Visit his site devoted to the show! If you've attended any of Sanderson's past Marlene tributes, please share your experience in the comments section.

Now, I'll tackle my wishlist! While searching online catalogs of libraries, museums, and archives, I find myself coveting countless Marlene-related items. By giving these materials exposure here, I hope that I can somehow access them. Even if I can't, I'll be satisfied with making some of you aware of these things so that you can explore them yourselves.

Marlene Dietrich w/ 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion officers
Marlene Dietrich w/
614th Tank Destroyer Battalion officers.
Recognize the dress?
First, I want a better-quality version of this photograph, in which Dietrich brings cheer in Germany to officers of the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, apparently one of the few Black (or--for search engine optimization purposes--African-American) tank destroyer units and also the first Black unit to receive a Distinguished Unit Citation. I'm only certain that this photo appeared in the May 26, 1945 issue of the influential Black newspaper, Chicago Defender; in the May 19 issue, an article describes how Dietrich dined with the troops, sang "Lili Marlene," and shook hands with the mess sergeant for cooking a yummy meal. I surmise, though, that the image lies in an archive somewhere because it's from the U.S. Signal Corps. Do tell me whether you know more or whether other publications have printed it.

In case you're interested in war history, has rounded up several informative resources on the 614th TD Battalion. I also encountered a more colloquial but equally fascinating page that mentions Dietrich and the 614th troops at WWII vet Pierce Evans' site. You may be particularly drawn to his page with a photo of Marlene's leg.

Marlene Dietrich photographed by Scotty Welbourne
There's that dress!
Photographed by Scotty Welbourne.
(photo from here)
For the eagle-eyed among you, the dress that Marlene's wearing is one of her '40s staples (also, it's pastel, according to the May 19, 1945 issue of Chicago Defender), and I can trace it to a photo shoot she did with photographer Scotty Welbourne. When was this shoot? I assumed it was for 1941's Manpower because Welbourne became the photography department head of Warner Bros., the studio that produced this Dietrich movie. The 1st U.S. edition of Alexander Walker's Dietrich, however, features an alternate shot on the dust jacket and dates it to 1940. As if I couldn't be any more clueless, I want to know who designed the dress. Irene? The cut looks similar to another one that Marlene wore throughout the '40s, which you can see at a link I know I've shared ad nauseam here--the FIDM Museum blog.

Now, for the other item on my August wishlist, which piqued my interest while I was digging through the U.S. National Archives catalog:

I want to hear Marlene's German version of "I'll Never Smile Again," one of my favorite classic pop standards in English--obviously thanks to the cool crooning of Frank Sinatra. As you may notice, Dietrich recorded a German version of "South American Way." To hear that, listen no further than marlenedietrichTV!