Falling in Love Again – with Marlene

The theme of this year’s Pride festival is “gay icons” and my contribution will be a reclaiming of possibly the greatest gay icon of the 20th century, Marlene Dietrich. I’ll be presenting a show about diva Dietrich on Thursday, looking at the many aspects of this complex woman’s work and personal life.

She had much more depth than most of the entertainers the gay community has taken to its heart as favourites. Not only was she the ultimate film star during the golden years of Hollywood, she was also a medal-winning war time morale-booster for the allied troops and a great cabaret performer. Less well-known, though, is her atheism and her lesbianism.

Although many of her love affairs with men are well chronicled (like all the best film stars, she slept with just about everyone from Frank Sinatra to Yul Bynner and from Maurice Chevalier to John F. Kennedy), her relationships with women are not so well known.

But her freewheeling attitude to sex has been much analysed since her death, particularly by her daughter Maria, who wrote a tell-all book about Marlene in the grand tradition of Christina Crawford's Mommie Dearest - only Maria's effort was dubbed Mommie Queerest. In the book she revealed that Marlene used sex as a kind of weapon in her affairs with men - she didn't actually care much for "it". It was a way of controlling and manipulating them.

With her women conquests it was different. She actually enjoyed the sex, and the relationships were much more satisfying for her. Edith Piaf, Mercedes de Acosta (who also wooed and won Greta Garbo), Colette, Rosemary Clooney, the German singer Hildegard Knef and many others shared nights of passion with Dietrich.

However, to call Marlene a ‘lesbian’ is rather restrictive and would misrepresent her sexuality. To call her bisexual would also not be adequate. Perhaps ‘queer’ describes her best or simply, as one commentator said, ‘unstraight’.

The sex researchers Masters and Johnson had another category of sexuality besides 'heterosexual', 'homosexual' and 'bisexual' - it was 'ambisexual', and that might have covered Marlene. She made love to those she was attracted to at any particular time in her life, their gender was immaterial. This is extraordinary, given that most of her career was built on being the ultimate fetish object for straight men.

Her public persona, particularly in her earlier days as an actress in Weimar Berlin, also reflected this sexual ambiguity. She would not balk at being a clothes horse for the latest female fashion, but she might also be seen next day in the street wearing a well-cut man's suit and hat, her hair hidden and her latest (female) flame on her arm.

She was a regular attendee at the infamous drag balls that were popular in Berlin in the 1920s and threw herself wholeheartedly into the thriving gay life of the time. There are many early pictures of her, before Hollywood, that show her attired in butch drag.

As the actor Maximillian Schell (who made an award-winning documentary about her in 1984) said after her death: "She was a typical Berlin woman who could handle king and beggar with equal adroitness, and she was totally open about her homosexual relationships. I had the impression that Marlene did not converse with the people she met but rather wanted to provoke them. There was a spirit of confrontation in the air wherever she was."

Her early decision to kick convention into touch has seen her described as "eccentric", and her life was, indeed, completely out of the ordinary. She never belonged to anyone, except perhaps her daughter Maria. She defied pigeon holes and would constantly reinvent herself in order to extend her career. From stage actress she moved into silent films, and then on to The Blue Angel, which brought her international acclaim and a Hollywood contract. More than fifty films later, she then became a soldier

After the war came her next incarnation - as a cabaret entertainer. And once again, the phoenix rose from the ashes and Dietrich became the world's highest paid entertainer yet again as she toured her famous show around the globe.

Her life spanned almost all of the twentieth century (born 1901, died 1992), and it was a life of cosmopolitan sophistication.

If you’d like to find out more about Marlene and see her in action, you can come along to the tribute evening this Thursday (28 June) at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1 (nearest tube: Holborn). 7.30pm £10. You can find more details of the show here

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