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Book Review: Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend by Steven Bach

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Steven Bach’s well-researched biography explores every lush detail of screen legend Dietrich’s life. First published by Morrow Books in 1992, University of Minnesota Press issued a reprint in March 2011.

Bach documents Dietrich’s early career in Berlin in the first part of the book. Actress Mia May reminisces about the young Dietrich, “People used to follow her through the streets of Berlin; they would laugh at her, but she fascinated them; she made them talk.” Bach reveals that Dietrich studied to be a violinist, but turned to acting after a wrist injury stunted her music career. The chapters “Home Front” and “Lili Marlene” chronicle Dietrich’s role as a tireless performer for the USO and supporter of the American war effort.

Much of the book centers around her Svengali-like relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, who cast her as Lola-Lola in Blue Angel and engineered her iconic films Morocco and Blonde Venus. Author/film executive Bach has something of an inside track on the subject, since he studied film with von Sternberg. Bach sprinkles the book with inside details about Dietrich’s love affairs with Jimmy Stewart, French actor Jean Gabin and John Wayne and other famous men. Most of these affairs took place while she was still married to her only husband, Rudolf Sieber. Dietrich remained friends with Sieber til his death, even befriending his mistress and paying many of the couple’s bills. Along the way, Bach offers more mundane, behind the facade tidbits, such as Dietrich’s insistence on a sparking clean dressing room prior to cabaret performances. She sometimes arrived early, scrubbing floors herself if they were not to her liking.

This 626-page book includes a filmography and over 100 black and white photos. While it doesn’t provide the insider view of her daughter Maria Rivas’s Marlene or mention much about her bisexuality, even film buffs and hardcore Dietrich fans will learn something new from this biography. Some readers may find the prose long-winded, but it’s a vivid read that befits Dietrich’s life.

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