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The Early Bird: New Books for the Week of March 28, 2011

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A mystery titled Mystery? I’ll bet the butler wrote it.

Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler

“Celebrities – is there anything they don’t know?” a dumbfounded Homer Simpson once asked. (He’s not a real cartoon character, but he plays one on TV). Many times, when it comes to superciliously spouting out opinions about things like politics, elections, and war — er, I mean “kinetic military actions” — show folk, it seems, should at least mull over the maxim that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool blah, blah, blah… It’s an axiom I myself, non-celebrity to the stars, heed as I’ve had opportunities to meet – usually briefly to eliminate trace evidence of foolhardiness — any actors, actresses, musicians, etc. My encounters include, while working in a Southern California bookstore, helping a pre-“winning” and apparently level-headed Charlie Sheen during some of his earlier “Hollywood Madam” trials and tribulations find “books on the theology of Catholic confession.” We found a few, but I don’t know if he bought them. If so the knowledge might have been lost in the recent shuffle when “I blinked and I cured my brain.”

Sheen’s recent grandstanding and injudicious antics are something I could never associate with the cool and mystique-wielding Marlene Dietrich, my first celebrity sighting when I was a mere lad of about six or seven, though I didn’t really know who she was – she wasn’t hawking “Falling in Love Again, Duh” T-Shirts to tip off the teeming masses, which included my parents from whom I was subjected to secondhand tipping.  All I knew was that she was turning heads as she walked the corridors of Los Angeles International Airport, dressed to unwittingly (or not) impress and turn heads though she was not at that time active anymore as an cinematic chanteuse (by this time she was performing live as a high-paid cabaret artist in major cities worldwide). In retrospect, she looked like she stepped out of the atmospheric setting of a 1940s film, in long manila overcoat, dark shades, and big, semi-floppy hat that if intended to obscure her face, failed miserably with each flounce and bounce, serving the purpose of drawing more attention to her conspicuous-by-her-actress-hood persona. The only way she could’ve drawn more whispers, looks, and furtive finger-pointings, were if she was wearing raw meat, a la Lady Gaga.

In Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography Charlotte Chandler, author of several major film biographies and a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, spoke with the enigmatic legend in the mid-1970s in Dietrich’s Paris apartment. The star’s career was largely over but she agreed to meet Chandler because she hadn’t known Dietrich earlier, “when I was young and very beautiful.” In addition to interjecting synopses of her films, Chandler also bases the book on a series of conversations with others who knew Dietrich well – from which emerges the German-born, fervently anti-Nazi Dietrich’s plot to kill Hitler (“if necessary, I would go in and visit him naked”).

Chander chronicles Maria Magdalene Dietrich’s life and career from her start as a model in Berlin, her stage and screen roles during the silent era, then the big time with the widespread attention garnered by The Blue Angel. Josef von Sternberg, the director of The Blue Angel, then whisked her off to Hollywood and international stardom with a series of celebrated movies such as Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, and Destry Rides Again. With the advent of World War II Dietrich abandoned her German citizenship to become a U.S. citizen while — in entertaining Allied troops and singing “Lili Marlene” at the liberation of Paris — she personally saw what the boys at the front lines would have. After the war she reinvented herself once again as a stage performer with a young music director, Burt Bacharach, interviewed for Marlene.

Dietrich’s personal life – her many affairs with both men and women, unconventional marriage, her family and friends – is of course taken up, as well as her reclusiveness late in life. Beleaguered by accidents beginning in the late 1970s, Dietrich stayed secluded in her Paris apartment, communicating with a chosen few, especially her daughter, almost entirely by telephone. Dietrich died in 1992 at age 90 with a varied, rich life, and many tales, in the end, told.

MORE NONFICTION

The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life
by Elijah Anderson

It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace
by Rye Barcott

All My Life: A Memoir
by Susan Lucci

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
by Tina Rosenberg

FICTION

The Alpine Vengeance (Emma Lord Series #22)
by Mary Daheim

1636: The Saxon Uprising (The 1632 Universe)
by Eric Flint

Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Series #10)
by Charlaine Harris

Dead by Midnight (Death on Demand Series #21)
by Carolyn G. Hart

Devious
by Lisa Jackson

Mystery (Alex Delaware Series #26)
by Jonathan Kellerman

The Troubled Man (Kurt Wallander Series #10)
by Henning Mankell, Laurie Thompson (Translator)

Lover Unleashed (Black Dagger Brotherhood Series #9)
by J.R. Ward

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://www.hollyweiss.com Holly Weiss

    Well done. This is the first time I’ve visited your column. You piqued my interest in reading Dietrich’s biography. Thank you.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Good to hear, Holly. Thanks for the comment.