Marlene is a fictional autobiography of Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). In seven “scenes” the legendary femme fatale recounts events from her earlier years through WWII.
From the start Marlene portrays herself as a very bad girl and a force to contend with. Rather a misfit, she has few friends; she rejects family values and scorns her self-effacing sister. Away at boarding school she indulges in after-hours revelry and seduces her tutor. She is, predictably, expelled, and returns home, but soon moves in with a lesbian lover and begins her single-minded struggle to stardom. She dances in cabarets, plays in a vaudeville orchestra, and begins training in voice and theatre. During these years she is also immersed in the Berlin demi-monde of alcohol, transvestites, and prostitutes.
In 1930 Dietrich lands the starring role in Blue Angel and becomes an international sensation. This film, she tells us, cemented “my image as an erotic temptress.” Throughout her career, image and reality were indistinguishable. Her bisexual affairs were legendary and are described here in explicit detail.
Though the book’s primary focus is on Dietrich’s relationships and career, it closes with her contribution to the war effort, working for the USO, tirelessly entertaining troops at home and abroad. She publicly and dangerously disavowed Hitler. And in the 1984 Maximillian Schell documentary, Marlene, she denied she had a sister, a sister who, in reality, had worked for the Nazis.
Hearing her speak in her own voice in that documentary, I would say that Gortner’s representation of Dietrich is on the money. She was a beautiful, hard-nosed, sexy nihilist who, in her own words, never thought about the future and didn’t look back on the past. She truly was the bad girl of every man’s dreams. If you are a Dietrich fan, you will want to read Marlene.