To celebrate International Women’s Day we’ve burrowed into the archives, specifically Rake 39 where Stuart Husband takes up the challenge of trying to pin down the ‘real’ Marlene Dietrich. At one time she was the world’s highest-paid entertainer despite being described as a cipher and an allegory. Goddess or strumpet, gay or ‘unstraight’, she is one of the most influential women of all time.
Marlene Dietrich, 1932 (Photo by Eugene Robert Richee/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

In its July 1955 issue, the lubricious Hollywood gossip magazine Confidential had some audacious scuttlebutt to impart. “Marlene Dietrich and men are an old story,” it trumpeted. While the diva’s diva was happy to spread rumours of affairs with everyone from John Gilbert to Ernest Hemingway, it continued, these were smokescreens “to cover up some sprightlier capers that would have lifted the nation’s eyebrows all the way up its forehead. Because,” it frothed, approaching a lip-smacking crescendo, “in the millions of words that have been written about Dietrich’s dalliances, you’ve never, until now, read that some of them were not with men!” After a suitably judicious pause, the magazine rammed home its point: “In the game of amour,” it concluded, “she’s not only played both sides of the street, but done it on more than one occasion.”

It’s safe to say that, even in the straitened climate of mid-fifties America — where the Un-American Activities Committee was rooting out subversion of every stripe, and the Hays Code forbade ‘any inference of sex perversion’ from assailing movie audiences — the majority of Confidential’s readers will have found that their eyebrows had failed to achieve vertiginous ascension after receiving the ‘revelations’ about Dietrich. After all, this was a woman whose calling-card was an enigmatic sexual ambiguity, and who seemed to hint that, behind a poker face of frosty hauteur, cards of every suit and stripe were waiting to be tossed wantonly across all manner of tables. It’s there in her breakthrough role as the heartless chanteuse Lola-Lola, who destroys respectable men without a backward glance in 1929’s The Blue Angel. Dietrich shuffles across a shabby stage, clad in a top hat and a black dress slashed across the front to reveal her bloomers and gartered silk stockings, vamping for the tuxedo’d audience but keeping a lascivious eye on her chorus girls as she croons what became her signature song, Falling In Love Again:

Love’s always been my game

Play it how I may

I was made that way

I can’t help it


Stuart Husband


February 2020


Also read