Icons / April 2016

MARLENE DIETRICH

Her calling-card was an enigmatic sexual ambiguity, and she seemed to hint that, behind a poker face of frosty hauteur, cards of every suit and stripe were waiting to be…

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

Indeed, Dietrich had found herself in the right place and time to play the game in her own transgressive style. Josef von Sternberg, the director of The Blue Angel, had scoured Berlin looking for someone with the right mix of icy insouciance and divine mittel-European decadence to play Lola-Lola, and Dietrich soon established herself as a kind of den mother to a thirties Sapphic Hollywood set she called 'the Sewing Circle' (while raffishly referring to her previous, not- unabundant phalanx of male lovers as 'the alumni association')

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Stuart Husband