We should be thankful to Marlene Dietrich’s unauthorized biographers, whose exploitation of her name led her “to clear up numerous misunderstandings” by publishing this engaging autobiography. Though the chronology is sometimes vague, the facts sometimes sketchy, and the narrative sometimes rambling, Dietrich’s absorbing recollections and insightful observations recommend this book even to readers with no particular interest in film stars.
Dietrich, born into a well-to-do family in Berlin at the turn of the century, was a bright, spirited girl who received an excellent education, especially music instruction, at which she excelled. Her memories of World War I are poignant--a cousin on the front line sent home a tin of corned beef that had been tossed to the German soldiers in their trenches by their American counterparts, who pitied them. She tells of her undistinguished performance at drama school and her fortuitous meeting with director Josef von Sternberg, who became her Pygmalion. Her account of her subsequent film career is filled with lively commentary on the film industry, some of it very funny (“What must one do to receive an Oscar? Play biblical characters, priests, and victims of sad and tragic disabilities . . . “). Her stories of World War II--she enlisted in the United States Army--provide a unique perspective on this difficult period. Finally she tells of her second Pygmalion, Burt Bacharach, who helped her develop the final phase of her career, that of a stage songstress.
Dietrich’s autobiography focuses on her relationships with others--her family, teachers, directors, coworkers, and friends (among them Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Alexander Fleming, Jean Gabin, and Edith Piaf). Her reflections on national characters--primarily American, French, and German--are those of a sensitive though sometimes opinionated woman who has lived long among them all. What she reveals of her own character--that of a disciplined professional who was immune to the lure of glitter--is no doubt accurate, though not, one surmises, complete.