Marlene's daughter bares all

Monday Books

August 02, 1993|By John F. Kelly

MARLENE DIETRICH. By Maria Riva. Knopf. 799 pages. $27.50.

IF there ever was any question of the gap between the personal lives and public images of Hollywood movie stars, this book on Marlene Dietrich by her daughter, Maria Sieber Riva, should settle it forever. The legendary Dietrich, worshiped by millions, emerges as

a mean, spiteful, self-centered, boozing, pill-popping witch obsessed with protecting her sex-goddess image well into her 80s.

It's an utterly different portrait from that painted in Maximilian Schell's graceful documentary, "Marlene," and in recent biographies by Donald Spoto ("Blue Angel") and Steven Bach ("Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend," which pictured Dietrich aging gracefully in her Paris apartment while sipping scotch and chatting on the phone with friends).

Most shocking, perhaps, is Ms. Riva's description of her mother's alcohol- and drug-soaked descent into old age. By 1980, when she was 78, Ms. Riva says, she refused to leave her bed. Instead, she turned her bedroom into a bunker jammed with pills, tubes, jars and cases of suppositories (which she referred to as "Fernando Lamases" because they put her to sleep).

Nearby was her liquor supply and next to that a Limoges pitcher and an old metal casserole which she used for a toilet. Everything stank, Ms. Riva says, because Dietrich would not allow anyone to touch her, change her bed or give her a bath.

She had countless love affairs in her younger years and continued to have them into her 60s and beyond. Her flirtations never stopped. Even in her 80s, Ms. Riva says, she fantasized about sleeping with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Still, she wasn't driven by sexual appetite as much as by a need for love and romance.

Sex was actually distasteful to her ("I never felt anything -- with any of them," she confided to her daughter). She preferred fellatio, Ms. Riva says, because "it put into her hand the power to direct the scene," and she adored impotent men. "It's nice," she said. "You can sleep and it's cozy."

As Dietrich aged, Ms. Riva says, she alienated many of the friends she had left -- and privately disparaged the rest. She gloated, for example, when Yul Brynner, an old lover, got cancer. "Goody, goody," she wrote across his photo, "he has cancer! It serves him right!" When she learned that Greta Garbo, an old rival at MGM, had kidney disease, she remarked, "That suits her. That goes with her character, smelly pee."

While some of Dietrich's early films were small gems, most of the rest, with few exceptions, were mediocre. Still, writes Ms. Riva, she had great presence and an instinctive feel for what was right for her, and any film she was in commanded attention, if not critical acclaim. She would have made a great director, Ms. Riva believes.

Later, her reputation was enhanced by her World War II USO tours and by her one-woman shows. The trouble was, she didn't know when to quit. As her health began to fail, her drinking and pill-popping increased, and she became increasingly difficult. Few would book her; those who did regretted it. Her performances were sloppy. She began to parody herself. Eventually, she retreated to Paris and closed the door on life.

Even the deaths of old friends and great lovers were not enough to drag her out. She refused to attend the funeral of her discoverer, mentor and long-time lover, Josef von Sternberg, who directed her in "Blue Angel."

Nor would she stir when her "one true love," French actor Jean Gabin, died.

Yet, to the end, Ms. Riva writes, through bouts with arteriosclerosis, cervical cancer, a broken hip and countless other maladies, Dietrich "retained the sharp mind that had intrigued and enchanted the world." While her opinions ("always negative, critical, cruel, often ugly") reflected her age, her ego and her background, "her mind never lost its inquisitiveness."

Ms. Riva's book is more properly a memoir, not a biography. She makes no attempt to chronicle Dietrich's lengthy life and career. Nor is there an index or a filmography in the book. Rather, she picks and chooses her moments -- and it must be said that she has a remarkably good eye for them.

While her judgments about her mother are harsh, even at times unnecessarily cruel, there is a ring of truth to them. Thus, Ms. Riva's book complements rather than competes with other recent books. It completes the portrait of Marlene Dietrich.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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