Dr Will Visconti, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study, contemplates the writings of Hollywood screen legend, Marlene Dietrich.
Despite being celebrated as the muse of novelists, poets and filmmakers, Marlene Dietrich’s own poetry is little known. Composed during her final years, while living as a recluse in an apartment on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, her poems reflect on her life and loves, as well as the current events raging beyond the world that she created for herself.
The Difference / Between / The Badly Kissed / and the / Well Kissed / Shows / Always / in / The Hours / The Days / Without Love / And the Badly Kissed / Erronever / Umher
Nachtgedanken (Night Thoughts) was composed during Dietrich’s sleepless nights in her Paris apartment, a habit that developed either as an attempt to treat the insomnia that plagued her, or a more practical way to occupy her time. While days were spent reading or conducting telephone calls with friends and admirers from around the world, nights became devoted to writing.
For the last decade until her death in 1992, Marlene Dietrich’s only company were a telephone, an extensive collection of books, copious amounts of scotch, and her memories. Watched over by the ever-increasing number of photo-portraits of friends and lovers populating what she called the ‘Dead Wall’, Dietrich worked at an Hermès typewriter, and by the light of an alabaster lamp.
Go to bed </ strong> / So your restless / Mind / no return / overtime / just go to sleep / take tablets / take love / if you can get some / and sleep / in arms / or lonely / without someone / who keeps you / but go to bed / you’ll still / Being there in the morning
Her process and her final work evoke a fusion of Marcel Proust and Maurice Druon in a play of memory, poetry, thought, fantasy, and a touch of Norma Desmond’s refusal to resign herself to the passage of time. Billy Wilder, with whom she had worked, was among the regular callers, though when she answered the phone she invariably refused to speak with him, pretending instead to be the maid despite her unmistakeable voice. In her more amenable moments, she wrote contributions for books including a study of The Blue Angel. Through this writing as much as her poetry, Dietrich remained determined to shape the record of her work and legacy, fiercely seeking to maintain control over her representation.
The cast of characters who traverse her imaginings include Judy Garland, Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin and Erich Maria Remarque – many of whom she had affairs or friendships with in the past. She had also maintained a lengthy correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, who affectionately called her ‘Kraut’. Theirs was a sexually-charged relationship, but via correspondence, until his suicide in 1961.
Where are you – / breath I loved / heart beat / my / Love loved / And with beating / Your heart / Atmete / Where are you, / Love of my life / That lasted so long
That Marlene Dietrich turned to poetry is perhaps unsurprising. She had known many poets during her life and was particularly fond for the work of Johann Goethe, and learned to recite their work from memory. Her own writings span decades of intrigue, adventure and loss. She reminisces about telling Piaf of the death of her lover Marcel Cerdan (Dietrich later had an affair with Piaf, and was maid of honour at her marriage to Jacques Pills), and recalls her rancour at only ever being nominated for one Academy Award, for Morocco, but losing to Marie Dressler.
Dietrich’s reflections also addressed current topics. Nachtgedanken includes pieces on Aids and the Reagan administration, and her own decline, such as losing the use of her legs. Being bedridden, the muscles had atrophied. This was as hard to bear because of practicality as for the fact that Dietrich’s legs had once been more renowned than those of Betty Grable. (It prompted Mae West, her friend and partner-in-crime on the Paramount lot, to quip ‘You give ‘em the bottom and I’ll give ‘em the top!’).
After Dietrich’s death, her family kept her notebooks, but Peter Riva, one of her grandsons, removed nearly 2,000 books from her apartment and many joined the collection of the American Library in Paris. Other items from Dietrich’s collection were donated to the Film Museum in Berlin; still other possessions including works by Cecil Beaton and a copy of Mein Kampf (after Marlene’s famous rebuttal of Hitler’s entreaties for her to stay in Germany) were sold to private collectors.
If / My heart / No more / Beats / Will it’s all over the world / Heard / And after / Two days / It’s forgotten / Like / All / The / Faded / Names / The one / Previous / Revered / Has
In 2005 Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter edited and published a collection of her poems. In recent years, other publications have followed Nachtgedanken: Georg Weth’s 2015 Dîner chez Marlene shares a collection of her favourite recipes, since for all of her glamour, Dietrich was equally enthusiastic in a domestic setting, and loved to cook.
Less flatteringly, 2017 saw Maria Riva’s biography of Marlene republished 25 years after its initial release, once more laying bare the flaws behind the mask that was Dietrich. Along with the poetry, the persistent appearance of Dietrich in print prove that her legend, constructed and so slavishly maintained, still exerts an influence.
Dr Will Visconti completed a joint PhD in French Studies and Italian Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory at the Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR), part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is a history and cultural studies lecturer at Central Saint Martins.
Image: Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Destry Rides Again (1939)