Marlene Dietrich

by Maria Riva

Paper Book, 1993




New York : Knopf, 1993.


"Gossipy...Elabroately detailed...Greatly entertaining...Riva leaves no sequin unturned." THE NEW YORK TIMES Marlene Deitrich was considered one of the most glamorous stars of her day. A determined perfectionist with an incredible ego, her beauty, her style, her sense of the outrageous, made her a star. In this candid, illuminating, and detailed biography full of photographs, her only daughter Maria Riva, tells the incredible, fascinating, story of the star's life and career, loves and hates, hits and misses, as only a daughter can.


½ (43 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member peonygoat
Maria Riva has been very thorough in this treatment of her mother, though not always as kind as she can be.
LibraryThing member DameMuriel
Marlene makes Joan Crawford look like mother of the year. And a prude. This is the best biography ever written. Do not even try to argue with me on this.
LibraryThing member gbill
As Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva had rare access to so many details about the great Dietrich, including both personal anecdotes of course, but also having been backstage or at the studio when she was performing. She quotes passages from Dietrich’s diaries as a teenager in Germany
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during WWI all the way through to her personal letters late in life. The photos sprinkled throughout the book are fantastic. She was quite familiar with her mother’s lovers over the years, and aside from it being an extraordinary list (my god, I should have written them all down), she includes quite a bit of their intimate correspondences and details of their affairs. Dietrich was quite open with all of this with her husband, who she remained married to and cordial with, but carried on a separate life. Riva traces Dietrich’s entire life, all the way to the sad bed-ridden, alcoholic decade at the end, so if you want a complete picture of the woman, it seems like this book would be essential reading.

Riva makes the mistake of quoting conversations that occurred decades previously in great detail, as if they were recorded verbatim, but on the other hand, one gets the gist of what her mother’s attitudes were towards people or the events of the day, and I would guess it’s for the most part accurate. Still, for a four-year-old to be listening in to a conversation between director Joseph von Sternberg and Dietrich and then to quote it at length six decades later, one wonders how much of was created by the adult Riva, and there are many such instances.

However, a bigger problem with the book is quite simply its length. If you’re Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy, you have every right to pen 800 pages, but if you’re just an average mortal with average writing skills, you probably do not. The book should have been about 400 pages shorter. Aside from being far too detailed about every last aspect of Dietrich’s life, Riva also includes quite a bit of her own biography, casting herself in the most influential and favorable way (except when she went through a substance abuse phase), as well as occasionally adding historical information. It’s beyond self-indulgent and one wonders where the editor was in the process of writing it. She regularly states her own opinions about scenes from Dietrich’s movies, historical events, or people, for example, saying of Dolores del Rio that she wasn’t beautiful, and that when wasn’t still, projecting mystery, “you smelled tortillas curling on heated stones, chilies drying in the sun, sweet babies clinging to her skirts, one suckling at her breast.” Good lord. Suffice it to say it would have been wiser had she been more objective.

The fact that she opens up about having been sexually molested by Dietrich’s female secretary as a teenager was brave and admirable, though she makes the mistake of conflating homosexuality with pedophilia (“Even an innocent parent would not have put a young girl into an unsupervised, wholly private environment with such a visually obvious lesbian”). She also seems to diminish her mother’s stories about how studio executive Harry Cohn demanded sexual favors of her, saying that “her diaries make no reference to his demands, nor to her ‘shocked’ refusal,” when he was a notorious sexual predator.

Another issue with the book is its tone, which is frankly quite harsh towards her mother. I believe most of what she wrote and appreciated her honesty, because I think it gave me an accurate view of what Dietrich was really like, as opposed to glamorizing her. However, it is so unpleasant in places, revealing personal things that no one would want published (e.g. her mother’s favorite sex act, her suppositories, douching habits, saggy breasts, incontinence, etc), and often making snarky, sarcastic comments about what her mother said or did. It’s as if she was working through her mommy issues out in print. It’s true that Dietrich was a flawed human being who was selfish, abrasive, and anti-Semitic, among other things, but to portray it so gracelessly – and for so long – requires that the reader take breathers every couple hundred pages to slog through this.
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LibraryThing member gpangel
Marlene Dietrich: A Life by Maria Riva is a 2017 Pegasus Books publication.

Recently I read ‘Marlene’ by C.W. Gortner, which falls into the ‘biographical novel’ category. It was well done, for the most part, but I couldn't help but wonder, what parts were fact, what parts were fiction. So,
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I set out to find a non-fiction biography of the legendary actress, and stumbled upon this one, written by Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva. This book was originally released, I think in 1992 or 93, but has been reissued and is also available in digital format.

I put this book on hold at the library, as pre-release, and received a copy much quicker than I expected. I didn’t want to read two books on the exact same subject, this close together, but in this case, it may have worked to my advantage.

Still, I was a bit concerned because this is a book written by Marlene’s daughter, Maria Riva, and not a professional biographer. I’m not crazy about ‘revenge’ books written by embittered children of Hollywood stars. ‘Mommie Dearest’ seemed to start a trend which I found rather distasteful, but people can’t seem to get enough of it.

But, this book was very well received for the most part, so I decided to give it a shot.

So, how did it measure up?

First off, this book draws from so many personal documents, such as diaries, telegrams, letters, and photographs. They are included here, unedited, and speak for themselves, but Riva adds her personal memories of these events, giving the reader an intimate look at the woman behind the legend.

Having some prior knowledge about Marlene did help me navigate through the book a little faster, since I was already familiar with some of the topics covered, but this is a very hefty book and will require a little bit of time to go through. However, I found it to be an easy read, and it appears to confirm much of what was covered in the Gortner book.

Maria did portray her mother in a realistic way, exposing the darker side of growing up with a famous and a glamourous actress for a mother, while paying homage to that incredible era of time, and all those incredibly talented people, trends, and of course, a few scandals.

Some may view Maria’s vision of her mother as harsh in some places, but after having read a little more about Marlene, I would say, she was probably pretty close to the mark. I didn’t take this as anything but an accurate detailing of life with Marlene Dietrich. Did she fudge? Exaggerate? Probably, to some extent, she painted herself out to be put upon by her overbearing and self-absorbed mother. If I had not already perceived Marlene in a less than flattering light, I may have found Maria’s version of events off putting, but I found her to be sincere and believable, despite the uncomfortableness of the situation.

But, nothing here was a shock in my opinion. While Marlene was groundbreaking, unafraid to challenge society’s norms, capitalizing on her uniqueness, and building a reputation around her professional life, that kept her protected from the probing of curious fans who only wanted to believe in the glamorous image of her, willing to look the other way or ignore anything that might challenge that carefully constructed impression.

As the title suggests, the book is primarily about Marlene, but it’s also about Maria, and her experiences and feelings flow through the pages, so that we see her awe, her love of America, her own struggle for independence from her mother’s forceful personality and demands, and the way she managed to create her own identity.

While some may have a different opinion about the tone of this book, I don’t think you can read this book without picking up on Maria’s resentment, but I think she tried to temper it so that she didn’t look like yet another bitter Hollywood child, cashing in on her mother’s success. No doubt, Maria's recollections rankled some big fans of Marlene, who would prefer the 'Hollywood' image over reality, while others will take gleeful delight in seeing Marlene's mythical reputation debunked.

My personal opinion of Marlene is that she was all about her own self, and wasn’t naturally maternal, but she lived life on her own terms and you could either wither under her power, succumb to it, or fight against it, but it made no difference to her one way or the other. She was the way she was, and well, I didn’t feel she was filled with great depth, and was very shallow, and so, this book only deepened that opinion. The one area, Marlene succeeded in giving anything back was the work she did during WW2, which, as far as I'm concerned is the most meaningful contribution she made in her life.

This is an opinion I had formed before I started this book, and I think this book validates that judgement.

Yet, I still admire the contributions Marlene made to film, I loved her image, her style, all the glamour, mystery, and the unapologetic way she approached the stage and film.

But, as they say, Hollywood is mostly smoke and mirrors, and this book will remind you of that old adage, if you ever had any doubts.

Overall, the book is well organized, informative, and while I did know what to expect in some ways, it was still very enlightening, despite the sly 'revenge' factor.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
This is an absorbing biography of Dietrich by her daughter, Maria Riva. We are given the star’s life in detail, from her birth until her death. Riva’s life was closely twined with her mother’s from the day she was born- her mother used her as constant companion (who needs school when you can
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be your mother’s dresser?) and servant- so she was there to see and hear what Dietrich did and said for decades. From an early age, Riva was aware of her mother’s constant sexual escapades- sex and performances are the main themes of the book, along with Riva’s attempts to escape her mother’s life and have a life of her own. Dietrich had no concept of boundaries, and said and did the most atrocious things in front of her daughter, and then her son-in-law (when Dietrich returned from having sex with John Kennedy, she pulled her used panties out of her purse and thrust them to her son-in-law’s nose, encouraging him to smell the scent of the president!) and then even her grandchildren. She lied about her age, which meant she had to lie about her daughter’s age, too. When Riva was in her teens, she was still being dressed as a little girl, to enforce the illusion that Dietrich had only given birth to her a few years before. Dietrich drank heavily (especially late in life) and was her own pharmacist, in the years when amphetamines and downers were easily gotten. As far as I could tell, she never gave a thought to anyone else unless they could do something for her.

But she was beautiful, and could enthrall audiences. She was smart- she learned from wardrobe, lighting people, directors and anyone else and applied what she learned to her art. Josef von Sternberg, the man who made her a star in ‘Blue Angel’ and with whom she had an on again, off again affair for years, taught her the most- mainly, how to light herself for the effects she wanted. Thankfully, most of the people she worked with were willing to take her orders. She was a hard worker; she spent money like it was water- supporting herself, her daughter, her husband with whom she did not live (most of the time), her husband’s mistress, and giving extravagant gifts to her lovers- so she had to work almost all the time. She was strict with herself when working, and had bulimia, which allowed her to eat the rich foods she loved and still lose weight. Sadly, in her old age, she developed some dementia and that, along with her alcoholism and drug use, made her last years sad indeed.

Of course this is the biography of Riva, too. As long as her mother was alive, their lives were entwined. Riva did carve out her own life, though, becoming a television star for many years and raising a family. I was entranced by this biography- I couldn’t stop reading because every time I figured Dietrich couldn’t do anything worse, of course she would!
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Physical description

787 p.; 25 cm


0394586921 / 9780394586922
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