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Memories of Marlene Dietrich

An early short story by David Rain

David Rain comments: “Many people over the years have told me how much they like this story, so I resurrect it here. I wrote it when I was twenty-two, and it was my first piece to achieve any recognition. It won a contest in Australia and later appeared in an anthology. I was at the time enamoured of postmodernism, or thought I was. The story began as a sort of cut-up of facts about Marlene Dietrich from a biography, Dietrich: The Story of a Star by Leslie Frewin, interlaced with fantasies of my own. Originally it was much longer and I spent a lot of time editing it as well as arranging the sections.

“The flat, declarative style, the air of mock authority, reflects my recent reading of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. The story, however, is more romantic than postmodern. Postmodernism and its ethos of the air quote ­– let’s not, whatever we do, ever be sincere – is a mode I now find repellent. Dietrich is not, for me, an object of irony or of camp. Like Suzanne Vega in her famous song, I too had Marlene on the wall. This is a love story.

“I wish I could have built on the story’s small but real success. But the channel it opened for me swiftly closed. I could write nothing to match it. For years, I could barely write fiction at all. The story suggests one reason why. I could write vignettes, impressions, but not construct a narrative. But I had at least learned that a story is words, not events. It needs to be written, not just slammed down on the page. While there is much here that I would do differently now, I like this story because it was here that, for the first time, I heard my own voice. And liked what I heard.”

 

Memories of Marlene Dietrich

 

1

Redmond remembered her in London after the war. Her arrival occasioned scenes of public emotion unprecedented even in those emotional years. Noël Coward escorted her from the plane. Marlene in dark glasses, gold hair cascading, they fought through fans to a waiting limousine. She would sing bathed in pink light, her gown glittering with every move she made: she appeared to be clothed in jewels. She sang the most evocative songs of her generation. Each night she was introduced by a different celebrity. Her dressing-room was filled with champagne and flowers. They called her: The German Who Conquered England.

 

2

Marlene Dietrich was travelling by rail. They had put on a special carriage. Soldiers swarmed the platform: the air was electric. Immaculate in black, her face veiled, Dietrich wound slowly through the sea of men, signing autographs, smiling sometimes. A tall man, unsmiling, moved behind her, guarding her safety: everyone wanted just to see her. Cameras were flashing. In the carriage door, Dietrich turned and waved. She lifted her veil. The frail petals of her smile fluttered softly over the crowded platform, tinting pink the yellow, electric air. Signs above displayed the names of distant cities. It was 1943.

In 1929, Marlene Dietrich starred in Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). Directed by Josef von Sternberg, it is the most important film in the history of German cinema. Dietrich played Lola-Lola, a dissolute cabaret artiste: the legend was born. Contracts came from across the Atlantic. Maria Magdalene Dietrich would never return to the backstreets of Berlin. Gloved hand clutching a rail, she stood on the deck of a large white liner. It was a cold morning in 1930: fog was swirling and her breath came out in clouds. She clutched briefly at her throat. The shores of the fatherland were fading. Somewhere, ahead, lay Hollywood.

 

3

She stands by the window, suddenly alone in the dim-lit crowded room. She turns, plucking a fluted glass from a tray with long gloved fingers. She raises it briefly to her lips; then, fondling the stem, holds the glass for a moment like a rose against her breasts. Her hair shimmers softly as she stands, pensive, by the richly flowing curtains. The clinking glasses, the music and conversation seem like silence to her now.

She paces across the room, the glass discarded, her trailing gown glittering like stars in the mellow party light. She pauses, producing suddenly a cigarette; notes coolly the lingering glance of an acquaintance on the other side of the room; then, tossing back her shining hair, quickly ascends the stairs, smoke clouding the air behind her. She pauses again, momentarily, at the top of the stairs. Below, another form approaches, moving rapidly out of the darkness towards her. A voice calls above the clamour: Fraülein Dietrich!

She turns. Aloof, she hovers for several seconds, a slender silhouette framed against a lighted doorway. Slowly, one hand stroking her shining hair, famous thighs rippling beneath the lavish gown, she glides delicately down the stairs. The languorous, impossibly deep eyes survey, sardonically perhaps, the small, rather angular man who has called her name. She extends, with infinite grace, a perfect, white-gloved hand.

She says softly: Why, Mr Redmond.

 

4

One cold afternoon Redmond took me to his room. He invited me to lie on his crumpled bed. He played me his gramophone records: then he showed me his photographs.

‘Marlene with Erich Maria Remarque: Hollywood, 1948.’ ‘With Cary Grant: Blonde Venus, 1932.’ ‘The thirties: an outrageous costume from The Devil is a Woman: in each succeeding picture, Dietrich was more extravagantly gowned and coiffured.’ ‘With James Stewart in Desire.’ ‘1954: the Café de Paris.’ ‘An unforgettable performance: “They call me naughty Lola”: 1930, The Blue Angel.’ ‘Surprised by a kiss! Dietrich shows her admiration for the ageing Freud.’

Often she was photographed with Josef von Sternberg, the director who had discovered her. In Hollywood, they were rumoured to be lovers. Years after they had ceased working together, still von Sternberg would speak of her with the air of a man obsessed. In his declining years he would corner strangers in Los Angeles supermarkets, housewives with valium eyes or young men and women in strange modern clothes, and insist on showing them stills from his tattered celluloid visions. By Warholesque banks of Campbell’s soup-cans or Kellogg’s boxes he would urge with gesticulating hands: Ze merest look, ze fleeting ex-pression, it iz – it iz a vorld!

Redmond, at least, was somewhat more subdued. He appears himself in one famous photograph, one of many from the war years: a young man at the back of a crowd, almost indistinguishable, his battered slouch hat disguising his eyes. Like Dietrich, he was always mysteriously alone.

For ten years we were lovers.

 

5

In the late thirties, Dietrich ignored Hitler’s demands that she return to Germany. When war was declared, she disguised herself and travelled alone up the California coast, retiring for several days to a cheap hotel: she needed this loneliness. Months later, in a somewhat more illustrious locale, she stirred suddenly from hours of contemplation and drafted a letter to the U.S. Army. Unconcerned, it seemed, for her own safety, she entertained the allied troops in many parts of the world throughout those dark, anguished years that followed.

T. S. Eliot was an air raid warden.

Even in khaki, Dietrich was still, unmistakably, Dietrich. She would sing her famous war song: Outside the barracks, by the corner light/I’ll always stand and wait for you at night … The British soldiers picked it up first in North Africa, and they made it their own.

After a performance in England, early in the war, Marlene experienced her first air raid. Leaving her darkened room, as if the melancholy howl of the siren seemed to her a signal calling her into the night, she stood watching on the hotel balcony as anti-aircraft shells exploded over the sea. A German plane dropped, flaming, from the sky.

In 1947, in Los Angeles, Marlene was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour of the U.S. War Department. Thirteen years later, she performed again in her homeland. She was attacked on stage by a woman in West Berlin. The woman screamed: I hate you! You betrayed our country in the war!

 

6

Redmond could discourse for hours, it seemed, on the aesthetics of each photograph. ‘Marlene on the telephone’: ‘Marlene with cigarette holder’: ‘Marlene in top hat and suspenders’. How to describe her? A studied unreality, said one critic. Aloof, languorous: cruel almost, sometimes.

On the wall was a shot from Knight Without Armour (1937). She appears stern, military even, a taunting male-female figure with hard unsmiling lips and hooded, magnetic eyes. This photograph was Redmond’s favourite.

Poor Redmond. He was gone a few months later. His pictures, messages from another life with jagged scissored edges, were left heaped on the window-sill. On the floor were found the following materials: Michael M. Dreiser’s Marlene (1950), the inaccurate but useful biography; A Room of Marlene’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s classic early study (1935); a Trinity College scarf and several socks; clippings from Time and American Music; six paper-clips; and drafts of a fiction. Recollection of Dietrich.

 

7

Marlene Dietrich moves against indistinct forms. Marlene Dietrich flickers and pulses in the vast darkened room. Marlene Dietrich moves and replaces objects of uncertain ontology. Marlene Dietrich moves to the centre of the screen. Marlene Dietrich moves out to meet the darkness, a yearning romanticism echoing from the hollows of barely-fleshed face.

Marlene Dietrich turns. Marlene Dietrich shines.

Marlene draws rapidly back, spinning in the arms of a cynical man; then, detaching him deftly, careers across the cabaret floor to a sweep of sweet violins, and jutting out her hands behind leans back upon a barrel, kicking out her legs to reveal, once again, the fabulous, flawless thighs.

The film flickers. Jump!

Marlene multiplies, image on image in endless array. Marlene glances: Marlene advances.

The film flickers, Jump! and her face is melting into waxen drops as her soul spreads wide across the skies into the memories and dreams of a million masturbating soldiers; into the misty eyes of Irish funeralgoers and the mysterious predictions of a lean gypsy; into whores parading in the streets of Belgrade, thick paint and boredom covering their cracking faces; into a countess with severe lips, donning dark glasses as she orders her chauffeur on a reckless course; into sailors, gathered at the sides of creaking ships as an undiscovered country fills the horizon; into the bespectacled earnest eyes of a college student drafting a surrealist story; into a scrawny child of the slums scratching squares and numbers on the pavement with a stub of broken chalk and jumping, Jump! under flapping laundry and a smoke-filled sky.

There is a flickering: Jump! The film flickers. The film flutters. The film snaps in a blaze of white.

 

8

Some years ago Marlene Dietrich performed in Sydney, Australia. Her gown glittered with every move she made. Her face was taut and ageless. They called her: The German Who Conquered Australia. One night she collapsed on stage, long nails clawing suddenly at the curtain, hair tumbling wild. An ambulance rushed through the streets. She was carried from the theatre, her face concealed from cameras and the searching eyes of onlookers who milled around the stage door. Several cynical women applauded as the star was sped away.

She was seventy-three years old.

 

9

Redmond’s diappearance was an unexpected, unexplained affair. But I realized later I should not have been surprised.

He had to escape. It was not from me, not from the life around him he was escaping, but from some dark oppressive force that welled, deep and secret, in his own being. I found the room suddenly barren that day, dust thick on the floor where the furniture had been, a few forlorn books, a few papers the only testimonies to his presence. The bleak light of late afternoon seeped through the dirt and scraping branches that obscured the window. Marlene, from a yellowing poster, eyed me ironically from the wall. I remember that poster: her face a blur of white and black, slashing shadows.

Redmond remembered her. In London after the war.

I still think of Redmond. We were not lovers, despite what was sometime said.

 

10

The darkness is alive with applause. Stars trailing in the air behind her, Marlene turns and blows a kiss as she vanishes from the stage. As she lingers, tired but still splendid, in the wings, Noël Coward presses her hands warmly between his. He said once: She is and will remain one of the great cultural figures of our time. Returning the pressure of his clasp, Marlene kisses him quickly on the cheek before gliding back to the waiting spotlight, and eager gaze of enamoured eyes. Still there is a thunder of applause. Among the audience are: Princess Margaret; the Oliviers; T. S. Eliot, a long-time admirer; even the ageing Dr Carl Jung, now lecturing in London.

The conductor raises his baton. The orchestra sits paused for the famous refrain. Moving to the microphone, Marlene Dietrich thinks: It is a quarter of a century since first I sang this song. Her gaze travelling among a thousand faces in the darkness, a community of love, her eyes sparkle with a warm mist and she feels a sudden elation.

Smiling, Marlene Dietrich announces: The last one. And the inevitable.

Music wells around her as she stands, glittering, in the warm pool of pink. When she leaves the stage again, for the last time, there flutters down behind her in the fading circle a single, perfect rose.