Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For some people, a timely warning can avert disaster. For others, it is a prophecy. The 1930 film Morocco, starring Marlene Dietrich as the nightclub singer Amy Jolly, is a warning about the theatrical life. Its message was lost on Dietrich. The actress was doomed to play on film the tragedy of the performer, and then to live it.

In the movie, we first see Dietrich on a steamer headed for Morocco. A wealthy gentleman, rebuffed in his efforts to acquaint himself with her, approaches the ship’s captain to ask who she is. The captain glances at her and is not impressed. “Vaudeville actress, probably.” “Just . . . eh . . . how do you know that?” the gentleman responds. “Oh, we carry them every day. We call them ‘suicide passengers.’ One-way tickets. They never return.”

For one set of eyes, Dietrich’s character is unique, mysterious, alluring. For someone else, however, she is just another rehearsal of an old, old story, its ending always the same. On her first night in the revue, Amy draws the hoots of the crowd by coming out dressed in men’s clothes—then stuns them by asking a woman in the crowd for the flower in her hair and kissing her on the lips (the first woman-woman kiss in Hollywood history). For her second number, she wears a burlesque bodice. She sings:

What am I bid for my apple
The fruit that made Adam grow wise?
On the historic night when he took a bite
They discovered a new paradise.

An apple they say keeps the doctor away
While his pretty young wife has the time of her life
With the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
Oh, what am I bid for my apple?

The suggestive lyrics win the crowd. All through the film, Dietrich’s smiles are brief, before they give way to an underlying sadness. Later, she takes up with a pair of men: a philandering soldier (played by Gary Cooper), as handsome as he is faithless; and the same wealthy but effete gentleman she met on the boat. The gentleman is content to maintain her and even marry her, on cuckold terms: She may love her soldier and even make embarrassing scenes. The last we see of her, she is walking barefoot and unprovisioned across the desert, following her ever-faithless legionnaire. We are left to conclude that hers will be a one-way ticket.

In real life, Dietrich never had to go barefoot anywhere—Hollywood provisioned her well enough—but it was a one-way ticket all the same. She was a hero in World War II, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Légion d’honneur from France, and becoming the first woman and first German to receive the Israeli Medallion of Valor. She had counseled Jews to leave Germany throughout the 1930s, supporting them financially. When the war started, she renounced her German citizenship. She returned to Germany in an American military uniform, the single most dedicated performer on the USO circuit. All this makes it all the sadder that she was, in the end, a tragic hero.

She was married for fifty years to Rudolf Sieber, an assistant director on a film she worked on. She had as lovers her directors Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang, Errol Flynn (though who didn’t?), Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart (whose child she aborted), Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead (Dietrich had women lovers as well as men), John F. Kennedy and his father Joe Kennedy, Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Fairbanks, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Yul Brynner, and Erich Maria Remarque—among many others.

Evidence suggests she did not enjoy sex—alienation being a theme of her life—and she rejoiced at Remarque’s impotence. “I was so happy! It meant we could just talk and sleep, love each other, all nice and cozy!” When German documentary filmmaker Maximilian Schell suggested to her that women too could enjoy sex, she replied “I don’t know,” with what appeared to be genuine lack of knowledge of the phenomenon. Lovers were not so much pleasures as victories for her ego, and she locked away all their love-letters in her bank vault, as receipts.

Her husband had a lover too, who posed as their child’s nanny. Marlene, for all her modern ways, apparently felt embarrassed by her husband’s mistress, was jealous of her existence, and abetted the cycle of drug addiction and depression that led to her death in an asylum. “It isn’t just the money for the abortions—you know I don’t mind paying for them all the time, that is not the problem,” Dietrich told her husband. “Someday, someone is going to find out—no matter where we hide her.” 

Marlene was almost thirty when she arrived in Hollywood, meaning she was managing a depreciating asset. She looked immediately different on American screens. Josef von Sternberg had been encouraging her to lose weight; she probably also had “work done.” It is believed she had molars removed to thin her face beneath her cheek bones. She also began using “the Croydon facelift” technique, taping the skin on her face back into her hair (this is apparently painful, but she was celebrated for her high pain threshold). Her face became, and remains, a symbol, capable of bearing multiple meanings. Those high cheekbones meant glamor, just as they increasingly began to resemble a death’s-head.

“Everyone wants to get old; and everyone complains once they have,” wrote Cicero in his De Senectute (On Old Age). “So great is the inconstancy and perversity of foolishness.” The De Senectute was one of the most commonly assigned books in American high schools a century ago; you can still find the old textbooks moldering in second-hand bookshops. It is one of the most thoroughly relevant books ever written, as we invariably get old if we do not die young: Why not consider what makes old age a worthwhile stage of our lives? It is a book we could wish more Americans would read, as this year’s election cycle only seems to confirm that America is an old country. The book’s message is easily conveyed: Nature is not your enemy. “In this we are wise,” Cicero writes, “we follow nature, as our best guide, almost as our god.” Cicero uses a theatrical metaphor: “Old age is the final scene in life’s drama.” The drama is penned by Nature herself: “The rest of the play is well designed; do you believe Nature neglected to consider how it all would end?”

For many who love her, a great portion of Marlene Dietrich’s achievement is picking up the banner of glamor and carrying it far into the territory of age: a modern woman’s response to De Senectute. Through the 1950s and 60s, she dressed at the height of fashion, her hair and dresses closely paralleling those of Marilyn Monroe. Her main work after World War II was as a cabaret singer and stage performer, and as is so often the case with what is called fashion, she had always to declare war on nature, and project an image of youth. She wore a sheer “nude dress” for her Las Vegas shows when she was in her fifties. Heavy makeup and a taped face obscured any wrinkles; her hair was always dyed; body sculpting clothes shaped her figure; what role plastic surgery may have played is not known.

Dietrich was still performing onstage in 1975 when the sad pantomime’s final act began: She fell into an orchestra pit in Sydney and broke her femur. She retired to her Paris apartment, and would leave it only a few times over the next seventeen years. She absolutely refused to be photographed, her old body a thing of shame to her. Younger stars such as Madonna—who idolized Dietrich and has followed much of her sad trajectory—tried to visit but were refused admittance. So were her friends: She would talk to them on the phone only. She was bed-ridden, addicted to drugs, drinking half a bottle of scotch a day, and unable or unwilling to use a toilet, preferring to defecate in a casserole dish. Lured, however, by a paycheck, she consented to have Maximilian Schell produce a documentary about her life. Denied the right to film her—voice interviews only—Schell believed he could convince her to go on camera later. He failed. But the end result is all the more impressive: Marlene, the film icon, had been reduced, like the Sibyl of old, to merely a voice.

“It is not by strength,” Cicero writes in praise of being old, “nor quickness nor dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgement; old age, far from being deprived of these things, is often far richer than youth.” So it might be in a wisdom culture; it is not so in ours. We see so many old people with no particular wisdom to impart—all they have are opinions, of more or less entertainment value. Schell asked Dietrich, “May I ask how you relate to death?” “I don’t,” she replied. “I only worry about what I have to do today. It’s as simple as that.” She had purchased her one-way ticket and old age was no time for reflection. Even her opinions were not her own. She disliked the documentary Marlene when she saw it—until she heard it was nominated for an Academy Award.

Marlene’s daughter, Maria Riva, wrote a scorched-earth memoir about her mother. “This powerful preoccupation the world has for the famous,” she wrote about the celebrity cult around Dietrich, “is a difficult yoke to live under. Those of us who carry it, due to birth, pay a price. . . . [We] know that what is so revered is undeserving of canonization . . . we scream into the void of non-acceptance and are driven mute by its very repetitive uselessness.” How a person grows old is one of the most visible indicators of wisdom or foolishness; we all know this when we see Harrison Ford getting injured in fake fist fights for yet another Indiana Jones film, or Madonna posting pictures of herself in the bathtub on Instagram.

Dietrich is the patron saint of those who declare war on aging naturally. Cicero, with his metaphor of old age as one of the acts in a play, presupposes that life is divided into parts; what is possible in one part is not possible or even desirable in another. I used to be able to catch 85 mph fastballs; now I would ask someone else to warm up a high school pitcher, for fear I’d have my head taken off by a baseball. Sports players turn thirty or thirty-five and have to consider the broadcast booth, or property management classes, or life as a restaurateur. This is because they must, like all of us, adapt themselves to the decrees of nature. None of us get to choose our faces. Georgia O’Keeffe—nearly a contemporary of Dietrich’s—did not intend her sun-spotted, deeply lined face. But her acceptance of it gave her a dignity and force that can be felt fifty years later. Old age is the training God gives us as he prepares us for death, which, if we accept it, can be a glorious homeward journey. Jesus himself told Peter his old age and his youth would not be the same, and that old age meant loss of control: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

John Byron Kuhner owns Bookmarx Books in Steubenville, Ohio.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles