Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Marlene Dietrich Gets Personal in Charlotte Chandler's New Biography

Prolific biographer Charlotte Chandler has written on the life of a different film legend every year for the past 6 years, beginning with It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock in 2005. Her latest, Marlene, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.

Chandler's biographies are based on personal interviews. She includes filmography and career details, but her style is to convey the story of a life in the first-person as much as possible, using the subject's own words. This conversational approach gives the reader a sense of being in the room, listening in, as the story of a remarkable life unfolds.

Groucho Marx
The author's career as a biographer began with Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends in 1978. Written during Marx's lifetime but published not long after his death, it became a bestseller. Chandler returned to the genre years later with her 1995 Fellini biography, I, Fellini. But it was with her first book for Simon & Schuster in 2002, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, that Charlotte Chandler’s biographies became frequent and consistently titled, each with the annotation "A Personal Biography."

Who is Charlotte Chandler? Her Simon & Schuster bio is sketchy - we are told that she has written many bios, lives in New York and is on the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The back cover of Hello, I Must Be Going includes a picture of Chandler with Groucho who sits at a piano. Her biography of Alfred Hitchcock contains photos of Chandler with the director as well as his daughter, Pat. The dust jackets of Chandler’s biographies are strewn with the praise of film world luminaries: Isabella Rossellini, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Pat Hitchcock, director Michelangelo Antonioni, producer David Brown and others. Vanity Fair, which has published excerpts of many of her books, proclaims that Chandler “sets the gold standard for celeb bios.”

In a recent interview with Kirkus Reviews, Chandler was asked how she managed to gain access to so many of the most famous, and often famously difficult, stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. About Groucho Marx she recalled that someone had given her his phone number, she called and, though Groucho refused to be interviewed, he invited Chandler to dinner. Then, over dinner, Groucho asked why she hadn't been taking notes on their conversation. It was Groucho who later introduced her to Billy Wilder.  Henri Langlois, film archivist and founder of the Cinématheque Française, introduced Chandler to Hitchcock, Mary Meerson, also of the Cinématheque Française, introduced her to Dietrich, director George Cukor introduced her to Katharine Hepburn…and Bette Davis, ever the formidable outlier, called Chandler herself, the only one of the author's subjects to do so. 

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Connections abound between Chandler's subjects, most of whom knew and worked with each other, and occasionally one story will overlap into another. For example, Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had an affair that lasted for years, and the gentleman had many memories of her. He told Chandler about a series of miniature nudes he sculpted of Marlene and how he eventually decapitated all of them to protect her reputation in the event of his demise. This anecdote is told in detail in the Dietrich biography. It is also woven into the Hitchcock biography, in abridged form, in a section on Stage Fright.

Fairbanks was the friend of many film legends and a substantial resource for Chandler; he is quoted in each of the biographies of hers that I’ve read (Bette Davis, Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Hitchcock). Equally well-connected and forthcoming was George Cukor, who is quoted in the Davis, Hepburn and Hitchcock books. What I wouldn’t give to have access to the stack of notes and tapes Chandler must have made over the years…

Charlotte Chandler met Marlene Dietrich in 1977, when the legendary star was 76 years old and living in Paris. Dietrich’s greeting to her future biographer was, “I don’t mind meeting you because you didn’t know me before, when I was young and very beautiful.” Moments later she added, “It can be a curse being beautiful, after a certain point, as it slips away…”

Dietrich in the 1940s
I have read and watched much about Marlene Dietrich, from her memoirs (Marlene, 1990), to various biographies, including her daughter Maria's lurid opus, to Josef von Sternberg’s eccentric autobiography (Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965), the page on the CIA’s website about Dietrich’s work during World War II and Maximillian Schell’s Oscar-nominated documentary (Marlene, 1984). I have to admit that I had something of a “tell me something I don’t know” attitude before I sat down with Chandler’s book. She did.

There are revelations large and small of all kinds...Dietrich's mad plot to kill Hitler, details of her introduction to Ernest Hemingway on the Île de France, the lie she told JFK about his father...Dietrich's memory of her grandmother’s lavender eyes, her habit of giving her hand-me-downs to husband Rudi's mistress...her hatred of knitting because it reminded her of World War I in Germany.

Chandler knows how to set a scene and tell a story. She nimbly leads the reader through Dietrich’s early years, the arc of her career, her personal life and into her late years, when she “closed the door” and retreated inside the rooms of her small apartment across from the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. Among the many voices heard of those who knew Dietrich at different points in her life and career are her one-time arranger and accompanist, Burt Bacharach and her friend and fellow Paramount star, Mae West.
Maria and Marlene, early '50s
Maria Riva is Dietrich's only child, and Riva's own sensationalistic 787 page version of her mother's life was published shortly after Dietrich's death. Maria is not a direct source for Chandler's book but her youngest son David, who produced and directed a documentary on Dietrich in 2001, speaks at length. His references to his mother as an "Emmy-winning actress" caught my eye - I'd not heard this before and checked the Emmy website. Maria is listed as having been nominated for a Best Actress Emmy in 1952 and 1953. However, Imogene Coca won in 1952 and Helen Hayes won in 1953.

Charlotte Chandler remarked to Kirkus Reviews that Marlene Dietrich had originally been perceived as "another Garbo" very early in her Hollywood career. It happened that Dietrich came to Hollywood as talkies were coming in and MGM was carefully transitioning Garbo, its great star, to sound. When Morocco and The Blue Angel struck box office gold, Paramount saw in Dietrich its opportunity to trump MGM and Garbo. The two actresses were to have distinctly different careers, though both were deemed "box office poison" (along with Katharine Hepburn and others) in the late '30s. However, no one imagined that Dietrich’s film career would outlast Garbo’s (or anyone else's) by several decades or that she would successfully reinvent herself as a high-ticket stage performer.

Chandler told Kirkus that though she didn't interview her, she did meet Garbo. Her impression was that Garbo was too bitter about the past to make a good interview. Asked if she thought Dietrich also became bitter, Chandler responded, “not at all. She loved what happened to her," adding that Dietrich hadn’t expected any of it and “she felt she owed her great life to Josef von Sternberg,” her mentor and the director of seven of her most memorable films.

I enjoy Charlotte Chandler's uniquely readable biographies. I've read more heavily documented books (the fascinating Barry Paris tome on Louise Brooks comes to mind) and books concerned almost solely with a life on film (David Thomson's excellent "Great Stars" series entry on Bette Davis), but for a pleasurable foray into legendary firsthand memories, Chandler is hard to beat.

Marlene Dietrich sculpture by Clark Hanford

Biographies by Charlotte Chandler:
Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends
I, Fellini
Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography
It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography
Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography
Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, A Personal Biography
She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography
I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography
Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for a review copy of Marlene


  1. What a fine review! You've already read and seen many biographical resources regarding Dietrich that I don't know whether my recommendation would interest you, but let me suggest Steven Bach's biography, one of the few works that seriously covers Dietrich's career. Plus, it's been published and reprinted with at least 3 different covers.

  2. Great review, well written and with much substance in light of your excellent knowledge of the subject as well as the author.

  3. great work/insight/research...a bio of a biographer...tres chic...and DIETRICH...what a life!!

  4. Excellent Eve! I have read three of Chandler's books, the fabulous HELLO, I MUST BE GOING, along with IT'S ONLY A MOVIE: ALFRED HITCHCOCK and NOBODY'S PERFECT. Her books read like personal memoirs and are highly readable.


  5. I've never read any of her books, but after your write-up I will amend this. The Dietrich book sounds marvelous. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. One bit of information I neglected to mention is that a very dear woman and long-distance friend of mine, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of silent film star John Gilbert, is one of those Chandler interviewed for this book. Marlene Dietrich was the last love of John Gilbert's short life. Dietrich (who lost her own father as a child), was extremely kind to Leatrice - and especially so after Gilbert died. Leatrice has never forgotten it.

  7. Great review! Marlene Dietrich is one of the few actresses who has left me absolutely memorized so I will definitely be reading this book.

  8. Eve, thank you for this great review on a Charlotte Chandler biography. I just checked out her biography on Ingrid Bergman from the library, and I'm glad to know I can look forward to a truly entertaining and informative read. Thanks again.

  9. Eve, I very much enjoyed your review of MARLENE! For someone who has a "sketchy bio" herself, Charlotte Chandler sure seems to write amazing bios. I'll have to keep an eye out for it at my library. Years ago, before I was even born, my dear late mom had the good fortune to meet Dietrich through her then-beau, who had connections. Since Mom was as glamorous and captivating as Dietrich (by all accounts :-)), they chatted away for over an hour! Wish I'd been born at the time, but at least Mom left me her delightful anecdotes! :-)

  10. Thanks to all for your interest and kind words. Dorian - you MUST blog on your mom's anecdotes about her hour+ chat with Marlene Dietrich (not to be too pushy about it, but now's a good time with the new bio out...).

  11. Thanks, Eve! I'm afraid I don't have too many specifics about the conversation (remember, I wasn't even born yet when Mom met the marvelous Marlene), but I was thinking of including the few tidbits I DO know in my little Mother's Day blog post this coming Friday, May 6th, instead of blogging about a movie (though I will provide a link to my TotED salute to Mom from January 2011). Just for fun, I'm even including one of Mom's favorite recipes. Hope you'll enjoy the post anyway! :-)

  12. Sorry I'm so late with this, Eve. You know, I was never a Dietrich fan, but I'd love to read this book. What a life Chandler has lived, meeting fascinating people, writing about them. I would really be interested in her books about Groucho, Tennesee Williams, Bette Davis and Mae West! I'll try the library first, but if they don't have them, I'll have to make a trip to Half-Price books and hope I can find some there! Wonderful review of the book -- makes even me want to read about Dietrich!

  13. Beautiful and thorough review, Eve! I have two of Chandler's bios, the ones on Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, but I haven't had a chance to read them yet. I see Chandler's books everywhere but I have been avoiding picking up any more until I read the two I have. Now I know that there's nothing to be afraid of!

  14. Very in-depth review, Eve! The most comprehensive and insightful that I've read on this new biography yet.

  15. Because of your excellent review. I can not wait to read the book. If I'm not to late I will run over and enter to win Marlene Dietrich bio.

  16. I'm coming late to comment, but I enjoyed your fascinating post. I've read the Donald Spoto bio ("Blue Angel") of Marlene, but I haven't read any of Chandler's - your review makes me want to check her out -thanks!