Within his growing oeuvre of historical novels, C.W. Gortner is known for depicting the intimate life stories of legendary women from the past. Below he shares details about the life and enduring legacy of his latest heroine: Marlene Dietrich.
When Everything Old is New Again:
Marlene Dietrich’s Lasting Impression
C. W. Gortner
In that moment, Marlene defined herself as more than a new face brought to Hollywood to rival MGM’s reigning queen, Greta Garbo. She exploded into public consciousness as an intoxicating, unconventional force — a femme fatale who ignored boundaries, dressing like a man while unmistakably all woman, erotically charged yet never out of control. This was a movie star unlike any seen before: a seductress who took what she wanted, without apology or regret.
In the years since Marlene’s death, that combustible mixture of aggression and indifference has become a legacy. We may not recognize it today, especially if we’re not of her era, but Marlene Dietrich has continued to influence our pop culture, her brand re-fitted to suit modern whims. Madonna famously appropriated Marlene’s masculine attire and the art of giving good face in her MTV videos for “Vogue” and “Express Yourself.” She even donned the tuxedo, top hat and monocle – all iconic Dietrich accessories. Before her, David Bowie channeled Marlene’s white suit and rapacious presence for his Thin White Duke period, freely admitting he’d been inspired by her image during his time in Berlin. Grace Jones appropriated her dangling cigarette and sexual androgyny, adding a ferocious bite. Bob Fosse was inspired by Marlene’s provocative barrel straddle in The Blue Angel for Liza Minnelli’s “Mein Herr” number in Cabaret.
Sharon Stone defied misogyny by parting her legs under a white slip-on dress, evoking the power of unabashed feminine mystique in Basic Instinct, which owes its cues to the predilections of Dietrich at her apex. And the list goes on. Dietrich was more than a movie star, the quintessential face of 1930s glamour before the iron fist of censorship came slamming down, maiming her career. She awoke our nascent sexuality in ways not seen before. Her casual air even as she sauntered about in comfort-defying ensembles, her desire for love without embellishment or entanglement, and her enigmatic personality, as unconventional as the rest of her, stirred our fantasies—and our bodies. She exuded a feline insouciance we secretly admired; she slept where she liked and left us without explanation. She purred rather than roared, but her claws were just as sharp. A lioness on stage, her heroism during World War II, when she set out to give the Nazis a taste of her disgust, proved there was far more to the lady than anyone suspected, though of course it was there all the time, if anyone had cared to look.
When we use the word “legendary," Dietrich fits the bill. For what is a legend if not an enduring mythology that we continue to re-invent? No matter how much times passes, she’s still with us—in a smear of red lipstick after a torrid night, a seam on a stocking or tattered feather boa; in sequins and spangles, and crisp Bowler hats. In bowties and black tie and the ties around our wrists.
Marlene once famously said, “Think twice before burdening a friend with a secret.” She herself took many of her secrets with her to her grave, but the biggest secret of all is how she’s managed to transcend death itself to continue to inspire, titillate, amaze, and seduce us.
She probably never intended it, but she certainly would have enjoyed it.
C.W. Gortner’s new novel Marlene was published on Tuesday, May 24th, by William Morrow. Learn more at: www.cwgortner.com.