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- Published on Amazon.com
According to his acknowledgments, Donald Spoto finished this book in January 1991. Five months later, his subject, Marlene Dietrich, died. This leaves the book with an unfinished goal, the biography of a great celebrity from birth to death. Dietrich was 90 when she died, and by that time an alcoholic recluse, but the circumstances of her passing would have brought this book the closure it lacks. Moreover, Spoto did not personally interview the star, so he had to rely on extensive research into published and unpublished sources, as well as interviews with those who knew La Dietrich, yet the overall result is a well-written, compact survey of her artistic career, with enough description of her personal triumphs and tragedies to satisfy most fans' interest. Dietrich's life and career are the stuff that biographers' dreams are made of; she started life as a well-brought up middle-class German girl born at the turn of the century; became a stage performer in the decadent Berlin of the Weimar Republic's 1920s; made the transition into silent and then sound films; had the good fortune to be the Trilby to the Svengali of genius cinematographer/director, Josef von Sternberg; found success as Hollywood's highest paid star of the 1930s, with a carefully crafted beauty that overrode concerns about her somewhat limited--but nonetheless memorably expressive-- singing and acting talents; became an icon of USO entertainers on the front lines of World War II, and let her native Germany know just what she thought of it; had a vast array of male and female lovers, including many of Hollywood's leading players; gained fame for her sense of style, both in glamorous female garments and striking male ensembles; resurrected her career in middle and old age by appearing as an ageless glamour girl in countless performances of a one-woman show she gave around the world; and then, unable to let the world see how age was robbing her of her vaunted beauty, chose to live out her life in a Paris apartment, slowly drinking herself to death.
Despite being something of an enigma, her personality comes across quite vividly in this biography, and Spoto should be commended for presenting both her admirable qualities--relentless professionalism, maternal affection for those she loved, remarkable courage, and ability to craft an unforgettable artistic persona--and her less admirable ones--sexual profligacy, erratic temperament, astonishing egotism, and so on. This is not a work of hagiography, and the reader comes away both admiring Marlene Dietrich and despising her.
Although Spoto's book covers many of Dietrich's numerous affairs, it is now clear that there were many others he overlooked (including Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck). Perhaps some later writer has covered these; I'm looking forward to reading Maria Riva's biography of her mother, which is about three times as long as Spoto's volume. An advantage of reading the book in 2010 is that one can easily see many of the performances being described by simply going to YouTube. Doing so allows you to compare your critical reaction to some of Dietrich's filmic song renditions with those of Spoto. Occasionally, he overstates his case, and to me, at least, the performances do not match his assessments of them. Still, I was totally engrossed by the book, and, even though it's been almost 20 years since it was published, readers should still find it worth their time.