‘The first time I fell in love, I was twelve years old.’
And so begins C. W. Gortner’s seductive and thrilling biographical novel of Marlene Dietrich, one of the most glamorous and alluring legends of Hollywood’s golden age and a complex, compelling woman whose infamous love affairs pushed the boundaries of social convention and helped make her a sexual icon.
Gortner, whose fictionalised account of the life of Mademoiselle Chanel won huge critical acclaim, admits in his author’s note that he has been a fan of Marlene since his teens and this sumptuous, sweeping story of her life up to and during the dangerous years of the Second World War is a gloriously fitting tribute.
From the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the lush film studios of Hollywood, Gortner lets his imagination and creativity take flight as he blends fact and fiction to bring us a tale brimming with passion, ambition, art, conflict, grit and mesmerising glitz.
Raised in genteel poverty in a suburb of Berlin after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. Maria’s father died when she was only six and her mother works as a housekeeper to provide for her two daughters.
But when Maria’s budding career as a violinist is cut short, the spirited teenager vows to become a singer, trading her family’s proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited, louche world of Weimar Berlin’s cabarets and drag balls.
With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, seductive silk cocktail dresses and androgynous tailored suits, Maria – now Marlene – performs to packed houses and becomes entangled in a series of stormy love affairs that shock the city’s conventional society.
Then almost overnight, Marlene finds success in her breakthrough film role as the cabaret singer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel. Soon she has fame, marriage and motherhood, but they have not cured the beautiful, desirous Marlene of her wanderlust.
As Hitler and the Nazis rise to power, she sets sail for America. Rivalling the success of another European import, Greta Garbo, Marlene quickly becomes one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, starring with legends such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Cary Grant.
Desperate for her return, Hitler tries to lure her with dazzling promises but Marlene instead chooses to become an American citizen, and after her new nation is forced into another world war, she tours with the United Service Organisations, performing for thousands of Allied troops in Europe and Africa even as America enters the war against Germany.
But at the end of the war, she returns to Germany. Escorted by General George Patton himself, a heartbroken Marlene finally witnesses the war’s devastation and the evil legacy of the Third Reich that has transformed both her homeland and the family she loved…
Fictionalising Marlene Dietrich was no easy feat for Gortner. The star was famously unforthcoming about her life and writing the novel required ‘a touch of deduction, a dash of gut instinct, a strong dose of courage, and meticulous consultation of other sources.’But determination and attention to detail has
paid off as Gortner succeeds in getting to the heart of this extraordinary woman, allowing us to see not just the legend but the talented entertainer whose seemingly meteoric rise to fame was, in reality, the result of years of hard work and perseverance, often at the cost of her personal fulfilment.
This is Marlene as we have never seen her before… a wilful teenager, a chic and savvy woman, inherently unconventional, an expert at cultivating her image, immensely loyal and brave, and fiercely determined to forge her own path through life on her own terms.
Enthralling, revealing and genuinely moving, this is a must-read for all fans of glitz, glamour, scandal, Hollywood… and the magnificent Marlene.
(William Morrow, hardback, £16.99)