Terry Sanderson, who will be performing his show Marlene Dietrich – an affectionate tribute for LGBT History Month, writes about how a gossip magazine outed Marlene Dietrich.
Screen legend and enduring gay icon Marlene Dietrich was outed as a lesbian as long ago as 1955 in a sensational expose in the tabloid scandal sheet, Confidential.
The magazine enumerated Marlene’s many female lovers right from her early days in Berlin when, in 1927, she sang a sexy love song to her co-star Margot Lion as they sported corsages of violets –in those days a signal of lesbian love.
Confidential magazine of July 1955 reported:
“Deviates singing of their strange love in public was the kind of thing that could only happen in Berlin after World War I. All through the roaring twenties, the German capital was a global headquarters for the most shameless perversions. Its streets were crammed with nighteries for the odd and their owners were so strict that a normal person was denied admission. Girls making like boys was of such little concern that the gossip columns regularly noted such cavortings as nonchalantly as they recorded the more usual affairs.”
The magazine then tells of Marlene’s affair with “blonde Amazon” Claire Waldoff who, it said thought “it was nuts to have a man around the house and she made no secret of it.”
By the mid-thirties Marlene was the toast of Hollywood and had a string of male conquests under her belt. But she still had a preference for the ladies and started an affair with Mercedes d’Acosta, “a writer who favored clothes that seemed to be tailored by Brooks Brothers.”
Marlene’s next known female conquest was a girl named Frede who she met on a trip to Paris. Despite having several men on the go at the time, Marlene kept the relationship with Frede hot for two and half years.
Marlene, though, would not be pinned down and her thirst for romance took her off in all kinds of directions. One was a long love affair with the French film star Jean Gabin. It was during her romance with him that she met in the South of France Jo Carstairs. Confidential described her thus:
“Jo is a Queen in more ways than one. A millionairess many times over, she owns a sun-splattered island in the Bahamas, Whale Cay, where she rules some 750 natives with an iron hand. Her favorite garb is a pair of dungarees and a man’s shirt. She’s been known to take strong measures against men who make advances toward her, since she prefers to make the overtures herself–and not to males.”
The magazine suggests that Marlene and her friend Frede decided to open a lesbian-oriented nightclub on the Cote d’Azure – which operated under the name La Silhouette. Although Marlene remained in the background of this venture, she was there on the opening night, together with another of her lovers, Maurice Chevalier.
Confidential magazine exposed the sex lives of many Hollywood stars of the time before it was eventually brought to court in a sensational trial. The jury failed to reach a verdict, but the magazine never recovered and was sold on and became something much more anodyne.
It was astonishing that Marlene’s career survived such an ‘outing’ in the buttoned up fifties. She was just in the process of reinventing herself as a successful concert artist when the Confidential article was published. She was making annual appearances in Las Vegas to high praise. Although she was never very secretive about her lesbian adventures, such a high profile exposè might have ruined some other careers. Marlene seems to have sailed on untouched.
Dietrich’s sexuality was always difficult to pin down. Kenneth Tynan described her as ‘having sex without gender’ and that is certainly the way she saw herself. She once remarked that it was her habit to make love to whoever she found attractive – their gender being immaterial.
You can find out more about Marlene Dietrich and her extraordinary life at Marlene Dietrich – an affectionate tribute at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL on Saturday 16 February at 7.30pm. The show will examine Dietrich’s phenomenal movie career, her wartime exploits as a medal-winning anti-Nazi and a complete showing, on a big screen of her famous one-woman show. More information and booking details at www.MDTribute.com.