Marlene Dietrich – her final years

It was on Monday 29th September 1975 that Marlene’s show business career largely came to an end when she fell off the stage and broke her thigh during a performance in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, Australia.  The following year, her husband, Rudolf Sieber, died of cancer on Wednesday 24th June 1976.

In 1979 she did her final film appearance in David Bowie’s ‘Just a Gigolo’.  In that same year her autobiography, Nehmt nur mein Leben (Take Just My Life), was published.

With an alcoholic dependent on painkillers, Marlene withdrew to her Paris apartment and spent the final 11 years of her life mostly bedridden, allowing only a select few – mainly family and employees – to enter the apartment. She was not isolated though – she was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller!

In 1982 she agreed to take part in a documentary film about her life, but refused to be filmed and her director – Maximilian Schell – was allowed only to record her voice. However he used the interviews with her as the basis for a film set to a collage of film clips from her career and in 1984 the film – Marlene – won several European film prizes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1984 and Newsweek named it “a unique film, perhaps the most fascinating and affecting documentary ever made about a great movie star”.  Four years later – in 1988 – Marlene recorded the spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.

It was on Saturday 6th May 1992 that Marlene Dietrich died of renal failure at her flat in Paris – she was 90.

Her funeral ceremony was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris, a Roman Catholic Church on Sunday 14th May 1992 and her funeral service was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself—including several ambassadors from Germany, Russia, the US, the UK and other countries—with thousands more outside. Her closed coffin rested beneath the altar draped in the French flag and adorned with a simple bouquet of white wildflowers and roses from the French President, François Mitterrand. Three medals, including France’s Legion of Honour and the US Medal of Freedom, were displayed at the foot of Marlene’s coffin, military style, for a ceremony symbolising the sense of duty Marlene Dietrich embodied in her career as an actress, and in her personal fight against Nazism.

The officiating priest remarked: “Everyone knew her life as an artist of film and song, and everyone knew her tough stands… She lived like a soldier and would like to be buried like a soldier”.

Marlene Dietrich’s gravestone is in Berlin – and the inscription reads “Hier steh ich an den Marken meiner Tage” (literally: “Here I stand at the marks of my days”), which is a line from Theodor Körner’s sonnet “Abschied vom Leben” (“Farewell to Life”).

Marlene had instructed in her will that she was to be buried in her birthplace, Berlin, near her family and, on Tuesday 16th May 1992, her body was flown there to fulfil her wish. Dietrich was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, next to the grave of her mother, Josefine von Losch, and near the house where she was born.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, Marlene’s daughter and grandson claimed that Marlene was politically active during those years and that she kept in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronal Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000. In 1989, her appeal to save the Babelsberg studios from closure was broadcast on BBC Radio, and she spoke on television via telephone on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year.

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