ALTHOUGH SHE DIED AN EMBITTERED, ALCOHOLIC RECLAUSE last May in Paris at the age of 90, Marlene Dietrich has remained, in the public mind, an alluring legend. A bisexual beauty who had affairs with—among others—Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Adlai Stevenson, Edward R. Murrow and even John F. Kennedy (whom she claimed to have slept with when she was 62 years old and he was 46), she presented herself as a devoted mother who rushed to her pregnant daughter’s side. That’s not how the daughter remembers it, though, and her new biography, Marlene Dietrich, is doing serious damage to the Dietrich myth. “I don’t use the word ‘mother’ for Dietrich,” says Maria Riva, 68, Marlene’s only child. “That is a special word that implies love shown to one person, and that is not what I remember.” The Dietrich who pretended to be a doting grandma, says Riva, actually urged her daughter to have abortions. “Children,” she advised, “are nothing but trouble.”
Riva’s retelling of her mother’s life, the only one to rely on Dietrich’s own diaries and letters, is trouble all right. In what The New York Times called “a startling and riveting work…the ultimate act of demystification,” Riva describes a woman who always preferred illusion. Dietrich loved romance, but hated sex. “She told me once that ‘all men want to do is put their thing in you,’ ” recalls Maria, who says her mother preferred such beaux as Maurice Chevalier and the novelist Erich Maria Remarque because, she said, they were impotent.
As a mother, Riva says, Dietrich was chillingly self-absorbed. She shunted the growing Maria to the side for photos, lest her public deduce her real age. And when Maria was raped by her governess at age 15, she couldn’t tell her mother because Dietrich was in solitude recuperating from an abortion. Surprisingly, Dietrich wanted her daughter to write her biography. “She knew I would write about her professional side correctly, because I respected that part of her,” says Maria. “But in my book there is no such thing as being exempt from exposure if you deserve it, no matter who you are.”
Riva had an unconventional childhood, even by Hollywood standards. Her parents quit having sex after Dietrich became pregnant, and mainly lived apart from the time Maria was 7, though her father, Rudolf Sieber (who died in 1976), continued to advise Dietrich on her career and her love affairs. When Dietrich moved to Hollywood in 1931, she enlisted her young daughter as her confidante and assistant rather than let her attend school. (To this day, Riva can’t do multiplication tables.) “My mother looked at herself as an aristocrat who found herself in this cesspool of gypsies,” says Maria. “The only person she was friendly with on the set was Mae West. Being bi-sexual, they recognized something in each other.” Riva spent many days in Dietrich’s trailer, autographing fan mail, arranging flowers (one job was to remove the thorns from roses) and learning how to dress her mother professionally, which included taping her breasts so they would appear firm. Sometimes, after dining with her mother at restaurants, Maria stood guard at the bathroom door while the weight-obsessed Dietrich induced vomiting.
As for Maria’s rape by her governess, “My mother wouldn’t have believed” me,” Riva says with certainty. “She had this ability to mentally erase anything she didn’t like hear. I’ve never been judgmental of that woman who raped me. But I do blame [my mother], who made it possible for [that woman] to take what was placed before her.”
Maria’s escape was alcohol. She enrolled in acting classes, briefly married the first man who was nice to her and, when incompatibility quickly ended that relationship, moved back in with her mother and got divorced. When Marlene went abroad to perform for U.S troops in 1944, Maria drifted from job to job, including a brief stint as a dresser for a man who impersonated Sophie Tucker. When she found herself waking up in strange beds next to people she didn’t remember meeting, she knew she was desperate. She managed to stop drinking and took up acting and directing. In New York, working on Peer Gynt at Fordham University, she met and fell in love with set designer William Riva, whom she married in 1947.
Later, when Maria quit acting and moved to Europe in 1962 with her husband to raise their four boys, Dietrich bought an apartment in Paris. Maria, who divides her time now between a home in Switzerland and a New York City apartment, helped her mother arrange her one-woman shows in the ’60s, often flying to Las Vegas to smooth over Dietrich’s outbursts at underlings. Marlene’s son-in-law was resigned to these disruptions of family life, but they upset the grandchildren. “It drove us nuts sometimes to see our mother enslaved and always at her beck and call,” says Peter Riva, 42, a literary agent. “She called al any hour of the night, barked orders, gave commands and then hung up on us. She sure wasn’t cuddly.”
After a series of bad falls, Dietrich stopped performing in the ’70s and began drinking heavily and taking drugs to ease the pain in her legs. Dietrich was so drunk on the set of Just a Gigolo in 1978 that Maria had to hold up flash cards of the song lyrics. Holed up in her Paris apartment, Dietrich would complain to Maria about her grandchildren’s inattentiveness, then pretend not to be home when they came to visit. Paranoid and obsessed with death, she told Maria to remove her body in a garbage bag so the press wouldn’t see what she looked like.
Though Dietrich left her estate to Riva, the Impressionist paintings she boasted would make her daughter a “billionaire” had either been sold or proved to be worthless fakes; all the valuable jewelry was gone. Dietrich, who had no health insurance, left substantial bills, including the $50,000 she refused to pay in maintenance at her Paris apartment because the concierge insulted her by not wearing a hat in her presence.
But Dietrich, who saved everything from hats to used Vaseline jars, did leave a lifetime of memorabilia, which Maria plan to donate to a museum in her name. What remains when the myth is stripped away, says Riva, is actually quite sad. “I can’t help thinking her life was a kind of tragedy,” she says. “I wish her life had been fuller. Dietrich believed that she invented love, but I don’t think she really knew what love was.”