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By 1956, Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich had been friends for over two decades. One day, Coward received a letter from his old pal in which she lay out her broken heart and told a tale of humiliation. What should she do? How could she go on?

Immediately, the playwright sat down to write an answer. And it’s one for the ages. . .

But first, a little back-story:

Marlene Dietrich, the energetic, ageless iron butterfly of Hollywood + international cafe society, was dealing with something unprecedented: unrequited love. At the tail end of a five-year secret affair with the King of Siam, aka Yul Brynner (then the toast of Broadway in The King and I), she discovered herself behaving as her own conquests always had: waiting for phone calls; sending yearning glances across crowded rooms; receiving airy, dismissive promises of future assignations. Grateful for a drunken visit or a cinq-a-sept pounding before the King cleaned his sceptre and took it back to wifey.

Dietrich had never had to yearn. Yearning was for the ugly and the mortal. All she’d ever had to do was reach out a manicured hand and possess.

But Brynner was different. He proclaimed love, then left with a shrug. He promised forever but couldn’t even give flowers. How could this be? And why didn’t she stop it? Dietrich found herself so humiliatingly obsessed that she repeatedly followed Yul to Hollywood, then back to NYC. She kept herself to her best behavior, merely pausing for refreshing essentials like a brief ongoing affair with Sinatra. And Kirk Douglas. And Harold Arlen, Erich Remarque and Edward R. Murrow.

Lovely and attentive as these men were, Dietrich’s diaries during these years mention only one name with yearning, with passion–even desperation. Yul. 

Finally, Marlene wrangled a ticket on a long flight; she knew Brynner would be on the same trip. He assiduously ignored her as he downed three scotches and stared out a thick curved window to the clouds darkening below. Poor ignored Marlene sadly retreated to her berth (an aside: I wish I’d flown in the old days–the option of multiple scotches followed by a full recline?–yes, Daddy).

Marlene inserted a soporific suppository and closed her eyes. She’d named her sedatives “Fernando Lamas” because, like that actor’s performances, they sent her drifting right off to sleep. . .

Next thing she knew–or was it a drug dream?– Brynner was trying to climb into her berth. He fumbled and swore; she cooed apologies for following him, for missing him so, and shifted to accommodate his body–but he paused. And then he retreated, muttering, “There’s too many people around.”

Whether disheveled and half-awake or disillusioned and fully asleep, Dietrich lay in her berth alone. Groggy, humiliated and confused. If Yul loved her, what difference would the presence of others make? Did he love her? Perhaps he was envious of her other lovers, with whom she toyed only because he was not around–perhaps that’s why he ignored her earlier? Or was it a dream, and if so what did it mean?

Time to write her friend Noel. Pouring out this uncertainty and, like any fool in love, asking the same boring questions over and over: Why? And how could she. . .what did she have to do to. . .?

The answer is tender and funny and one to remember next time you, or someone you know, are revolving around the barbed wire circle of heartache:

Firefly Hill
Port Maria
Jamaica B.W.I.

Oh, darling,

Your letter filled me with such a lot of emotions, the predominant one being rage that you should allow yourself to be so humiliated and made so unhappy by a situation that really isn’t worthy of you. I loathe to think of you apologizing and begging forgiveness and humbling yourself. I don’t care if you did behave badly for a brief moment, considering all the devotion and loving you have given out during the last five years, you had a perfect right to. The only mistake was not to have behaved a great deal worse a long time ago. The aeroplane journey sounds a nightmare to me.

It is difficult for me to wag my finger at you from so very far away particularly as my heart aches for you but really darling you must pack up this nonsensical situation once and for all. It is really beneath your dignity, not your dignity as a famous artist and a glamourous star, but your dignity as a human, only too human, being. Curly [Coward’s nickname for the bald Brynner] is attractive, beguiling, tender and fascinating, but he is not the only man in the world who merits those delightful adjectives…Do please try to work out for yourself a little personal philosophy and DO NOT, repeat DO NOT be so bloody vulnerable. To hell with God damned “L’Amour.” It always causes far more trouble than it is worth. Don’t run after it. Don’t court it. Keep it waiting off stage until you’re good and ready for it and even then treat it with the suspicious disdain that it deserves…I am sick to death of you waiting about in empty houses and apartments with your ears strained for the telephone to ring. Snap out of it, girl! A very brilliant writer once said (could it have been me?) “Life is for the living.” Well that is all it is for, and living DOES NOT consist of staring in at other people’s windows and waiting for crumbs to be thrown to you. You’ve carried on this hole in corner, overcharged, romantic, unrealistic nonsense long enough.

Stop it Stop it Stop it. Other people need you…Stop wasting your time on someone who only really says tender things to you when he’s drunk…

Unpack your sense of humor, and get on with living and ENJOY IT.

Incidentally, there is one fairly strong-minded type who will never let you down and who loves you very much indeed. Just try to guess who it is. XXXX. Those are not romantic kisses. They are un-romantic. Loving “Goose-Es.”

Your devoted “Fernando de Lamas”

What a letter! Never thought you wanted a Coward for a friend, did you?

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