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Hollywood Books (Part Ein): Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva

Ahh, Veteran’s Day not long ago. The leap of Spring is now long gone, along with the smoked salmon celebrations and the psyche-graveling guilt of Mother’s Day. Back in olden times, when dinosaurs played canasta and ice cubes could speak, AMC aired Mommy Dearest on repeat all day. As a nation we all settled in, savoring every moment as sulky Christina received the cleaning tips and financial abuse she so richly deserved!

But today I have put away childish things to dip my toes in a more sophisticated Hollywood mother/child battle, one in which European sophistication is routinely condemned by American complacency (and alongside each condemnation there floats the heavy, hamburger-ed scent of defensiveness).

I’m talking about the 1993 book, Marlene Dietrich, by her daughter, Maria Riva. If you haven’t read it, it’s a pippin.

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In one corner we have the face, the myth, the joyously intemperate, prudently slutty and self-absorbed monster of fabulous. 

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And in the other corner, Maria Riva. Who likes hot dogs and ice cream and lawnmowers and baseball and shit. But who also can write

This book is salacious in the grandest way possible: Riva’s a writer with no real concept of her own prejudices (she refers to women who are “openly” lesbian; I hear the sealed variety don’t get much action). But she does also provide quality gossip in absolutely clogging doses, each well-salted with a Teutonic tsk of disapproval. From bulimia to abortion to suspicious death, Marlena did it all with casual virtuosity and daughter in tow. In between these girlish hijinks Dietrich also ruined the sanity of her own husband’s mistress and gave Our Boys at the Front several rollicking doses of the clap–meanwhile proclaiming herself the perfect wife and mother.

But honestly, it’s Riva’s lack of self-awareness that brings acid to this mother/daughter Hollywood tale. Beneath Riva’s prickly pride in being a virtuous American wife and mother, in Plain Cooking and Homey Simplicity, is a deep suspicious certainty that her self-vaunted virtues are far less interesting than her mother’s secret vices. Anyone, anything–man, child, dog, cadaver, blades of grass, emery boards, whatever –would rather spend time on this planet being warmed by Dietrich’s hot voodoo madness than by Riva’s cold stew.

Riva is actually an odd sort of genius who both brilliantly depicts her mother’s kaleidascopic, cracked charisma and wetly rages against just how deep those cracks were. And how powerfully overwhelming the charisma.

So while I do acknowledge that life handed Riva a lemon on one front–Dietrich was beyond dispute a sable-coated monster with the face of a fallen angel and the ego of Caligula. One who dragged “the child” around continents, lying about the child’s age and alternating between smothering affection and cool indifference. But Dietrich also got Riva out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and to a safe country where the child was educated and (as Edith Piaf snottily bitches) even gifted a Manhattan townhouse by her loving mutti. Many daughters have been both victims and veterans of crueller parental wars than this one.

So while my heart does go out, a bit, to poor Riva, always the dark moon to her mother’s blinding sunlight. But like the rest of the world my hat’s off to you, Lily-Marlene! With a coil of my long diamond-braceleted arm I will again pick up your daughter’s book to read, again, about the time you banged old Joe Kennedy. How your seaside antics do make me laugh. . .