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.