When Marlene Dietrich phoned a young singer out of the blue, she stayed on the line for an unforgettable three hours...
More than 30 years later, West End and Broadway star Ute Lemper reveals all in Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene. The show plays Guildford’s Electric Theatre on Sunday, February 2; and Hove’s Old Market on Monday, February 3.
For Ute, it’s a chance to celebrate an artist hugely important to her: “I think I am really most attracted to her persona. She was a woman of the future a long time ago, and she is still a woman of the future today. She was incredibly assertive, incredibly free-spirited, incredibly emancipated – and all at a time when it was incredibly difficult for a woman to be all of those things. You think of those days of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and she said that was the first time she wore trousers – and she said she had been wearing them ever since, metaphorically.
“She had a good education and a good grip on her life. She had a good understanding of the political life around her, and she was very opinionated. It was natural for her to speak out, and she did. She was part of the Weimar Republic culture that she was born into. And when she went to Hollywood, she never played the cutesy romantic submissive girl. She knew what was right for her. She was very emancipated in her marriage too. She had many, many lovers, women and men. She was bisexual. She had no moralistic restraint or restrictions.”
She left Germany for America in the late 1920s, before the Nazis came to power. It was the new career opportunities which drew her: “But afterwards, she hosted many, many immigrants in the US, Jewish immigrants. She even had a plot to assassinate Hitler in the 1930s. She thought about going back to Germany, not as the movie star, but to meet Hitler and to kill him. Instead, she renounced her German citizenship and became a soldier.”
And this was the remarkable woman Ute spoke to: “I was Sally Bowles in the Paris production of Cabaret and it was my career breakthrough. It was 1987 and my name was in the press, and people were writing that I was the new Marlene Dietrich about me, 24 years old. I thought ‘Oh my God!’ I had a natural strength and was a bit emancipated, but she was this massive Hollywood movie star and I had a theatre career.
“But my name was in the press and so I decided to write Marlene Dietrich a letter, basically apologising for the comparison and to express my admiration. And she called me back a month later.
“She found me in my little hotel. Through her network of confidantes, she found me. The receptionist told me ‘Miss Marlene Dietrich’ called you. I thought it was a joke, but the receptionist said she would be calling back and she did.
“And we had three hours on the phone. I was very young. I didn’t write anything down, but I do remember some key elements, some key parts, some key phrases.
“She loved the phone. She didn’t leave the house. She was a recluse. She didn’t want people to see her aged face. There are no images of her as an older person. She spent a lot of time in her apartment talking on the phone. She loved to talk on the phone.
“And I remember she was rather motherly. She was rather motherly when she took care of Edith Piaf, and with me she was rather motherly too. She was advising me on certain things, staying out of the press, not giving away your secrets. But the key thing was her being rejected by Germany. She came back 15 years after the war doing a concert tour around the world, and she went to Germany finally and was rejected by the Germans. There were bomb threats to the theatre. There were people screaming that they couldn’t believe that she had fought for the Americans during the war. They treated her as a traitor.”
Dietrich vowed that the only way she would go back to Germany would be in a coffin to be buried next to her mother in Berlin, and that’s what happened.
But Ute well remembers the sadness, the bitterness: “It is a sad story, a tragic story in some ways. She said that she took the only reasonable decision which was to fight against the Nazis…”