Marlene matters

As his tribute to Dietrich returns to Conway Hall, Terry Sanderson hails a gay icon ahead of her time



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Marlene Dietrich is one of the most enduring of all gay icons – glamorous, outrageous, brave and entirely unconcerned with convention.

Flagrantly bisexual, she played with gender roles, dressing in ‘man drag’ and kissing a woman on the mouth in the 1930 film ‘Morocco’ – long before Madonna struck a similar pose. The gorilla suit she wore in ‘Blonde Venus’ was later adopted by Grace Jones. Even Kylie Minogue has channelled Marlene. Twenty years after her death, Dietrich is as relevant as ever.

Her career began in Weimar Berlin, where she made the most of the ‘divine decadence’ of the time. She was a familiar figure on the city’s gay scene, dressed in men’s clothes with a pretty girl on her arm. After starring in the 1930 film ‘The Blue Angel’ she shot to Hollywood fame and managed to sustain a long and successful career. Her last film was 1978’s ‘Just a Gigolo’ with fellow gay icon David Bowie.

When Hitler came to power, Marlene ditched her German nationality and became an American citizen. From there she joined the Allied war effort and gained a reputation for her bravery. The Americans rewarded her with the Medal of Freedom – the highest honour a civilian can achieve. The Germans never really forgave her.

After the war she became the new Marlene – the stunning concert artist with Burt Bacharach as her conductor in a show that earned many accolades.

Each generation of gay men and women seems to discover Marlene all over again. It’s easy to see why. She was a diva, a fighter, a woman of principle. Her sexuality was never a secret for those who wanted to know. Dietrich is an example to us all, even now.

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