Movie audiences fell in love with her again and again as Dietrich proved
an uncanny knack for re-inventing herself.
In 1948, she stole the show as Blue Angel-like mistress in Foreign Affair.
And she wowed them as a wife whose testimony saves her unworthy husband (Tyrone Power) in
1957's Witness for the Prosecution.
Her career took another turn when she fashioned a cabaret act, singing such trademark songs as Lili Marlene.
Columnist Hedda Hopper reported that when Dietrich -- draped in beyond-sheer white chiffon --sauntered into he Las Vegas spotlight at her 1953 debut, "the audience let
out a gasp that threatened to blow away tablecloths."
She took her act on the road, even playing the Soviet Union. She made it to Broadway in 1967 and won a Tony Award for the sellout
Dietrich's homeland never really forgave her defection. Her return to West Germany in 1960 was marred by bomb threats and picket signs.
Despite 11 curtain calls during an acclaimed performance, she never went back again.
Her love life was as adventurous as the roles she played.
Although wed to filmmaker-turned-chicken-farmer Rudolf Siebert from 1924 until his
death in 1975, her dalliances were countless -- including Sternberg, John
Wayne, Gary Cooper. She had a weakness for intellectuals like
poets/filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
And she wouldn't let her affections be ignored. When Stewart
preferred to read Flash Gordon comics rather than spend time with her
during Destry, she had a life-sized Flash Gordon doll made and then
locked the three of them into Stewards dressing room for an unusual
menage a trois.
Rumours circulated that her affairs were not confined to males,
reinforced by her often androgynous image. She broke fashion boundaries
by cavorting in man-tailored suits in Morocco, her cabaret singer pre-dated
Madonna's antics by planting a kiss on a woman.
The late critic and close friend Kenneth Tynan once noted, "Most
women, according to an old joke, have gender but no sex. With Dietrich
the opposite is very often close to the truth. She had sex, but no particular
gender . . . Dietrich's masculinity appeals to woman and her sexuality to
Later in life, she grew close to being a self-caricature, as her final
movie -- 1978's Just a Gigelo with David Bowie -- underlines. ("I always
thought that I was a very bad actress," she once remarked).
A 1975 fall left her with a broken leg and forced her to retire as a
chanteuse. Like her contemporary Greta Garbo, she was intensely private.
She remained in her Paris apartment for the past 15 years, coming and
going through the building's garage.
Gottfried Helnwien, an artist who worked on a book with
Dietrich and was in close contact for the past six years, says he never
saw her. She was in the bedroom and we were in the other rooms.
She would write little notes and put them under the door. She wanted
the world to remember her with this beautiful, artificial face created
Dietrich, who died of "old age" according to her lawyer, was
carried from her home covered with the French flag. She is survived by
her daughter Maria Riva and four grandsons and is expected to be buried
next to her mother in Berlin, as was her wish.
Through the years, Dietrich's indelible image has been spoofed by
everyone from Shirley Temple -- who appeared in an early shot as
"Morelegs Sweettrick" -- to Madeline Kahn -- whose role as Lili Von
Shtupp in 1974's Blazing Saddles won an Oscar nomination.
But there was only one Dietrich. Accept no imitations.
The actress summed up her life this way: "I have a child and I have
made a few people happy. That's all." And that is more than enough.