Queer Icon: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

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By Kyle Parker

Marlene Dietrich
(1901-1992)

One of the most well-known actresses of the 20th century is Marlene Dietrich. She was born in Germany in 1901, and started performing as a chorus girl and in cabarets in her early 20s before landing her breakout Hollywood role in the 1930 film The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, with whom she would go on to make another six films. It wasn't long before Dietrich was a certified star.

Having spent her pre-Hollywood life in the underground gay ball scenes of 1920s Berlin, Dietrich dressed in men’s clothing and was known for her wild affairs with both men and women. In a famous scene from the film Morocco, another by Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich plays a cabaret singer who kisses a woman while dressed in a tuxedo. Dietrich was unapologetic. Kate Lemay, curator of an exhibition titled Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image, which ran at The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. from June 2017 through April 2018, says that when Dietrich was outed as bisexual in 1955 by tabloid Confidential Magazine, “[she] didn’t even respond. She didn’t make anything of it. When other stars of her profile were featured in Confidential, they often sued for libel. Dietrich just walked away from it. She didn’t care.”
Later in her career, she even coined the term "Sewing Circle" to describe the underground group of women in Hollywood who had to hide their lesbianism and bisexuality. While Dietrich had a husband, they only lived together for five years and spent most of the time away from each other.

Dietrich was not only a star and early pioneer of sexual exploration, but also actively worked against the Nazi regime during WWII. After being approached by Nazi representatives, Dietrich began shuttling Jews as well as dissidents out of Europe and safely to America. She was recognized for her bravery during WWII, receiving the Medal of Freedom in 1947. She claimed it was one of the greatest accomplishments of her life.

Saintly, no-nonsense, groundbreaking -- all could be said of Marlene Dietrich. She took up a cause that transcended her stardom. For such reasons, she shall remain legendary.