Raised by a very strict, widowed mother who was forever conscious of their lineage and its due, Dietrich had a difficult relationship with her mother and her compliant, medically fragile older sister, Liesel. Interested in more than the children, kitchen, church triumvirate that most German girls of her class aspired to, she didn't fit in with her fellow students either. Introduced to the movies by a French teacher, she found her passion. Initially showing some talent at violin, she was sent to a conservatory. Although her professor tutored her privately, her grades only showed improvement because he was enthralled by the teenager. Having her first affair with him, she learned early the absolute power her sexuality held. It was this raw sexuality that eventually led to her success in the decadent cabarets and then German movies where she outshone her costars and which led to Hollywood coming to call. Combining a need to escape her mother's sense of morality with her own determined drive for fame and money, Dietrich, more than many women of her time, crafted her own life.
Openly bisexual, Dietrich indulged in affairs with numerous people. There were those who could further her career and those to whom she was magnetically drawn. She married once and had a daughter. Husband Rudi and daughter Heidede were paradoxically incredibly important in her life and also brushed aside more often than not. Her most enduring relationship was with the public Dietrich she herself created. Her life was unconventional; from her friendships within the gay and trans community in Germany before WWII to her financial support of her husband to her legion of affairs, Dietrich trod her own road. Gortner does a good job showing the scandals and defiance that marked her life. He shows her sheer determination and the ways in which she was always a survivor, pushing forward after any setback. But most importantly he shows how she fell in love with people and things that shaped her life indelibly.
The narration of the novel is in the first person, which allows Gortner to give Dietrich motivations for all of her actions, some the reader will sympathize with and some of which they will disapprove. The drawing of Germany and the feeling of a desperate sort of decadence between the wars is quite well done. There are quite a few steamy sex scenes in the novel and while Dietrich was undeniably voracious sexually, for pleasure and for gain, these scenes didn't really add much to the narrative itself. The middle portion of the novel, detailing many of her movies, her directors, and her leading men, lags some although it does also show the ultimate control that the studios had over their contracted actors and the way that that control chafed Dietrich. As Hitler gains power in Germany and Dietrich's feelings about the Nazis become clearer and more focused, the novel picks up speed. In fact, her USO tours and her refusal to return to Germany are the strongest pieces of the novel, beautifully showcasing her strength and character. The ending of the novel, not the end of Dietrich's long life by any stretch of the imagination, is a bit abrupt but does creatively tie her back to Garbo, whom she's spent so long first trying to emulate and then trying to distance herself from in becoming her own distinct star. Those who have an interest in Old Hollywood will thrill to all the cameos of actors and actresses, including an author or two, who play larger or smaller parts in Dietrich's life. Once started, this is a hard novel to put down because in it, Dietrich is once again the star of her own life.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the HarperCollins for sending me a copy of this book to review.