Dietrich managed to remain popular by continually re-inventing herself throughout her long career. During the 1920s she began her work as a cabaret singer, chorus girl and film actress in Berlin. In the 1930s, she became a Hollywood actress, a World War II frontline entertainer, and then an international stage show performer from the 1950s to the 1970s. By the end of her career she had become an entertainment icon of the 20th century.
Von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich children, hence Dietrich's surname was never von Losch, as is sometimes claimed. She was nicknamed "Lene" (pronounced Lay-nay) within the family. Around the age of 11, she contracted her two first names to form the then-unusual name, Marlene.
Dietrich attended the Auguste Victoria School for Girls from 1906 to 1918. She studied the violin and became interested in the theatre and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short when she injured her wrist.
Dietrich made her film debut playing a bit part in the film, So sind die Männer. She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of another film made that year, Tragödie der Liebe. In the G. W. Pabst film, Die freudlose Gasse the actress playing Elsa is Hertha von Walther (1903-1987), who looks very much like the young Marlene Dietrich, giving rise to the false rumor that Dietrich has a bit part in this film.
Dietrich and Sieber were married on 17 May 1924. Her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, later billed as actress Maria Riva, was born on 13 December 1924.
Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. On stage, she had roles of varying importance in Frank Wedekind's Pandora's Box, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah and Misalliance. It was in musicals and revues, such as Broadway, Es Liegt in der Luft and Zwei Krawatten, however, that she attracted the most attention.
By the late 1920s, Dietrich was also playing sizable parts on screen - the most notable films being Café Electric Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame and Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen ().
In , Dietrich landed the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a hitherto respected schoolmaster, in UFA's production, The Blue Angel (). The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who thereafter took credit for having "discovered" Dietrich. The film is also noteworthy for having introduced Dietrich's signature song "Falling in Love Again".
Without von Sternberg, Dietrich -- along with Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and others -- was labeled "box office poison" after her film, Knight Without Armour, proved an expensive flop. In , however, her stardom revived when she played the cowboy saloon girl Frenchie in the light-hearted western Destry Rides Again opposite James Stewart. The movie also introduced another favorite song, "The Boys in the Back Room". She played a similar role in with John Wayne in The Spoilers.
While Dietrich arguably never fully regained her former screen glory, she continued performing in the movies, including appearances for such distinguished directors as Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, in successful films that included A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Stage Fright.
In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She entertained troops on the front lines in a USO revue that included future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act. Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. Like many Weimar-era German entertainers, she was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised antisemitism.
Dietrich recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German for the OSS, including Lili Marleen. She also played the musical saw to entertain troops. She sang for the Allied troops on the front lines in Algeria and France, and went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, "aus Anstand" — "it was the decent thing to do."
The U.S. Government awarded Marlene Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her war work. Dietrich has been quoted as saying this was the honor of which she was most proud in her life. She was also made a chevalier (later commandeur) of the Légion d'honneur by the French government.
Dietrich's recording career spanned over half a century. Prior to international stardom, she recorded a duet, "Wenn die Beste Freundin", with Margo Lion. This song, with its lesbian overtones, was a hit in Berlin in 1928.
In , Dietrich recorded English and German-language selections from her film, Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), for Electrola in Berlin. It was at this time that she recorded Frederick Hollander's "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)" for the first time — it would become her theme song, to be sung in thousands of concerts and forever identified with her – although she personally hated it.
A Parisian recording session for Polydor produced several classic tracks, including Franz Waxman's "Allein in Einer Grossen Stadt." Dietrich recorded "The Boys in the Back Room" from Destry Rides Again for Decca Records in . In , she recorded her version of "Lili Marleen".
Dietrich signed with Columbia Records in the 1950s, with Mitch Miller as her producer. The LP Marlene Dietrich Overseas, with Dietrich singing German translations of American songs of the World War II era, was a hit. She also recorded several duets with Rosemary Clooney; these tapped into a younger market and charted.
During the 1960s, Dietrich recorded several albums and many singles, mostly with Burt Bacharach at the helm of the orchestra. Dietrich in London, recorded live at the Queen's Theatre in 1964, is an enduring document of Dietrich in concert. In , Dietrich taped a television special, An Evening With Marlene Dietrich – also known as I Wish You Love – at the New London Theatre in London: the concert was re-released, with bonus material, as a 75-minute DVD in 2003.
In , Dietrich's performance of the title track from her last film, Just a Gigolo, was issued as a single. She made her last recordings from her Paris apartment in 1987: spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.
Asked by Maximillian Schell in his documentary, Marlene (1984), which of her own recordings were her favorites, Dietrich replied that she thought Marlene Singt Berlin-Berlin - an album featuring her singing old Berlin schlager (popular songs) - was her best-recorded work.
In 1953, Dietrich was offered a then-substantial $30,000 per week to appear live at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The show was short, consisting only of a few songs associated with her. Her daringly sheer costumes, designed by Jean Louis, attracted a lot of publicity and attention. This engagement was so successful that she was signed to appear at the Cafė de Paris in London the following year, and her Las Vegas contracts were also renewed. It was the start of a new phase in Dietrich's career.
When Dietrich signed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger in the mid-1950s, her show started to evolve from a mere nightclub act to a more ambitious one-woman show featuring an array of new material. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Bacharach's arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's limited vocal range – she was a contralto – and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect.
Dietrich's return to Germany in 1960 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin's Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, "Marlene Go Home!" On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. The tour was an artistic triumph, but a financial failure. She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, including a German version of Pete Seeger's anti-war anthem "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel.
Dietrich appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, with Bacharach as conductor, in 1964 and 1965 and made appearances on Broadway twice (1967 and 1968), winning a special Tony Award for her performance. Her costumes (body-hugging dresses covered with thousands of crystals as well as a swansdown coat), body-sculpting undergarments, careful stage lighting helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.
In November 1972, a version of the show Dietrich had performed on Broadway was filmed in London. She was paid $250,000 for her cooperation, but Dietrich was unhappy with the result. The show, originally titled I Wish You Love, was broadcast in the UK on the BBC on 1 January 1973 and in the US on CBS on 13 January 1973. The show was retitled An Evening With Marlene Dietrich for the later VHS and DVD releases.
Dietrich spent her last decade mostly bedridden, in her apartment at no. 12 avenue Montaigne in Paris, during which time she was rarely seen in public but was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. It was widely assumed that Marlene had lost the ability to walk, but at this juncture of her life, she just preferred not to. Maximilian Schell persuaded Dietrich to be interviewed for his documentary Marlene, but she did not appear on screen. She began a close friendship with the biographer David Bret, one of the few people allowed inside her Paris apartment. Bret is thought to have been the last person outside her family that Dietrich spoke to, two days before her death: "I have called to say that I love you, and now I may die." She was in constant contact with her daughter, who came to Paris regularly to check on her. Her husband, Rudolf Sieber, had died of cancer on 24 June 1976.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, Dietrich's daughter and grandson claim that Dietrich was politically active during these years. She would keep contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000.
Dietrich died peacefully of renal failure on 6 May 1992 at the age of 90 in Paris. A service was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris before 3,500 mourners and a crowd of well-wishers outside. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin, where she was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45, in Friedenau Cemetery, near her mother's grave and not far away from the house where she was born.
Dietrich's only child, Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born in Berlin on 13 December 1924. She would later become an actress, primarily working in television, known as Maria Riva. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed "the world's most glamorous grandmother". After Dietrich's death, Riva published a frank biography of her mother.
In 1938, Dietrich met and began a relationship with the writer Erich Maria Remarque, and in 1941, the French actor and military hero Jean Gabin. Their relationship ended in the mid 1940s. She was also known to have had an affair with the Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, who also had affairs with Greta Garbo, according to de Acosta's autobiography Here Lies the Heart (). Dietrich's husband and his mistress, both of whom she stayed in touch with, lived on a small ranch in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Marlene considered the Mexican actress Dolores del Rio as "The most beautiful woman in Hollywood", and was a big fan of the legendary Mexican star, according to Dietrich's daughter.
Actor Klaus Kinski depicted Dietrich as a lesbian in his autobiography Kinski: All I Need Is Love. For this reason, the book was withdrawn from circulation until her death. According to Werner Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend on his relationship with Kinski, the latter's autobiography was largely fabricated to generate sales.
In Michael Freedland's biography of Maurice Chevalier, Janie Michels quoted Chevalier telling Dietrich, "Marlinou, you are the queen of the quick story." "Yes, you were in love with me," Marlene replied, "but as soon as you could, you left me." "No, Marlinou, I'll never forgive you for preferring Jean Gabin to me." "Ah," she returned. "Jean is so French. But it was not Jean or you. I had but one love in my life and this love was never realized. It was for Orson Welles. He is the love of my life, but he never realized our love. Every time I know Orson is free, I ring him and say, "Orson, this is for us." He would always reply, "Marlene, too late. I have a new one."
The contents of Dietrich's Manhattan apartment, along with other personal effects such as jewelry and items of clothing, were sold by public auction by Sotheby's (Los Angeles) on November 1, 1997. The apartment itself (located at 993 Park Avenue) was sold for $615,000 in 1998.
Dietrich was a fashion icon to the top designers as well as a screen icon that later stars would follow. She once said, "I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men." Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality.
A significant volume of academic literature, especially since 1975, analyzes Dietrich's image, as created by the movie industry, within various theoretical frameworks, including that of psycho-analysis. Emphasis is placed, inter alia, on the "fetishistic" manipulation of the female image.
In 1992, a plaque was unveiled at Leberstraße 65 in Berlin-Schöneberg, the site of Dietrich's birth.
A postage stamp bearing Dietrich's portrait was issued in Germany on 14 August 1997.
After some controversy, it was decided not to name a street after Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, her birthplace. Rather, on 8 November 1997, the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz was unveiled in Berlin to honor Dietrich.
Dietrich was made an honorary citizen of Berlin on 16 May 2002.
Dietrich made several appearances on Armed Forces Radio Services shows like The Army Hour and Command Performance during the war years. In 1952, she had her own series on ABC entitled, Cafe Istanbul. During 1953 - 1954, she starred in 38 episodes of Time for Love on CBS. She recorded 94 short inserts, "Dietrich Talks on Love and Life", for NBC's Monitor in 1958.
Dietrich gave many radio interviews worldwide on her concert tours. In 1960, her show at the Tuschinski in Amsterdam was broadcast live on Dutch radio. Her 1962 appearance at the Olympia in Paris was also broadcast.