At a table in the community center, a pair of Helens and a Lucy express delight with Marianne Arden Cook’s efforts. “We come every Tuesday,” Helen Huntley says. “We have our blood pressure done, then we come here.”
For the past decade, Cook has spent her Tuesday afternoons here at the community center playing for her Chevy Chase neighbors. But during the ’40s and ’50s, as Marianne Arden, she toured Europe and America — singing, playing and tap dancing at top nightclubs and on the radio.
Born in 1913 to a colonel and a baroness in Vienna, Cook retains a slight accent with an imperial Austrian edge that brooks no foolishness. But it’s countered by a girlish spark. “Will you come to me and cuddle?” she asks a visitor to her apartment in a Chevy Chase high-rise, and she squeezes close on the sofa to talk about her music.
“They say I’m unique. I’m 99. I write songs, words and music — and in four languages,” she says, adding brightly, “That’s better than Cole Porter.” Many of her songs alternate verses in German, English, French and Danish. She calls her song “Liebe Means Love” — in which she sings, “Whatever language I speak, I always say ‘I love you’ ” — a “language lesson.”
Cook’s singing is reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s, but without the campy quality. Cook sings it straight and sincere. Pianist Robert Glenn, leader of a jazz quintet that regularly plays the senior-center circuit, met Cook at one of his performances. “I was truly shocked at how good a singer she was,” he says. “Not a bad pianist, but a world-class singer, in my view — clear as a bell.”
A leather-bound copy of “Who’s Who in Music” from 1953 sits atop the baby grand in Cook’s living room; she says she practices every day. The “Who’s Who” calls her a “song stylist and chanteuse.” Her entry comes one page before Louis Armstrong’s.
“Oh, Louis Armstrong — he was a fan of mine,” she says. “He stayed at the same hotel where I entertained. And, once, we were on a radio program together. Yeah, we were very good friends.”
Cook came to America in 1940, part of a female vocal group that was booked at the Rainbow Room in New York City, a premier nightclub at the time. “And then, Hitler came,” Cook says. She returned to Vienna, but Cook had found a benefactor during her stint in the United States — Bernard Davis, of Ziff-Davis publishing fame. “Mr. Davis, he read that the beautiful Viennese girls are being thrown out of the country, and he called me up and he said, ‘If you ever need an affidavit, let me know.’ ”