Marlene Dietrich, 90, the glamorous and enigmatic German film star and cabaret singer whose cool and sensuous beauty and seductive personality made her an international theatrical celebrity, died yesterday at her home in Paris. The cause of death was not reported.
Dietrich's career spanned more than a half century, beginning in the nightclubs and motion picture studios of Berlin in the 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become one of Hollywood's leading stars, adored for her German accent and striking blond hair and the frilly pants, garters and flowing ermine capes that were her trademarks.
In the 1950s, she created a one-woman stage show in which she was, simply, Marlene Dietrich. It played for more than 20 years in cabarets, supper clubs and theaters all over the world. CBS broadcast a television special based on it in 1973.
Transcending her stage and screen presence was a special Dietrich mystique. For millions of admirers, she was the quintessential temptress, amoral and sophisticated; the personification of sexual allure, singing hypnotically and suggestively through the smoky haze of a crowded nightclub; a study in contradictions, soft, warm and desirable, yet aloof, cool and hard as nails, a source of come-on and hands-off signals at the same time.
"Glamour," Dietrich once said, "is not simply beauty. It's appearing exciting, interesting."
Among her best-known songs were "Falling in Love Again," "Lili Marlene," "The Laziest Girl in Town," "The Boys in the Back Room," "Lola," "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "La Vie en Rose." Her recording in German of the antiwar protest song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" became one of the all-time best-selling records in Europe.
She made her American film debut in 1930 in "The Blue Angel," in which she played Lola-Lola, a heartless and money-hungry cabaret singer. Other films included "Morocco," another 1930 movie in which she played a cabaret entertainer opposite Gary Cooper; "Shanghai Express" in 1932, in which she played a prostitute; and "Destry Rides Again" in 1939, in which she was a saloon proprietress playing opposite James Stewart.
She appeared with John Wayne and Randolph Scott in "The Spoilers" in 1942 and "Pittsburgh" in 1943. She was sawed in half by a magician, played by Orson Welles, in a 1944 revue-type feature, "Follow the Boys," and in the same year she was a dancer painted gold in an MGM production of "Kismet."
In 1956, she had a cameo appearance in Mike Todd's "Around the World in Eighty Days." In 1958, she got one of the biggest and best cinematic assignments of her career, the role of the defendant's wife in "Witness for the Prosecution." In 1961, she starred with Spencer Tracy in "Judgment at Nuremberg."
Off the screen, Dietrich was said to have been warm, witty and intelligent. Among her friends were authors Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque, World War II generals George S. Patton Jr. and James M. Gavin, and Sir Alexander Fleming, one of the discoverers of penicillin.
Adolf Hitler wanted her to be his mistress. "I turned him down," she said. "Maybe I should have gone to him. I might have saved the lives of 6 million Jews."
In fact, Dietrich was an outspoken anti-Nazi. She became a U.S. citizen in 1939, and during World War II she made more than 500 personal appearances entertaining American troops overseas. Her rendition of "Lili Marlene" was one of the most popular songs among allied troops, and it had considerable popularity in the Korean War as well.
Dietrich said that entertaining servicemen was "the only important thing I've ever done." She was awarded a Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government's highest civilian honor.
After the war, she appeared with the French actor Jean Gabin in a film called "Martin Roumaganac," which received poor reviews and was said by critics to have wasted the talents of both actors. They were linked romantically in the media for several years, but Dietrich insisted that "he is a great friend of mine and that is all."
There were other men in her life from time to time, including singer Eddie Fisher, who said in a 1981 autobiography that he had an affair with Dietrich when he was 25 and she was 30 years older. "She was the most stimulating woman I had ever met," Fisher recalled.
In 1924, Dietrich married Rudolf Sieber, a casting director. Although they lived separately most of the time and Sieber eventually took a mistress and raised chickens in California's San Fernando Valley, the marriage lasted until his death in 1976. Dietrich once described him as "the perfect husband."
Born in Berlin on Dec. 27, 1901, Dietrich was the daughter of a German cavalry officer who later became a police lieutenant. She was reared in a household known for its martial ambience and Prussian discipline and was christened Maria Magdalene Dietrich. When she embarked on a stage career, she combined her first and middle names into Marlene.
As a child she was a bright and diligent student and by the age of 12 was fluent in English and French. She also was an accomplished violinist and once considered a career as a concert artist.
Instead, she enrolled in a Berlin drama school where she impressed her instructors, and she soon won parts in German theatrical productions of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She also sang in cabarets and appeared in bit parts in German films.
That was a time of rebellion and experimentation in a defeated post-World War I Germany, and it was characterized in the popular culture by noisy jazz, nudity on stage, a sexual revolution and crazy clothes. Dietrich took to wearing her monocle and red fox furs about town, and she won the devotion of a small corps of admirers who followed her about in the streets.
Josef von Sternberg, a Hollywood director, went to Berlin in search of someone to play the female lead in German and English versions of "The Blue Angel." He signed Dietrich to both parts and brought her to the United States when she finished the German version of the film.
In this country, she was promoted as "the woman all women want to see," and she was an immediate box office sensation. In 1936, she became the highest-salaried woman in the world when producer David O. Selznick paid her $200,000 for an appearance in "The Garden of Allah."
In 1951, as a cabaret entertainer, Dietrich played to packed audiences during a three-week appearance at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, commanding a fee of $90,000 for her work. Columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in her book "The Whole Truth and Nothing But" that when Dietrich, wearing white chiffon, made her entrance, "the audience let out a gasp that threatened to blow away the tablecloths."
The next year she took her act to London, where she enchanted audiences at the Cafe de Paris. As the performance became more refined and polished, she graduated from nightclubs to theaters.
In 1964, she made a successful tour of the Soviet Union. In the Washington area, her act played at the Shady Grove Music Fair, the Kennedy Center, the Shoreham Hotel and the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
In recent years, Dietrich had lived in seclusion in Paris.
Survivors include a daughter, Maria.