Why Did Dietrich Destroy Her Own Family? Her Erotic Beauty Captivated the World. but to Her Husband Marlene Dietrich Was a Cold Woman Who Betrayed Him with a Stream of Lovers and Failed Toprotect Their Young Daughter from a Predatory Lesbian

Daily Mail (London), November 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Why Did Dietrich Destroy Her Own Family? Her Erotic Beauty Captivated the World. but to Her Husband Marlene Dietrich Was a Cold Woman Who Betrayed Him with a Stream of Lovers and Failed Toprotect Their Young Daughter from a Predatory Lesbian


Byline: VICKY WARD

On opposite sides of America two high-flying brothers have occupied their limited spare time in recent weeks packing up ornaments, clothes, and other objects given to them by their late grandmother, Marlene Dietrich. And today Sothebys will auction off all remaining effects of the international sex symbol, including the furniture of her New York apartment, which has remained largely untouched since she died, aged 90, in 1992.

The prospect of the sale evokes very different emotions in the two men.

For New York literary agent Peter Riva, 47, it is a purely practical measure, one of which Marlene, who liked to boast she was an eminently practical person, would have approved.

`The flat costs us $3,000 a month - we're not made of money. Why not sell these things to people who will value them?' he says.

But for Hollywood producer Michael Riva, 49, her eldest grandchild and her favourite - the one who sat with her, drank with her, carried her to the bathroom when her legs gave out towards the end - it's a little more emotive. `I would have really liked to have kept a key chain that she gave to her lover, actor Jean Gabin and then to me,' he says sadly. `But it will hopefully help my parents who are getting older and really need the money.'

The brothers' contrasting emotions give perhaps the clearest insight yet into what their mother, Maria Riva, controversially termed her mother Marlene's `schizophrenia', in her posthumous biography of 1992, entitled Marlene Dietrich.

According to Maria, the Dietrich whose erotic beauty and personality captivated the world for over 50 years, was also a cruel, self-obsessed woman who did nothing to protect her own daughter from sexual assault by her lesbian nanny and was responsible for the premature death of her husband's long-term mistress.

Neither grandchild - the two eldest of the four extant - disputes their mother's version of events but Michael, on whom Marlene doted, cannot help loving the memory of his grandmother regardless of her flaws.

But it was, he reveals, a love that came at a price. It created a bitter rift between himself and his own parents, who believe Marlene did her best to control and ruin their lives.

`My parents liked to view Marlene in black-and-white terms, but the truth, I think, was a little greyer. To be totally on my mother and father's side you'd have to be against Marlene and I could never quite make that distinction. It made things difficult for me with my parents; it also turned me into a nonconformist character.'

But Marlene was, he also admits, partly responsible for turning his father, set designer Bill Riva, to the ailing alcoholic he is today. `She totally emasculated him,' he says. `yet at the same time she partly seduced him - which obviously riled my mother. It's incredible, under the circumstances, that my parents have remained together for over 50 years.'

To understand Marlene's hold over people you need to go back to before Maria was even born, to the days when Maria Magdalene Dietrich, the outstandingly pretty second daughter of an aristocratic German army officer, worked tirelessly to create the image of enigmatic bi-sexuality that is now legendary.

`Marlene was driven by a German word - Pflicht,' says Peter. `It translates as `duty' but it means much much more than that. It means you don't give up, no matter what.'

So, having failed to get into the Academy of Music in Berlin (distracted, somewhat by the attentions of her violin teacher to whom she lost her virginity at 17) the young Maria Magdalene (she abbreviated it to Marlene at 13) turned to acting in small theatre-productions - often taking roles in two places and rushing across town between acts.

Her main energies, however, were cunningly directed towards squirreling away costumes she thought made her look glamorous. It was a tactic that paid off. …

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