International Women’s Day & Women’s National History Month
Why I Chose to Honor a Cabaret Performer and Actor Born in 1901
By Sebastian Fortino, Editor-in-Chief ProudTimes.com
Today, Friday March 8th, we celebrate the accomplishments women have achieved. We also reflect upon the patriarchy, and how women often suffered in silence. They were the property of their husbands, as were any offspring from the union. They could not divorce. They could not have a paycheck written out to them in their own name. Should they divorce, it was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that women could easily keep custody of their children.
In terms of equality in divorce, or at least more equality, I recently learned about Caroline Norton. She was an upper-middle-class woman and writer living in Victorian England. Her husband would not allow for a divorce. Even though he went through her “fortune” and kept her children from her. Interestingly enough, she was able to gain sympathy for her cause through befriending a very unlikely source: Queen Victoria.
Yes, I know Queen Victoria’s colonial activity has cast viable shadows upon her legacy. However, she argued against her own prime minister in support of bringing about equality in the then-taboo area of divorce. This surely had to do with Norton’s letters. After all, being a wife and mother lucky in her marriage, Victoria felt empathy towards those women who were essentially under house arrest if they were in an unhappy situation. Norton even mentioned so-called “conjugal rights,” something most women in that age would probably have shied away from even discussing due to supposed propriety. Men could also easily get a doctor to write a false but damaging letter saying their wives were literally insane for wanting a divorce.
However, Caroline Norton is not my focus. I wanted to mention her legacy because she is largely unknown.
Instead today, I wanted to focus on one of my favorite women from the pages of history. Born on December 27th, 1901 in Berlin, she rose to fame as a cabaret singer in the famed Weimar Republic. A period of very liberal attitudes to sexuality and gender roles. Sadly, the famed era of a Berlin which accepted homosexuality, gender fluidity, and other notions which we as LGBTQ people still fight for today, ended abruptly in 1933 when Hitler rose to power.
Who am I celebrating today? Her name was Marlene Dietrich, she was a performer known for appearing in a tuxedo, a top hat, and smoking a cigarette held aloft like any fashionable male boulevardier or flâneur. (Okay, I do admit the gay man writing this piece–me–is obsessed with Old Hollywood Glamour, which Dietrich served.)
Queer culture was so accepted in Berlin, that gay and lesbian bars were quite visible. Dietrich no doubt spent her time on the boards as well as on the banquettes. In fact, she appeared in so-called “men’s dress” in public, even when not performing. She also had several lovers, of both sexes.
According to WIkipedia,
“She was fluent in German, English, and French. Dietrich, who was bisexual, quietly enjoyed the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of 1920s Berlin. She also defied conventional gender roles through her boxing at Turkish trainer and prizefighter Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin, which opened to women in the late 1920s.”
Her early film career in Germany brought her to Hollywood. She knew what was going on in her homeland. In 1937, along with the Jewish, Austrian-born director Billy WIlder she set up a fund to assist Jews and other dissidents escaping the Third Reich. In fact, Dietrich put her $450,000 salary from a film that same year in escrow; to help refugees from Europe.
Dietrich was truly risking her life. Hitler had in fact asked her to come home to Germany to make films, which would of course have been propaganda for the Nazis. She stayed in Hollywood, and went on to sell war bonds to aid the Allies. It is agreed she sold more than any other Hollywood star.
Talk about a slap in the face to the führer!
During WWII, between 1944 and 1945, she further risked her life by following the troops led by Generals Patton and Gavin. When asked why she would play such a dangerous game, being only a few miles from the enemy–arguably her personal enemy–she replied, “aus Anstand,” which means, “out of decency.”
This did not however give her much love in her native Germany. After the war, she ventured to then-named West Germany to do a series of concerts. Perhaps she knew she would not be greeted with a hero’s welcome, and sources I have read said she was spit on by some Germans who stayed in their country during the war. To them she was a traitor.
Despite her success as an actor, and singer, when asked what her greatest achievement had been, she would say it was her actions in the war and performing for “her boys.” She also perhaps further angered the German people due to her final momentous film, “Judgment at Nuremburg.” The story was based on actual events which saw several former Nazis executed for their roles in the war. An interesting note, famed gay icon Judy Garland was her co-star. They developed a mutual dislike of each other which became petty, at best.
Alas, befitting a legend renowned for her great beauty and talent, she withdrew in seclusion to her Paris apartment in the later years of her life. She rarely left her rooms, but kept up great correspondence and phone calls to friends the world over. As for the juicy bits about her relationships and affairs–she had an open marriage with her husband–her only child Maria Riva destroyed much of her private papers after her death in 1992.
Perhaps this was an unlikely choice, a woman born in 1901 whom I admire nearly 120 years later. But as a bisexual woman, who challenged gender stereotypes, an actor, singer, and Nazi-hater, I feel she is a worthy candidate. Sadly, I think her hatred of fascism makes her an ideal person to admire in 2019.
If you have not heard Ms. Dietrich sing, you can find a recording of arguably her most famous song here.
ProudTimes is actively seeking first-hand accounts of women our readers admire. Whether they are living now, or were born in 1901. Please submit story ideas to email@example.com and we will do our best to incorporate it into our website.