This blog post is a continuation of the magical night we met Marlene Dietrich when she unexpectedly dropped by the Hirschfelds. I’ve cut most of the theatrical talk that’s in my memoir including the gossip about Alex acting as play doctor to the Broadway successes of Clare Booth Luce, another goddess of the time, who moved on to become U.S. ambassador to Italy in 1953.
“Well, Alexander,” Marlene said, “as you are no longer in the collaboration business with Mrs. Luce, what are you doing these days?”
“I’ve been painting. Also, as of 6 o’clock this morning, I’ve begun writing my autobiography.”
“About time!” Al said, with a note of satisfaction in his voice.
Dolly, who’d been sitting in her beautiful burgundy silk culottes with her left leg tucked under her, got up from the couch opposite the one where Marlene and Alex were sitting to give him one of her spontaneous pincer hugs: “Alex,” she squealed, “it will be—her voice dropped an octave, “wonnnnnderful!”
But Alex wasn’t quite ready to talk about it yet, and turned instead toward Marlene. “And you” he said, “is it true you’re writing a memoir yourself?”
“Oh,” she said, “I’ve signed this ridiculous contract but it’s not going to be the scheiss they want—all that sensational stuff about who slept with whom—when, where, and how—so boring. But look, these might help you,” she said to Alex, reaching again into her voluminous bag of apparently inexhaustible treasures and taking out three or four sections of manuscript encased in some pastel-colored plastic folders. “I’m finally getting somewhere because of these. I may even be able to turn something in before the publisher sues me! These files save me a lot of time and keep me organized.”
(Marlene Dietrich’s ABC’S was full of such helpful tips and practical advice) Do you, Alexander,” she said tucking her papers away again, “have an agent?”
“Maybe Robbie Lantz will look at it when I’m finished. Right now, no,” Alex said and then putting his hand lightly over Marlene’s. “But like you I do have grandsons. Eight boys I leave behind me—some of whom I’ve never laid eyes on; and so before I die, I’ve decided to write down a sort of record of my life. I want my grandchildren, later on, to have an inkling of at least some of my hopes, my struggles, and my meanderings.”
“And to counter the lies.” She said this very casually but the way she ground her cigarette out in the huge Steuben glass ashtray on the octagonal coffee table, betrayed a murderously angry subtext. Even the little mother-of-pearl-inlaid table top shivered.
Alex nodded his head. “That too,” he said. “Various people, some of them well-meaning and quite a lot of them poisonously envious, have evolved a whole mythology of crap about my supposed activities. Al can tell you samplings of those tidbits could easily be savored wherever my name happened to come up in conversation, and some of this stuff that floated in my direction was not only largely misleading but also unforgivably dull.”
I leaned forward, not wanting to miss a word.
“Now then,” Alex said with his raised eye-brow innocent look, “I really don’t know why anybody ever bothered to invent things about me when the factual circumstances were always so much more scandalous and infinitely more entertaining than the lies ever were.”
We all laughed. Marlene laughed the loudest. What he was saying clearly resonated in every fiber of her being.
Alex went on to explain to her that he had special problems writing an autobiography because it appeared his life hadn’t been happening in any logical time sequence at all!
“However,’ Alex continued, “since it appears that I am doomed, I am determined to do it. I’ve been thinking about it, and the highlights of my memory do form a thrilling galaxy. I only hope to stand in its radiance with my fragment of a calcified kidney, long enough to finish not only the chapter I’ve just begun, but, if heaven is kind to me, even the whole crazy, sometimes stranger than fiction, story of my upsy-downsy life.
This was quite a statement, but it was only the “doomed” part that Frau Doktor Dietrich picked up on. “You have then, if I understand you correctly,” she said, “only a piece of one kidney that functions. That would explain,” she touched his cheek very delicately with her middle finger, “the slightly swollen pouches under your eyes.”
“A few days ago,” Alex said, “in a doctor’s office full of auction room furniture and false friendliness, I saw the X-rays of my ravaged interior. God knows, this initial look I had at the pictures of my remaining piece of kidney was even more shocking than the first view I ever had of my profile.”
Marlene smiled, lifting her head toward Alex in such a way that her perfect profile was displayed to best advantage.
Alex went on” “I tell you that the blotched and speckled pelvic region seemed like a sinister lunar landscape. This famous specialist–Dr. Berenson is his name–told me I must have an immediate emergency operation. He said I had no chance without it and a fair chance if he operated as soon as he could arrange for a room in Lenox Hill Hospital”
“And when is that?” Dolly’s face showed her concern.
“He thinks by the middle of next week,” I looked over at Al, hoping he’d offer some positive encouragement. Instead it was Marlene who spoke up.
“Don’t do it,” she said. “If you have to have this operation you must go to Switzerland. A Swiss hospital is the only place where they actually take care of you so that you feel you’re a worthwhile human being who deserves to live. The doctors are better there too.”
“My dear lady,” Alex in his best cavalier fashion gently took Marlene’s hand and kissed it, “not all of us have the kind of wherewithal with which we can fly off to Switzerland at a moment’s notice! But I take kindly to your good advice, I truly do. What’s more I plan to follow your warnings about hospitals in this country. I have as of this moment definitely decided not to let this particular genius operate on me.”
My heart sank. I gave Alex an imploring look but he was too absorbed in Marlene’s reaction to notice how upset I was. Besides now that he’d worked up a full head of steam, there was no stopping him.
“Surgeons anyway,” he rasped, “tend to look at the world through blood-shot eyes. They’re all too ready and eager to slice you up.”
“They’re all the same, these goddam American specialists” Marlene said. “Of course with me it’s different because I‘m known and that means possible access to publicity for them. Most of the time, however, even I feel hurried when I go for a consultation—as if I were being moved along some assembly line! The last thing in the world a New York doctor has time for is to listen to the patient talk about what they think might be wrong or what they feel they need. It’s not like that in Switzerland. Believe me, it’s not like that all.”
Dolly and I seemed to be the only ones who weren’t in complete agreement about the ineptitude of the American medical profession’s bedside manner. I’d been silent most of the night, but now, for Alex’s sake I felt I should speak up. It looked to me as if my hostess, too, was having a hard time keeping quiet. However, both of us had missed our chance. The conversation was yet again, off and running in another direction.
After their obvious mutual accord, it seemed that my Viennese husband (my occasional “cup of hemlock mit schlag,”) and “the Kraut,” (as Hemingway called Marlene) agreed on almost every topic that came up.
“Yes—Medical specialists could not be trusted.”
“Yes– Richard Tauber was divine—schmaltzy, but divine.” etc. etc.
At the mention of this beloved tenor’s name Dolly Haas, who herself had been a big musical comedy film star in Germany, began to sing: “Wenn die weisse Flieder wieder bluht” (When the whitelilacs bloom once more) Before she got to the next line, Marlene had also joined in singing not one–but two octaves lower!
“I don’t really have a voice,” she said, “just a hot breath that passes for one!”
Inevitably the moment came when the enchantress reluctantly announced if she was going to get her grandsons off to the park in the morning, she should be going home. Now ordinarily we’d walk over to the 96th subway at Lexington Avenue and take the train all the way downtown to Astor Place. However my gallant Austrian husband had decided on the spot to take Marlene home.
“Tell me, my darling,” he said, “where do you live?”
“Oh not far,” she replied, “just a bit down Park Avenue.”
“Then we’ll drop you,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
It was But unless Alex had a couple of dollars in his pocket that I didn’t know about, we might have to jump out of the taxi the block after we left her!
We’d just about come to her street when Alex felt for his pack of Marlboros and, finding them, offered her his last cigarette.
“No thank you,” she said; but she again took out her gold lighter and handed it to him. The little flame lit up the darkness showing those rightly famous cheekbones. He took a drag and then, reaching over me, passed the lighter back to her.
“No, you keep it,” she said; “I want to read that book you say you’re writing and you never know when you may really need the trip to Switzerland.” (Oh Marlene! Hocking your lighter might save the day for us—might save his life!)
The doorman opened the door, helped her out of the cab, and she was gone. And so were we, totally gone on this remarkable woman, this more than an actress, this more than a star, this–how was it Alex referred to her–I remember him reaching into his vast multilingual lexicon and after careful consideration, coming up with the word:“Mensch.” Apparently, for my Viennese swain, English was too prosaic.