Some 50 mourners, including her daughter, Maria Riva, attended Marlene Dietrich’s funeral service in 1992. That day in Berlin, Maria blew a last kiss to her mother’s coffin, but she had strong words for her grandmother, who was buried in the plot next to the legendary star.
“She said, ‘Now you’ve got her back. Teach her how to love,'” recalls Maria’s son, Peter Riva, to Closer.
Marlene, the luminous, free-spirited Golden Age actress, always pushed boundaries. Her stardom allowed her to live as she pleased — taking lovers of both sexes and wearing trousers in Paris despite the threat of arrest — but Marlene’s self-involvement made life hard for her only child, Maria, 97. “At the age of 3, I knew quite definitely that I did not have a mother, that I belonged to a queen,” said Maria in Marlene Dietrich: A Life.
Maria spent her childhood on the Paramount lot, where she was tutored instead of going to school with kids her own age. Trained to be her mother’s attendant, Maria guarded the door as Marlene vomited to stay thin, helped her tape up her breasts and watched her work to alert her to any imperfection. Along the way, the child absorbed her mother’s dismissive opinion of other actors. Marlene called Charlie Chaplin a“low-class circus performer,” Joan Crawford, a “terrible, vulgar woman with pop eyes,” and her chief rival, Greta Garbo, “a cruel Swede” with a sexually transmitted disease.
It wasn’t all grim. Maria was elated when she met another lonely girl, Judy Garland, at the Wizard of Oz star’s studio-hosted birthday party. “We became friends,” Maria says. “We rarely met. Sometimes it was years, but when we did, without hesitation, we again became two little fat girls sitting on a back-porch swing.”
Maria followed her mother into acting. Although she never achieved the same status in Hollywood, she proved a better mother to her four children. Son Peter, who was born in 1950, remembers his grandmother Marlene as a formidable presence in their lives.
“She was a little bit more Teutonic and disciplinarian than a cuddly grandma,” admits Peter, who was allowed to call her by her family nickname, “Massy,” when no one could hear. “When she answered the phone, we knew not to call her ‘Massy’ anymore. We’d call her ‘Ms. Dietrich’ or ‘Grandmother,'” he remembers.
Marlene’s keen intellect was obvious, even to a child. “She was incredibly competent and intelligent,” Peter says. “There was nobody in any room with her — be it Adlai Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra or Yul Brynner — there was nobody more intelligent than she was.”
But in the mid-1970s, after fracturing her leg in a mishap during her cabaret show, Marlene retired to her Paris apartment. “The Academy Awards wanted to give her a lifetime achievement award, but she wouldn’t be forced into attending,” says Peter, who says Marlene spent her days writing letters, watching TV and racking up thousands of dollars in phone calls. “She said, ‘That’s enough. I can be in my own apartment, in my own bed and be happy.’ ”