I am so very grateful to the Assistant Director at the American Library in Paris, A. Altman, for she let me take a glimpse into their private “Marlene Dietrich collection”. For 2 hours, I hovered over the books with trembling hands, barely touching the pages.
Marlene kept about 2,000 books in her Parisian flat at Avenue Montaigne on topics ranging from poetry, philosophy, novels, biographies, and thrillers - in English, French, and her native German. Following her death, her family donated a large portion of it to the American Library. The rest was sent to the Film Museum in Berlin. Certain items, such as her personal copies of “Mein Kampf” and first editions of photographer Cecil Beaton, were acquired by private buyers.
The collection is often studied by scholars for the purpose of research. One reason as to why it attracts such interest still is Dietrich’s annotations contained in the books’ margins, for the most part scrawled in English in red pencil, while various words that the comments refer to have been underlined within the text.
Her collection furthermore contains all 55 biographies written about her - she was determined to scribble corrections over the tiniest of details that the misinformed authors had overlooked, all in an effort “to set the record straight” regarding her life and career, and those of the people she knew. These pages are filled with extensive notes in 3 pen colors, and exclamations such as “Not true!!”, “All lies!”, “Ridiculous”, “Who is this person???”, “What???”, “Ha, ha, ha”, “Why do I always wear Karrierte costumes and grey stockings?,” and “I hated cats all my life!”... She was obviously very much into marginalia.
According to Miss Altman, one particularly important and amusing part of the collection is represented by the biographies her friends and colleagues had given her. On the one hand, the books feature personal dedications and inscriptions signed by the writers themselves (in case anybody ever wondered about Ingmar Bergman’s address - he has included that in one of his books too). On the other hand, her reactions to the texts is simply hilarious. The list includes the biographies of Josef von Sternberg, Brian Aherne, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Édith Piaf, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Rosalind Russell, Yul Brynner, Roger Vadim, Kim Novak, Liv Ullman etc. Her personal volume of “The works of Shakespeare” are filled with annotations next to passages and phrases deciphering their meaning or adding her own thoughts to clarify implications.
If the term “throwing shade” had existed back then, I am positive, it would have been invented by Dietrich. The first page of a volume describing the love affair between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh has the following phrase inked in red: “This is without a doubt the worst writing I ever laid eyes on.”; on page 182, she commented: “That’s the kind of writing I hate.” In her copy of Anthony Burgess’s novel “Earthly Powers”, the famous first sentence - “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” – she dismisses it with: “That’s when I stopped reading.”
She also possessed several works by her favorite Goethe, in which she had noted passages of interest with small “X”s and with notepad sheets carrying a stamped red directive: “Don’t Forget.”
True to legend, her personal dictionary does indeed have a single underlined word - the term of endearment by which her dear friend Ernest Hemingway addressed her in his letters: "kraut." I found it funny that upon entering the library, the staff was putting up Hemingway’s portrait to promote a future event discussing his works...