I Tried To Live Like Classic Movie Star Marlene Dietrich For A Week, And Here's What Happened
My favorite old-school screen actress is Marlene Dietrich. She's up there for me beside Joan Crawford, whose resting bitchface I keep on my computer desktop to remind me to be a hardass when required; and the freckled, sh*t-stirring Katharine Hepburn. People can keep their saintly Audrey Hepburns. I like my icons complicated, difficult, opinionated and peculiar — with serious cheekbones. But Marlene, the German star of The Blue Angel and Blonde Venus with the highly controversial private life (she was bisexual and part of what she called Hollywood's "sewing circle" of lesbian actresses), wins them all. She was lethally glamorous with a witty, coy stare, like she could kill you with a cock of her eyebrow and you'd enjoy it. She was the essence of fabulous.
So, obviously, when I found that she'd written a book of life advice, I had to buy it and attempt to live by its edicts immediately. The book, called Marlene Dietrich's ABC: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes , threw me slightly. Recipes? This woman who luxuriated onscreen in furs and dramatic cigarette holders and famously made a tuxedo look absurdly elegant in Morocco (1930), actually had an impulse to be domestic? I thought she'd spent her life having sultry affairs and sweeping in and out of rooms dramatically. But how often do you get direct instruction from a screen goddess?
The experiment: I decided to live by the principles every way I could for one week. Turns out living like Marlene is contradictory and involves a lot of pink nail polish and catering to men, who are apparently easily-offended beasts who need unquestioning devotion or they'll turn into trolls. Here are a choice selection of her edicts, and how I tried to obey them.
Marlene On Fashion And Beauty
"Beautiful breasts cannot be pushed together, cannot be pushed out. There is stubbornness in their firmness."
Examined my breasts according to these principles and determined that they are in fact beautiful, because they are completely intransigent. Which is pleasing, but makes motor-boating difficult and gives me rage when they refuse to fit into bras.
"Dark nail polish is vulgar."
Looked at sickly pink nail polish. It stared back. Saw the abyss of time and the heat death of the universe in its glossy rosy reflection. Made my fingers look like bits of liverwurst. Went back to black the following week.
"Nothing that is cheap looks expensive."
Looked at all of my cheap shoes/books/trinkets/tights/skirts critically. Decided she was right. Do not particularly care.
"Don't buy separates."
I live in jeans. Fortunately, I avoided this rule by simply not buying any clothes at all.
"Don't ruin the elegance of the outfit by overemphasis of the bosom."
I have B cups and don't know how to overemphasise them anyway, but didn't wear anything low-cut. But, on principle, bosoms are inherently elegant; I am frequently stunned by their elegant passage in front of me in public places. This is a stupid piece of advice.
"Don't wear super-spike heels with suits or street dresses. Don't wear open-toe shoes with suits, or when you want to be elegant in the afternoon. Don't wear open toes in white, black or brown or navy blue, ever. Wear them only in colours not contrasting with your stockings."
Easily avoided wearing open-toed anything, as this is England in February.
"Don't waste money on black gloves. They clean very badly and make you sad."
This is the best reason for not buying anything ever. I kind of wanted to go up to black gloves in a department store, sigh conspicuously, and turn away from them, muttering "But they clean very badly and make you sad."
Marlene's Advice On Love And Hate
"I am deeply suspicious of men who carry martinis to the lunch or dinner table."
Kept my eyes out any man committing this faux pas, so that I could fix him with the full force of a suspicious stare. (Suspicious of what? Marlene doesn't explain. Are they secretly spies? Will they shortly throw the martini in your face?) Didn't see one, so couldn't.
"Alone: For most of us, to be alone is misery. For women not occupied in a profession that requires solitude, to be alone is absolutely unnatural."
My profession does require solitude, so my fearful attitude towards Lots Of People Around Me At All Times is apparently excusable. Did my best to feel unnatural while being alone, but mostly just felt relief that nobody was trying to explain Game Of Thrones to me while I worked.
"Baths: I love them except they make me lazy. I don't like them, though, when I am alone in the house."
Tried not to love baths when alone in the house. Failed, as I live in a very small house and this is the only time I can watch David Attenborough documentaries and splash in the bubbles while yelling RUN AWAY FROM THE WILD DOGS LITTLE GIRAFFE.
"I need harmony around me more than food, drink, and sleep."
Attempted to live purely on harmony. Got hungry and had an argument with the kettle halfway through the day. Gave up.
"I'd rather go to a hardware store than the opera. And I like the opera."
This is seriously all the context you are given for this piece of advice. Stood in a hardware store and attempted to feel like it was a better time than the last time I was at the opera. Several people asked me where things were. Gave up and directed a man to the lightbulb section.
Marlene's Advice On Domesticity
"I love aprons. The large white ones with the broad bands and large square pockets. A woman in an apron invites hugging."
I have no feelings towards aprons. We have two, both dirty and striped. I looked at them affectionately every time I went past in an attempt to foster feelings of strong domestic happiness. It didn't work. I put one on and my husband hugged me, but as he's hugged me when I've been covered in a) blood, b) sweat and c) vomit, I think the apron was fairly irrelevant.
"Letters: There is no excuse for not writing letters. My mother used to say: "Don't tell me you have no time to write to someone who is waiting.""
Assumed this can also apply to emails, and attempted to write them all on time and sensibly. Came to the conclusion, however, that "a spoilt cat bit through my computer cord and killed my laptop" is, despite Marlene's edict, a good excuse.
"Liverwurst: the consolation of the sad."
Liverwurst was expensive, so I got a sample slice from a sympathetic butcher on a melancholic day. (He liked Greta Garbo better and is therefore not to be trusted.) Am simply not German enough to get it, I guess.
"Potatoes: I love them. I eat them."
Loved them. Ate them. Put them on a fish pie.
Marlene's Most Practical Advice
"If you have children prone to car sickness, carry quartered lemons with you. Give them a piece to suck on. It does wonders."
Offered quartered lemons to husband, who does have car sickness. Husband was driving at the time. Husband refused. Experiment unsuccessful.
"When you add yolks and don't know what to do with the whites: Add a few drops of lemon, a bit of toilet water and you have a very good hand lotion."
This was actually seriously good once I figured out what toilet water means, after a minute of quite alarmed misunderstanding.
"Nourish your frying pan with lard."
I knew this one already: my husband refuses to let anybody wash the cast iron frying pan we got as a wedding present, and keeps rubbing fat on it. Am glad this means he is not peculiar.
Marlene On Building Character
"The more plentiful the work, the less time to be neurotic."
Filled my days with as much work and practical tasks as possible. Was pleasantly surprised to discover I did in fact have no time to be neurotic about anything. Good advice.
"Flexibility: a great asset for body and mind."
Attempted to touch toes. Managed to graze the very largest, and have a nasty feeling that this is not from any inherent suppleness, but because my feet are hilariously enormous.
"To lose your prejudices you must travel."
Had no money to go anywhere, so satisfied the edict by going to a different coffee shop. Small child spilled water on the floor and several dudes hit on me by complimenting my watch. Reacted as Marlene probably would, by making an arch face and then ignoring them. Am now simply prejudiced against different people.
"Analysis: I have always been against it. Not long ago John Crosby wrote this fine sentence: "Mental blocks have been rolled away, and with them all discipline.""
Contemplated bringing this up with my therapist. Didn't, as I'm scared of her.
Marlene On Gender
"It is natural that a woman should cook."
Attempted to feel more natural and feminine while holding a frying pan in one hand and measuring pinches of salt with the other. Nothing happened.
"A man at the sink, a woman's apron tied high around his waist, is the most miserable sight on earth."
Don't have a woman's apron. Only the aforementioned stripy genderless pair. Marlene is very 1950s, and also very rude. I hate washing up; why should husband not do it instead? He's better at it, and can have his lard-nourishing time in peace.
"To make a man happy is a full-time job."
Am too busy actually having a full-time job to make my husband my full-time job.
"You must be completely feminine, not just in bits and pieces and here and there when it fits in which the scheme of things. To be completely woman you need a master."
Couldn't bring myself to follow this advice because it's terrible in every way. Husband, who is meant to be my master, was offended by it. Husband is a keeper.
Images: Wikicommons; Giphy