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25 April 2016

Marlene Dietrich, University Lecturer?

Marlene Dietrich, Hotel Carlton, Biarritz, 1945?
If a Welsh warrior can metamorphose into a demigod king with a Round Table and an Excalibur, what could a Prussian girl from a good military family one day become? Much of Marlene Dietrich's life isn't yet a century old, yet research and memories about even the briefest of its interludes can muddle what must have once been solid facts into a slurry of legends. One of these moments in Dietrich's life includes her time at Biarritz during the tail end of 1945, where she was--perhaps--a university lecturer?

During 1945 and 1946, the Biarritz American University (BAU) educated G.I.s not in traditional classrooms but in the seaside resort town's hotels and villas, a much deserved respite to help these troops reintegrate into civilian life after having survived World War II. As if the luxurious locale wasn't enough, stars such as Dietrich reportedly made appearances at BAU to lecture and perform, leaving indelible impressions on the war hero students that sometimes veered toward the outrageous.

In his I Slept With Marlene Dietrich: A Tell-All MemoirMurray Bromberg claimed to have shrimped Dietrich in Biarritz. Furthermore, he gossiped that Dietrich carried on her affair with Major General James Gavin while there. If any kernel of truth is in Bromberg's dirt, could he have possibly misheard the name of Dietrich's paramour? In the December 11, 1945 issue of the Floridan newspaper, St. Petersburg Times, there was a blurb about Dietrich and Jean Gabin (that's "Gabin" with a "b," not "Gavin" with a "v"!) serving on a judging panel at the BAU Drama & Film School. Could Dietrich have possibly juggled the affections of both men in such a small town?

As one should expect in anything Dietrich-related, some of Bromberg's facts don't quite align with those of other sources. While Bromberg stated that Guthrie McClintic and Katherine Cornell ran BAU's drama department and that Dietrich was to stay at the Hotel Miramar and teach makeup to female students for two weeks, David A. Crespy wrote in Richard Barr: The Playwright's Producer that it was Albert McCleery who had secured Dietrich as a faculty member of the university's Theatre and Radio Arts Branch. As an aside, was this the same McCleery who had contributed to the screenplay for The Lady is Willing and who had helped find Dietrich's mother in BerlinAlvin Epstein also remembered McCleery's connection to BAU and Dietrich, pointing out that that McCleery, a lieutenant colonel, was the head of the university's drama department. Surprisingly, Epstein noted that Dietrich did indeed teach makeup of all subjects!

Marlene Dietrich, Hotel Carlton, Biarritz, 1945?
Others made no mention of any maquillage, such as Hervie Haufler, who described how Dietrich had "lectured drama students on acting," sang, and played her trusty singing saw, the singing and singing saw playing confirmed by Merrill Brockway in his book, Surprise Was My Teacher, in which he added that Dietrich did so in a gold lamé gown with army boots. Nathan Shoehalter remarked on Haufler's feature that he had "met and hugged Marlene Dietrich in a mess line at the Hotel Eugenie," an accommodation now known as the Hôtel du Palais. Please be aware that I am supplying Shoehalter's comment from an archived version of the HistoryNet page because the current page seems to have scrubbed the article of its comments, an unfortunate loss given that this one was a personal account that only enriches history.

Positioning itself at the threshold of fact and fiction, Roy Arthur Swanson's novel/memoir Rain and Darkness included a description of Dietrich serving cake after an all-BAU lunch held at the Hotel Carlton in mid-December 1945, which I believe may be more truthful than Bromberg's fanciful tales. According to Swanson, Dietrich had a "perfectly smooth complexion" yet "stiff, straw-like [...] obviously dyed yellow hair." Could the photos in this very post be from that occasion, and could Swanson be in one of them?

Not everyone at BAU who reminisced about Marlene was an American soldier or a student. Some lucky British civilian secretaries had the opportunity to join the university's staff, such as an Angela Vivian who remembered Dietrich there as one of the stars who had taught and entertained. Vivian had this to say about Dietrich: " She stayed a while and we got to know her well. She was natural and friendly. We pinched ourselves now and again."

Despite all these recollections, most of Dietrich's biographers overlooked her time at Biarritz. Steven Bach wrote that she had gone to the town to lecture for six weeks after visiting her mother in Berlin and had returned to Berlin after learning of her mother's death on November 6, 1945. David Bret also summarized Dietrich's actions more or less in this same order, albeit in less detail. In both his books, Leslie Frewin merely stated that Dietrich had lectured on films. Bach seems to have got the date of Frau von Losch's death inaccurate and doesn't have the time period during which Dietrich lectured quite right, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Aside from all her contributions that raised the morale of Allied soldiers during WWII, Dietrich's efforts after WWII also deserve recognition, especially now that we are aware of issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Marlene Dietrich, Hotel Carlton, Biarritz, 1945?
Indeed, a veteran known only as "Le" acknowledged the effects of PTSD despite living in such a lush setting as Biarritz, yet he also shared fond memories and potential information sources that add brush strokes to the picture of Dietrich's time there. Le related how, in the student newspaper, The BAU Banner, there was an announcement of Dietrich's appearance, which had been postponed due to her mother's death. When Dietrich arrived around Christmas of 1945, Le was blessed to hear her sing, and he waltzed with her at the Hotel Miramar. If anyone has any copies of The BAU Banner, please don't hesitate to share any notices or articles in it about Dietrich.

Incidentally, news of Dietrich's postponement also appeared in mainstream news. A brief November 17, 1945 New York Times item entitled "Miss Dietrich to Rest" cited Marlene as being "too tired to return to Hollywood" and stated that her mother's death nixed her plans to join BAU's faculty, but that was only temporary.

Dispelling the notion that Dietrich rested much at all during this time, the Deutsche Kinemathek's Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin (MDCB) contains documents from Dietrich's estate that clearly delineated the scheduled activities of Dietrich's visit to Biarritz. In a letter dated November 13, 1945 to Dietrich at Hotel Claridge, Paris, Brigadier General Samuel L. McCroskey, the Commandant of BAU, invited her to the school at the suggestion of its Theater & Radio Arts Department to be "a guest artist and lecturer." A letter dated December 3, 1945 to Dietrich from John F. Freund detailed her orders to travel to Biarritz on December 7 for about a week, which would have been about a month after her mother's demise and therefore an example of her unparalleled professionalism. How many of us would be strong enough to make such an effort to raise others' spirits when faced with such a difficult and recent personal loss?

Still more incredible, MDCB boasts a memo dated December 8 [?], 1945 that listed Dietrich's tentative teaching and lecture schedule as follows (bracketed content my own):
Monday 10 December 1945 
 0800 - 1000 hours: Lecture to "Motion Picture Analysis and Techniques" Class. University Theater. (Pf. [?] Margolis [The Herbert F. Margolis who mentioned Dietrich's BAU work in a July 14, 1946 New York Times article called "GI Joe Studies Movies"?].
1600 hours: Open lecture to entire University. University Theater.
Tuesday 11 December 1945
1020 hours: Lecture to "Elementary Acting" class. Room 62, Biarritz Salins Hotel. (Miss K. Konald)
1330 hours: Combined lecture to: [1] Motion Picture Production Class (Capt. W.D. Boggess) [2] Advanced Acting Class (Capt. A.J. Cefaratti) [3] Symposium, Modern Theater (Lt. Col. A.K. McCleery). Room 62, Biarritz Salins Hotel.
Provided that Dietrich didn't stray from these subjects, this schedule supports the essence of what Dietrich did as a BAU lecturer according to various accounts, with the exception of teaching makeup, although that subject very well may have been discussed during any of these classes. The name of BAU's dramatic department and the names of those running it varied from source to source, as did the dates of Dietrich's time there, but the gist remained the same--Marlene Dietrich truly was a university lecturer, even if for a couple of days! Given Dietrich's expertise in her craft, she could have made another career out of lecturing, just as Josef von Sternberg did at UCLA. Of course, that wasn't an option she seems to have ever again explored, but at least she dipped her toes into it as part of her many postwar achievements.

Many thanks to the following for helping me find crucial documents and photos for this piece: Werner Sudendorf, Silke Ronneburg, and Tobias Tak.

28 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this fascinating account of MD. It really is another example of her relentless desire to give her all to her boys. Her energy and drive combined with her technical knowledge must have made her lectures extremely sought after and thoroughly entertaining. It would be great to hear from any of the GI students who were lucky enough to attend her lectures.
    I wonder how those units would have transferred? Great work Joseph.

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    1. I too would like to know what exactly it was that Dietrich discussed during her lectures. I know that von Sternberg gave extraordinary demonstrations of how to light a subject, and I could imagine MD being capable of teaching the same. I've read in various sources that the credits earned at BAU were transferred to American universities, such as this finding aid about a man who used his BAU credits to graduate in absentia from Rutgers.

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    2. Hello Joseph, I'm Miguel Angel of Spain that I had until a few months ago the www.clasicmarlene.blogspot.com and I ended up removing after several years. But it is always Marlene ... and the nostalgia to write about it overcomes me and I think I'll create a new blog dedicated to her ... maybe not much more to discover about the woman and the actress or maybe yes.... What do you think about the idea of creating a new blog? This would be in Spanish because my English is not enough for writing as I wanted (now I am helping of the google translator) I have decided to consult you because I value much your opinion and I encourage me to create this new adventure. I want to apologize for my intrusion and I hope your opinion and some advices. Regards and sorry for my english...Miguel Ángel

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    3. Hello, Miguel Angel. Que lastima! I recently saw that you had deleted your blog and wondered why. I think you should create a new blog because Marlene has many Spanish-speaking fans, too. You could perhaps talk about the history of Marlene Dietrich's films in Spanish-speaking countries (e.g., during Franco's regime), her visits to Spanish-speaking countries, the special things you have found in Spanish-language books, newspapers, and magazines, etc. Of course, you could also translate information from other languages into Spanish so that Spanish speakers learn more about Dietrich. I look forward to your new adventure!

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    4. Thank you very much for your encouragement ... when I start I will send you the link for you and the readers that they want. Thanks again. Miguel Ángel

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    5. www.clasicamarlene.blogspot.com is the blog...Just starting. soon I'll add the first entries very soon. Thank you and you can visit the blog. Miguel Ángel

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    6. Hello I send you the blog link with the first entries if you wan) (you and everybody) to see it. Regards and thanks again. www.clasicamarlene.blogspot.com.es/
      Miguel Ángel

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    7. Thanks! I've already added it my blogroll on the right sidebar, so viewers will see your posts if they more recent than any other blog posts.:)

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    8. Thank you very much for your kindness. Regards. Miguel Ángel

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    9. Hello again , sorry I ask you a question : why the latest entry I posted does not appear in blogroll ? Should I do something on the blog itself to appear updated in your blog section blogroll ? Forgive my ignorance and greetings again. Miguel Ángel

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    10. You must have disabled RSS. Go to Settings>Other>Allow blog feed>Full.

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    11. so I have it, but it does not appear , I will wait. Thank you

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    12. Yes...at last, thank you again.

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    13. Hello again, you could put the blog address on your facebook https://www.facebook.com/lastgoddess/ I have not facebook ... Or is it too much to ask? Many and sincere thanks in advance. Miguel Ángel

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    14. You should work on creating unique content for your blog before you worry about readership. Please contact me via email at lastgoddessblog@gmail.com if you want to keep discussing your blog.

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    15. You should work on creating unique content for your blog before you worry about readership. Please contact me via email at lastgoddessblog@gmail.com if you want to keep discussing your blog.

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    16. Ok, thank you very much. Miguel Ángel

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  2. A truly great account of a lecture which probably took just one hour and made it into several books as a mystery. Harry Raymon, a german gay emigrant, reports on the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ia86E-PUWYk - the lecture is in german. His report on the American University in Biarritz starts at about minute 55 and ends at 1.03. You may also read his memoirs in his book "Einmal Exil und zurück" published in 2005 at Forum Homosexualität, Munich.
    Werner

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    1. Werner, thank you for bringing attention to these sources! I wonder which lecture Raymon saw.
      --Joseph

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  3. At the Atlantic coast France - West / South... Close the border to Spain. There the sea is very rough. One reason why it is forgotten today. But it still looks like an wonderful old spa.

    In WWII it was occupied by the Nazis. But it was allowed under the emergency government of the aged French Nazi Marshal Philippe Pétain (WW I), Vichy regime.

    Many rich people and Jews then fled from Biarritz to Casablanca and from Casablanca then, for example, in the USA. An escape over the Mediterranean was not possible.

    Biarritz was a loophole because even Spain was fascist (Francisco Franco regime). Also Portugal was fascists friendly (Military dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar).

    The movie "Casablanca" is known for that. Even though it is told in the movie not exactly.

    Today Biarritz is famous for its oyster farming. :-)

    Sorry! It's my English. I do not want to be a schoolmaster. But I cant write English different. :-(

    Biarritz got a place for the US Army after August 25. 1944. Without the other allied it was better to reach. August 25, 1944 is the day of the liberation of France and Western Europe. The base was closed in March 1946. It was a kind of a training camp for GI's. It was no university in the strict sense.

    The coast of Biarritz is similar to the north / west coast of Spain, Galicia. This is due to the area of low pressure by the Azores.

    Biarritz was a health resort during the Belle Époque - about 30 years around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries - often for rich lung disease patients - because of the weather - wet and breezy. Like Davos in Switzerland once was.

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    1. But Biarritz American University (BAU) was a university in the strict sense! According to Umstattd, many of its experienced faculty were recruited from American universities and colleges, and the others who were recruited from the military had previous higher education teaching experience. Also, GIs earned college credits at BAU that could be transferred to American universities. I found an oral history by a man named Herman Berenson who described how unorthodox the university was, but he also acknowledged that he had received college credits for his work there. I also noted that credits transferred in my comment above to archivefever123. What fascinated me in particular, though, was that there was a study done by a Clarence R. Carpenter of what European students thought of BAU when they attended during its third and final session, and many of them didn't think it was a real university because it didn't meet their standards. Rather, it revealed that the American approach to education differed quite a bit from the approach throughout various European nations.

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    2. Furthermore, that Carpenter study did make a point about how European students thought that Americans placed a much higher emphasis on credits. Maybe the European students didn't get to transfer theirs?;)

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  4. Again:
    Possibly my statement is a little too harsh.

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    1. I'm not sure whether the USO was behind BAU because I'm not very familiar with how all these giant bureaucracies were structured. My understanding is that the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army established the BAU. How that division was related to USO--could some military expert passing by answer this? All I know is that in Dietrich's orders to go to Biarritz, she is referred to as a civilian employed by Information and Education Division.

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  6. A nice book. :-)

    http://www.amazon.com/Always-Home-USO---Official-Photographic/dp/0080405762/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461795153&sr=1-12&keywords=United+Service+Organizations

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  7. The gentleman with the glasses with Dietrich looks very much like a young Prof. Swanson. He was my mentor in college and I have emailed him to ask if it is him.

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