Steven Bach is a good writer. His prologue to this exhaustive biography (more than 600 pages, with 477 being text and the rest being copious filmography and source notes) whetted my appetite for something really special. He shares with us that Marlene knew of his work on this book and tried to stop it. He tells us that she had a sister whose existence she denied. He advises of his relationship with Josef von Sternberg, and how it informs this work. I couldn't wait to start reading.
However, when I actually did start reading, there were some pages that were so dry that I felt I should stop to blow dust off of them. It isn't that Marlene didn't have a fascinating life, and it isn't that Bach hasn't gone to herculean lengths to chronicle that life. There are things here that he uncovered despite years of obfuscation on the part of Frau Dietrich. It's that he takes such a long time in telling us these things, in self-consciously "clever" prose, that by the time he gets to the point, I almost stopped caring about what that point was.
Further, it was clear to me that von Sternberg, Dietrich's Svengali, was an unpleasant piece of work. Bach is fairly transparent in detailing Sternberg's pettiness and downright cruelty in dealing with Marlene and others. In my personal opinion, many of her worst films were made with this man, but still I found myself reading a book that, for a segment of time, was more a biography of this director than of the lady I'd picked it up learn about. She denied herself health and wealth in order to do whatever he asked of her, and to save him from himself (to no avail), and yet he continually treated her like dirt. In 477 pages of biography, I was never able to discern why she allowed him to do so.
I have had great respect for Marlene Dietrich ever since reading Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's "Dark Star," about her father, John Gilbert. That book details his relationship with Marlene and how she attempted to care for him at the end of his life. My respect deepened when I learned of her heroic work during World War II. It was these things I looked forward to most in reading "Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend" and, for the most part, they were covered well. Even here, however, Bach can't resist the cleverness he carries in his own perception. "Marlene made Technicolor tests with John Gilbert, who would have played in 'Desire.' He died instead." True? Well, yes. Necessary or in good taste to state it in this way? No. These sorts of "witty" asides grew very stale very quickly.
And yet I kept reading - the research is unparalleled, and the life is unmatched. Bach had access to information and records that had eluded previous biographers. On occasion, the information is provided in such a way that it is fascinating verging on beautiful. If that were consistently true, this would be a five-star review.
I said at the outset, Steven Bach is a good writer. He could be great, if he self-edited a bit (saying the same thing ten different ways in the same paragraph is not artful, only tiresome) and if he let the artist's life speak for itself without attempting to inject his own weak witticisms. This book is well worth reading in order to learn about Marlene, but there is a lot to wade through in order to earn that knowledge.