Up in diva heaven, the idea of a brat with a book contract must be enough to spook a gal. If you thought Christina Crawford brought Joan into close-up, try Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva, the latest in the daughter-dishes genre. Riva can’t re-create the fanzine cheesiness of Crawford’s work because Dietrich’s misdeeds (”training” Maria to be a lesbian so she’d never leave her) are much more subtle. No wire hangers here. Dietrich didn’t need them. She was an artist of intelligence and wit, as Riva makes clear. The only thing this mother shared with Joan Crawford was the passionate force of the truly obsessed. The kind that lights up screens. And tears lives to shreds.
Admirers of Dietrich and most serious readers will probably prefer last fall’s Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend by Steven Bach, the most judicious and fact-checkable of the Blue Angel bios. But Maria Riva does more than clip her mother’s wings. She lets us feel the force of her mother’s operatic ambition. Screaming about a misplaced sequin, a less-than-perfect costume, an eyelash littering her silky cheek, Dietrich is a mercurial commander of her own image. She gives off sparks of energy so intense that, well who could have coped?
The catalog of lovers is interminable, moving across gender lines and back again. Riva is obviously uncomfortable with her mother’s bisexual tendencies and her large gay following. The case that she builds against her mother for trying to encourage homosexuality in the young girl by leaving her with a lesbian nanny is shoddy and homophobic.
Still, the book is a gossip lover’s dream. Riva, who’s now 68 and married with four sons, knows how to make tabloid hearts beat. More than a lot of highly praised star bios, Marlene Dietrich lets you feel how frightening it can be right up there with the monster, in the hot glow of the diamonds just before showtime. C+