Monday, January 2, 2017

Marlene Dietrich's Marginalia

From The New Yorker:
She coped with isolation by running up a three-thousand-dollar-a-month phone bill and reading everything from potboilers to the pillars of the Western canon. She consumed poetry, philosophy, novels, biographies, and thrillers—in English, French, and her native tongue, German. When she died, in May, 1992, her grandson Peter Riva was tasked with clearing out nearly two thousand books from her apartment, many of which arrived at the American Library in Paris.

Simon Gallo, the library’s former head of collections, told me recently that only a few hours separated Riva’s initial phone call and the arrival of a truckload of books at the library’s back door. A portion of Dietrich’s collection was given to the Film Museum in Berlin, and some items—such as her personal copies of “Mein Kampf” and first editions of Cecil Beaton—were sold to private collectors. Many books donated to the American Library were simply marked with a bookplate and put into circulation. As of 2006, students could still check out Dietrich’s personal copy of “The Collected Works of Shakespeare.”

Dietrich wrote poetry—a book of her poems was edited by her daughter and published, in 2005, as “Nachtgedanken” (“Night Thoughts”). She wrote often in her bed-bound later years, and her poetry addressed Ronald Reagan, AIDS, and the loss of the use of her famous legs. Her book collection includes Baudelaire, Rilke, and many inscribed books by the poet Alain Bosquet, who was born in Odessa and raised in Brussels, and whose wife, Norma, was Dietrich’s secretary from 1977 to 1992. Shortly after Dietrich died, Bosquet published a recollection of decades of phone conversations with her, titled “Marlène Dietrich, une amour par telephone.”

Perhaps the most moving books in the collection are Dietrich’s volumes of Goethe. In her autobiography, she speaks of “deifying” Goethe in boarding school; after her father’s early death, she looked to Goethe as a father figure. “My passion for Goethe, along with the rest of my education, enclosed me in a complete circle full of solid moral values that I have preserved throughout my life,” she wrote. In her copies of his books, Dietrich noted passages of interest with small “X”s and with sheets torn from a notepad with a stamped red directive: Don’t Forget. (Read more.)

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