Book review: Obsession: Marlene Dietrich: The Pierre Passebon Collection by Henry-Jean Servat and Pierre Passebon
For over forty years, German actress and Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich was the epitome of glamour, style and sophistication.
From stage performances in 1920s Berlin to silent films and her iconic performance as cabaret performer Lola-Lola in the 1930 film The Blue Angel, the enigmatic Dietrich’s personality, exotic looks and talent brought her international fame and made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the pre-war era.
Throughout the Second World War, she was a high-profile entertainer in the United States and received honours from various countries, including Israel, for her wartime humanitarian efforts housing German and French exiles, providing financial support, and advocating their US citizenship.
Twenty-six years after her death, the woman who made an art of reinventing herself still has an army of worldwide worshippers… none more so than style tastemaker Pierre Passebon, owner of the famous Galerie du Passage, an antiques store in Paris that also exhibits work by leading contemporary furniture designers and is top on the shopping list of connoisseurs of modernity.
In a beautifully produced and fascinating new book, 60 extraordinary black and white images from Passebon’s personal collection of pictures celebrate Hollywood’s femme fatale as immortalised by master photographers like Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Milton Greene, George Hurrell and Antony Armstrong-Jones.
This luxury, cloth-bound volume includes an accompanying interview with French journalist Henry-Jean Servat in which Passebon reveals that he became ‘obsessed’ with Deietrich from the first moment he set eyes on her in the cinema, recognising her as ‘someone who was profoundly modern.’
He never met her, or even caught a glimpse of her, he says, and that is at the root of his obsession and why he hunts out photographs of her around the globe. He has over 2,000 of them in his collection and says that her films and photographs ‘shaped and established her fame, ensuring her a place in and for eternity.’
An active participant in her photo sessions, she constructed her own unique image of charm and seduction and the public loved her.
But Dietrich was also a modern, bisexual and transgressive woman who did not hesitate to break the rules by dressing in menswear (she was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse for his iconic tuxedos) or by being seen in public with her husband and her lovers (both male and female). She also refused to bend to Hollywood traditions, constantly defying conventional gender roles and raising her daughter in the limelight instead of accepting that to remain a starlet she must keep motherhood strictly out of sight.
In the pages of this extraordinary pictorial journey through Dietrich’s life, we witness her in some of her most remarkable portraits… as the gamin dressed in trademark top hat and tails, posing provocatively in an extravagant flamenco dress, looking sexually alluring in a sequined evening gown, jauntily smoking a cigarette with a military cap perched on the side of her head, and clad in a sweeping and elaborate fur ensemble.
The volume reveals how her fascination lies not only in the way she inspired the greatest photographers and fashion designers of her time, but in how she continues to embody the essence of glamour and female independence today.
Her beauty, style, and elegance made her the archetypal femme fatale. ‘Dietrich’s conception of her body was always highly graphic,’ says Passebon. ‘She knew better than anyone how to project her silhouette, how to occupy the limelight.’
But it was Dietrich’s unwavering confidence, gender fluidity and firm stand against Nazism that made her a revolutionary and an icon. Passebon claims that her commitment to war work against the Nazis – even though she was German – ‘lends her a tragic dimension, a transcendent quality.’
Asked how Dietrich – the person, persona, personality and legendary actress – can still appear today so radically modern, Passebon believes that it lies in the way she chose to live and to lead her career. ‘She was a liberated woman,’ he concludes, ‘tolerant, ethical and deeply humane.’
With rare behind-the-scenes shots as well as the stunning posed photographs, and with intriguing insights from Pierre Passebon, this is a memorable portrait of an unforgettable film legend, and a treat for all devoted fans of Marlene Dietrich.
Obsession: Marlene Dietrich: The Pierre Passebon Collection is published on April 27.
(Flammarion, hardback, £22.50)