Two lilacs out of the dead land have followed me all this month.

She was old enough to be mother to many of them -- her own daughter turned 20 in 1944 -- but she was sexuality personified, with that low, sultry, German-heavy voice, yet she was sure and at ease in that masculine world of the U.S. Army. She crooned "Lili Marleen" to the boys (and, believe it or not, also performed on the musical saw) as the snow drifted down in Luxemburg. None of them ever forgot it. She was fearless; she wore a GI's uniform and stayed so close to the front lines she almost got caught up in the German push when the Battle of the Bulge began. "Eine Mutter Teresa," Billy Wilder would say later, "aber mit schöneren Beinen."

Maria Magdalena "Marlene" Dietrich had found herself on the other side of things more than once. Born in Berlin's Schöneberg neighborhood, she acted in German movies and cut records while dancing as a chorus girl in cabarets and in stage plays. She got her break in 1930 with the first European talkie, "Der Blaue Engel." Josef von Sternberg plucked her from a play, where she had only one line, to be his Lola Lola.

The studio heads at UFA weren't impressed. One director's assistant quipped, "The ass isn't bad, but don't we also need a face?" But Sternberg insisted. And Marlene found herself in the part.

"Der Blaue Engel" premiered April 1, 1930, in Gloria-Palast, Berlin, and it was an instant hit. The next day, Dietrich departed for America, and Hollywood, aboard the SS Bremen. The German studio had thought her a mere tramp and not offered her a contract.

She was a good German girl who hadn't wanted to go to Hollywood in the first place, and if it weren't for the ambitions of the men in her life, perhaps she would not have gone. She came home again and spent the winter of 1930 in Berlin. When her contract with Paramount was running out two years later, she made plans to return to Germany for good. Her mother even rented an apartment for her in Berlin. But that was in 1933.

Hitler swept to power that year, and Marlene changed her plans. On her trip to Europe that year, she never set foot in Germany, and she renewed her Paramount contract. In 1937 she applied for American citizenship.

Her loyalty to a country came second to her loyalty to a place. That place was Berlin -- and Berlin, unlike Rome, is not an eternal city. It always was a robust, artificial place, the closest thing to an American city in old Europe. The Berlin Marlene knew was the decadent Weimar Republic capital, a heady mix of high and low. Its people had that rarest of German qualities, a sense of humor -- albeit "gallows humor." The Nazis despised Berlin. They didn't like humor, or trade unions, or homosexuals, or outspoken people with opinions, or Jews -- and Berlin was full of all of them.

They didn't like "Der Blaue Engel," either. They called it "mediocre and corrupting kitsch." But they liked Marlene. She was a blonde goddess, an Aryan queen. Hitler wanted her "heim ins Reich zu holen." In 1936, Goebbels offered her 200,000 Reichsmark per film to come home and be a star in Germany. She replied cynically she would return only when one of her many Jewish friends could accompany her.

When artists and intellectuals began to flee Germany after 1933, they found Marlene already here to greet them. Many of the people involved in the making of "Der Blaue Engel" ended up exiles. Others who remained ended up dead.

The other shade is, in some ways, as unlike Marlene as a human could be. Yet his image in his time, like a movie star's, was made up in part of unforgettable visuals: the white-bearded soldierly figure, in rebel butternut but with a profile out of Homer, mounted on his gray stallion, Traveller. Devout, humble, reserved, aggressive on the battlefield, unfailingly courteous off it. Robert E. Lee was the model of a Southern gentleman.

Lee and Deitrich. Both in their times forced to choose between two loyalties. They chose differently; he chose home, she foresook it. Both traitors, but both heroes.

In April 1861, Lincoln quietly approached a cavalry colonel on leave, Robert E. Lee, the former head of the U.S. Military Academy, about heading up the North's army in the war that had just erupted at Fort Sumter. Lincoln must have had a feeling for Lee's divided loyalties, because he chose Francis P. Blair, from the Baltimore gentry family that will give Lincoln the token "Southerner" in his Cabinet, to take the message to Lee. Blair's coach clattered across the Potomac bridge and up the hill to Arlington House, where Lee had taken a leave of absence from the military to put his wife's inherited estate in order.

He had spent most of his 54 years toiling in the obscurity that was the professional U.S. Army in the 19th century. But his father and uncles had helped forge the American union with their own blood. I've seen the house where "Lighthorse Harry" Lee plotted his escapades as he played cat-and-mouse with the British in the snowbound Pennsylvania countryside in the Valley Forge Winter.

Robert E. Lee in 1861 thought the secession of the Deep South states was a tragic mistake, and unjustified by the constitution. He thought the same when Virginia, in the wake of the Fort Sumter attack, followed them out of the union. He had no special fondness for slavery (he would be among those who argued the South should surrender the institution for the sake of winning the war). But when Blair made his offer, Lee turned him down. Instead, he resigned his U.S. Army commission and offered his services to his home state, Virginia.

"With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen," he wrote to his sister on April 20, 1861, "I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword."

Another Virginia horseman who served the South looked back years later on the decision faced by men such as Lee. As he wrote, he had open before him "The University Memorial, which recorded the names and lives of the alumni of the University of Virginia who fell in the Confederate war," some 200 of them:

"[A]nd some of the noblest men who figure in its pages were Union men; and the Memorial of the Virginia Military Institute tells the same story with the same eloquence. The State was imperiled, and parties disappeared; and of the combatants in the field, some of the bravest and the most conspicuous belonged to those whose love of the old Union was warm and strong, to whom the severance of the tie that bound the States together was a personal grief. But even those who prophesied the worst, who predicted a long and bloody struggle and a doubtful result, had no question about the duty of the citizen. ... The most intimate friend I ever had, who fell after heroic services, was known by all our circle to be utterly at variance with the prevalent Southern view of the quarrel, and died upholding a right which was not a right to him except so far as the mandate of his State made it a right; and while he would have preferred to see 'the old flag' floating over a united people, he restored the new banner to its place time after time when it had been cut down by shot and shell."
Lee must have known he was risking everything, including his neck. Arlington was sacked and looted, and turned into headquarters for officers superintending the defenses of Washington. The government took the home, under pretext of Mrs. Lee not paying her taxes, and turned it into a cemetery.

The government may have pardoned Lee, but the people of the North never did. An Ohio newspaper, trying to parse out the proper punishment, suggested "he be hung first and then banished." When Lee was made president of Washington College in Lexington, Va., a Northern minister wrote:

We would as soon send our son to a pest-house for health or to a gambler's den for education, as to send him to this villainous college -- Altogether he stands out the most inexcusable, vilest traitor of the whole crowd of criminals whom he headed -- Every student who receives a diploma at his hands should be hissed through life--A more flagrant, indecent, unspeakable outrrage than his election has never been perpetrated in the name of education.
Why did he do it? Principle, yes. But in his heart, he knew where was "home." And that's where he went to take his gun and stand duty when war came. I think millions of men did that, on both sides, in April 1861. Those who happened to find themselves on the other side of the line, when the line took shape, made their way to where they felt they belonged. That is how people are.

When World War II broke out, Marlene Dietrich's career had passed its prime and she had reached that point in the Hollywood trajectory where her best roles were deliberate parodies of herself. She had never stopped thinking in German, and never bothered to Hollywood-ize herself.

Yet when America went to war against Germany, she threw herself into war work with a will. She was one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds, and she followed the troops through North Africa and into Europe in a USO revue. She rolled into liberated Paris with De Gaulle. She recorded anti-Nazi records in German for the OSS -- the precursor of the CIA.

Why do all this? She famously replied, "aus Anstand" -- a German phrase that rolls up both "decency" and "the right thing to do."

And some of those boys she sang to near the front then climbed into B-24s and rained down incendiary bombs on Berlin, where her twice-widowed mother, Frau Von Loesch, still lived.

When she met American generals, she would quietly plead with them to get to Berlin, after it fell, and find her mother.

Lt Gen James M. Gavin, US Army retired, then the 82nd Airborne Division's commander and I were two who heard Miss Dietrich's request. Another, Lt Col Albert McCleery, has since died.

Col McCleery and I were in the first American column to enter Berlin on 1 July 1945. Once inside city limits Col McCleery made a beeline for the Von Loesch address, found Miss Dietrich's mother alive and well, but meagerly fed and caring for a 95-year old aunt. Word was sent to Paris to her daughter, who immediately caught a flight to Berlin on the military shuttle, as she was in the USO then. When her estimated time of arrival was known at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, I gathered up Frau von Loesch and two photographers, and took them to meet her.

Frau Von Loesch was instructed to stand alone on the runway's great cement apron and I asked the tower to have a shuttle taxi up for her. When her daughter burst from the plane, it made for one of the most touching reunions of the war.

Later, when Gen Gavin and I were in London, two terrible messages were forwarded to us - the Army had selected the 101st Airborne Division to be the regular Army's postwar airborne unit so the 82nd would be dismantled and Frau von Loesch had died. As our plane flew us back to Berlin, Gen Gavin, softspoken as always and with his own grief about seeing the division which was so much a part of him consigned to oblivion, turned to me and said: "Do everything you can about her". He did not say her name, but it was obvious that he meant Frau von Loesch. After all, the nonfraternization regulation was in existence and no legal interrelationships were possible between Americans and Germans, even concerning burial of dead.

Once on the ground in Berlin, we learned that Miss Dietrich was flying in. There was not much time. I got four 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers to go to a nearby cemetery and dig a grave. A German undertaker was contacted to perform his role, which included the hiring of three professional mourners, who were part of such ceremonies.

Under the cover of darkness, the four paratroopers went to the second-floor flat once occupied by Frau von Loesch, where her body lay in a plan[k?] coffin. They took the coffin down the steep stairs, placed it reverently in a truck and transported it to the cemetery, where it was placed in a grave. The sun was about to come up on the dreary scene, so they went into hiding.

Marlene Dietrich arrived, escorted by Time magazine war correspondent William Walton. He had jumped with the 82nd in Normandy and since he was a member of the press, attending a German funeral would not be held against him. The graveside finalities were short. Miss Dietrich cried constantly. At the end of the service, she and William Walton cast handfulls of dirt on the coffin, turned their backs and walked away. That night, the four paratroopers filled in the resting place. It was a macabre scene, as the cemetery had been heavily bombed by artillery. Only the grave of Frau van Loesch was intact.

The cause of death was heart failure. Gloria-Palast, where "Der Blaue Engel" had premiered, was gutted in a bombing raid in 1943. The Bremen, which took Marlene to America, burned in the dock in Bremerhaven while waiting to ferry German soldiers across the North Sea to invade England. "Ich fühlte," Marlene said, "dass ich nicht nur meine Mutter zur Grabe getragen hatte, sondern dass es das Deutschland, das ich liebte, nicht mehr gibt."

Berliners never made peace with her while she lived. The press told ugly stories about her, but bad publicity wasn't needed. She felt she was a Berliner, but Berliners felt she was always somewhere else during their long half-century of suffering. When she visited the city in 1960, she was pelted with tomatoes and eggs and told "Marlene, hau ab,"and "Bleib wo du bist."

She resolved not to go back, and she didn't. She died in Paris in 1992. Some 3,500 turned out for a memorial service in La Madeleine, but there was no official acknowledgement in Berlin. Yet she wanted to be buried beside her mother, in Friedenau Cemetery, in Berlin-Schöneberg. And so she was, in a coffin draped with an American flag.

Political leaders in Berlin-Schöneberg in 1996 tried to name a street for her -- an unglamorous small industrial strip -- but even that ran into insurmountable opposition. A year later, developers named a complex for her in a project they were erecting in what had been a windswept wasteland in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. "She finally found a place in the anonymous glitz of the new Potsdamer Platz," historian David Clay Large wrote, "primarily because there was no living constituency there to keep her away."

One of her online biographies explains, "That her taking the side of the 'enemy' was itself a form of love and loyalty to her homeland, represents an understanding ever elusive in Germany." As it certainly would be anywhere.


Online Work





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© April 25, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"