Reviewed by Colleen Turner
The Golden Age of Hollywood has always held a unique fascination for me, with so much glamour and mystery surrounding the lives of the various players that just begs to be explored. Given this I had a vague idea of who Marlene Dietrich was even if I didn’t know much about her personal life. After reading and enjoying a number of books by author C.W. Gortner I did know, however, that I was in for a treat and was bound to learn a great deal in the process. What I didn’t expect was to discover such a rare and remarkable woman that is truly beyond compare.
Divided up into “scenes” or blocks of years of Marlene’s life, the reader learns her story through her own words, feelings, and actions in a manner as vibrant as if the reader was experiencing it along with her. Starting in her childhood during WWI and progressing through WWII, the reader gets a true sense of who this woman was (a determined tiger of a woman with a surprisingly big heart) and who she definitely wasn’t (someone who would sell her morals or friends for anything, even more money or celebrity status). Growing up in Germany and raised by a rigid and rule-governing mother, Marlene nevertheless broke every rule and regulation placed before her to blaze her own path into the limelight. She loved and lusted with abandon and the wild. The changeable world of Germany after WWI was the perfect backdrop for Marlene to be able to spread her wings and discover her immense talent as an entertainer.
While Marlene’s early life is fascinating, my favorites parts of the novel deal with her many years in Hollywood and her surprising (for me) turn as a USO entertainer on the front lines of WWII. There is an endless list of supporting players from the crème de la crème of Hollywood and it was an eye opener to see how many of these people entered her life – and her bed – during her lifetime. While there were aspects of Marlene at this time that were selfish, (leaving her daughter in Berlin while she started her career and then, when she was more established, making her daughter move to America even though she didn’t want to go) she also gave so much to friends and family in need, from paying all of her husband’s bills to sheltering friends who were escaping the terrors in Europe. Beyond all of that, she put her own life on the line as a USO entertainer, going to the boys that needed her special brand of entertaining most even if that meant performing next to a ditch and suffering through lice and dysentery. She did everything in her power to stay in the USO for as long as possible and had to literally be dragged away to a hospital for an infection in her jaw and severe dehydration. I have never heard of a celebrity doing something like this before, and I am now a lifelong fan of this incredible woman.
Now, being the huge history buff I am, it was also a pleasant surprise for the author to incorporate so much of the politics and gritty history happening in the greater world around the actress during this time. It truly is a singular time and place she lived in and C.W. Gortner is at his best when immersing the reader in history. His descriptions of the devastation brought about by the war and the aftermath witnessed through Marlene’s eyes are so vivid that you get a great sense of just how unbelievable it would have been, especially for this particular woman, now an American citizen returning to the home of her birth and seeing the horrors her countryman had unleashed on the world.
Marlene is an exceptional story about an unbelievable woman. She lived through two World Wars and experienced life at its highest and lowest points. If you like history or Hollywood you definitely want to read this story.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, and their dogs Oliver and Cleopatra. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship. You can find more of her reviews on her blog.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.