The story of the voluptuous movie star Marlene Dietrich committing adultery with the conscience of America, the CBS Newsman Edward R. Murrow, should feed our obsessions with sex, celebrity and cynicism -- but it won’t.
This was no mere fling between Airhead Beauty and Brainiac Beast. Both were principled superheroes who helped make America great in the 1940s and 1950s.
Seemingly, two opposites attracted. She was famous for her looks; he was famous for his voice. She crossbred Weimar Berlin decadence with Hollywood glamour; he crossbred log cabin values with snappy New York media sensibilities. She set tongues wagging, as a breathy, exotic, high-cheek-boned movie star, with a flair for men’s tuxedoes, married men, and unmarried women; he sent radio listeners, then television viewers, soaring, as a courageous, silver-tongued reporter, with a flair for vivid phrases, dramatic moments, and moral crusades.
However, Dietrich was smarter than she looked, and Murrow, more superficial than he appeared. Nevertheless, both fought heroically on that critical World War II battlefield, the homefront. Despite being German, Dietrich repudiated Adolf Hitler, only to be denounced by fellow Germans as a traitor. As CBS’s man in London during the Nazi blitzkrieg, Murrow helped Americans feel the British fears, while stoking fury against German aggression.
Born in Germany in 1901, married to Rudolf Sieber when she was 22, Marlene Dietrich conquered Hollywood with the cinematic genius Josef von Sternberg in The Blue Angel (1930). Their collaboration made her as big a star as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart – all of whom would be her co-stars and rumored lovers. Like them, Dietrich conjured an on-screen persona so vivid it created or dominated a cultural type – in her case, the vampy femme fatale, naughty but irresistible. Dietrich’s smoldering sexuality appealed to straights who fantasized about being her or being with her, and gays who worshiped her butchy femininity.
The carnality she contained – just barely – on screen – burst forth in her personal life. Although she would remain married to her husband for 53 years until he died in 1976, she was compulsively unfaithful. She romped with men and women, with the unfamous – but mostly the outrageously famous, including Edith Piaf, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Barbara Stanwyck, Maurice Chevalier, Marlon Brando, and… Edward R. Murrow, born Egbert Roscoe Murrow at Polecat Creek, North Carolina, in 1908.
In the 1930s, Murrow, who was now Edward, worked for the International Institute of Education, resettling more than 300 mostly Jewish academics in America. Meanwhile, Dietrich was spurning Hitler’s offers of big money to return to Germany, only to see her films banned there. She also helped German Jewish friends escape Hitler,
While demonstrating the imperious Dietrich’s decency, World War II made Murrow’s career. Having landed a job with CBS in 1935, he ended up dispatched to London two years later. This journalistic novice stumbled into covering Hitler’s invasion of Austria, because, thanks to a chartered airplane, he was there. Thereafter, while leading “Murrow’s Boys,” crackerjack correspondents, he became the voice of America in London, starting with his signature line, “This … is London” – and later ending with “Good night, and good luck.” As bombs fell, he remained outside, broadcasting, with blasts punctuating his colorful compelling chronicles. Murrow helped awaken Americans’ moral responsibility to fight the Nazis. He, too, created an American cliché: the intrepid reporter in trenchcoat and homburg, cigarette dangling from his lips, reporting breaking developments so worried families could track their soldiers with pins in maps.
Dietrich raised morale, entertaining more than half-a-million troops, fundraising for war bonds, food drives, and hospitals, and recording anti-Nazi propaganda pieces in her raspy, breathy, German. Germans so reviled this traitor that even when she performed there in 1960 many yelled “Marlene Go Home.” “The Germans and I no longer speak the same language,” she sniffed.
After the war, Murrow’s legend as a fighter for freedom flourished. His radio show “Hear It Now,” became televised after 1951 as “See It Now,” enabling Murrow to do for TV news what he did for radio journalism. His moment came in 1954, when he mocked Joseph McCarthy, the demagogic anti-Communist crusader who crushed reputations as easily as Murrow crushed out the sixty cigarettes he smoked daily. It was on this career high that the married Murrow, who had frolicked with Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela (later Harriman) while in London, dallied with Dietrich, the German goddess.
They may have met when Murrow recorded a prologue to the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days in which Dietrich appeared. They definitely met through David Ben-Gurion’s aide (and Jerusalem’s future mayor) Teddy Kollek, who took credit for introducing them. Both had learned from the Holocaust to support Israel enthusiastically.
Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter, wrote a too-vivid tell all sneering that Murrow appeared “in the bed recently vacated by his friend Adali Stevenson.” She added: “brilliant men infatuated with Dietrich were … nothing new.” It reflected “My mother’s need to continually prove to herself and others that she was more than just a movie star.”
Still, Dietrich had a push-pull with these egghead Romeos. Riva recalls her mother griping about how Murrow “walks around the apartment with nothing on except those underpants that flap – like the kind that old men wear and with his cigarette, of course.” Such descriptions were not what Murrow wanted people imagining when inviting viewers to “See it Now.”
In full Diva, Dietrich derided a Murrow gift as “Little-itsy-bitsypearlywhirlies … five-and-ten cent store” merchandise. She demanded “a beautiful desk” – and got it. Meanwhile, she shuttled between Murrow, Frank Sinatra, and Yul Brynner, at least. “Between lovers,” her daughter reports, “she visited my father.”
Dietrich soon moved on. While starring in Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, and Judgment at Nuremberg, she perfected her Las Vegas revue recreating the wild cabarets of pre-Nazi Germany. Murrow remained the ultimate news man, and the bard of democracy. After John Kennedy appointed him Director of the USIA, the United States Information Agency, in 1961, Murrow kept churning out great one liners. His best include: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves”; “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices;” “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home”; and “truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst.”
Murrow died tragically, too young, in 1965 only 57. Dietrich died tragically, too old and forgotten after a decade as a recluse, in 1992 at 90.
Americans like their heroes served up perfectly. In the 1950s, our grandparents achieved this illusion by overlooking -- or being shielded from -- role models’ indiscretions. Thus, they could worship Marlene Dietrich, Edward Murrow, and others of “The Greatest Generation” as godlike characters who saved humanity from Nazi hell. Since the 1960s, we define people by their worst not their best. Traditionally, watching supposedly godlike creatures do godlike things reduced us to spectators, feeling too flawed to compete with them. Today, with those undertaking godlike challenges seen as flawed, and thus grandiose, we become cynics, paralyzed by smugness.
The Dietrich-Murrow affair teaches that great people aren’t always good. Appreciating their flaws helps appreciate the effort in overcoming them to act on principle, inspiring us to stretch, to overcome our own imperfections, and try perfecting the world, as they did.
FOR FURTHER READING
Steven Bach, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (1992).
Joseph Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988).
Maria Riva, Marlene Dietrich (1993).