“If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart if she is there to mend it.”—Ernest Hemingway, “A Tribute to Mamma,” Life Magazine, Aug, 18, 1952
Marlene Dietrich died 25 years ago today in Paris at age 91 of renal failure. For the last decade, bedridden and progressively isolated from longtime friends, she had spent more and more of her time in her apartment reading. Approximately 2,000 of her books were carted out when the by-now-reclusive movie star finally passed away.
But it is a good bet that none of the authors in her library had the personal relationship with her that Ernest Hemingway did. The German “Blonde Venus” met the American on a luxury liner in 1934, and hit it off with him immediately. They would meet again under considerably more difficult circumstances a decade, when he was serving as a war correspondent and she was entertaining American troops in the European theater of WWII. He kiddingly called her “The Kraut” and “Daughter,” while she, despite the fact that he was only two years her senior, called him “Papa.”
The tone of their correspondence went beyond the affectionate to the intensely flirtatious. Surprisingly, however, the relationship never became physical. In his later years, the novelist explained that they had experienced “unsynchronized passion,” as she would be involved with someone else while he was temporarily free, and vica versa. ("I fall in love with you bad and you're always in love with some jerk," he wrote in 1950.)
Almost a year to the day after Hemingway’s tribute appeared in Life, he wrote Dietrich: “Please know that I love you always and I forget you sometimes as I forget my heart beats. But it beats always.” That letter was due to be auctioned by Swann Galleries earlier this week, with an asking price between $20,000 and $30,000.
Besides Dietrich’s beauty, it may have been her fierce loyalty that appealed most to Hemingway. That quality was clearest in 1961, when, hearing that he was being treated in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, she dashed off a handwritten note: "Papa, what is it? Whatever it is -- I don't like it."
She was right to be distressed. Hemingway was in the clinic for an increasingly smothering depression, and in no condition to respond. Three months later, he killed himself. After hearing the terrible news, Dietrich must surely have recalled what he had advised her in one of their other 30 letters to each other: “Nothing is worth being depressed about.”