Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg and the inside skinny on a Hollywood divorce
A screenwriter wrote this passage about her friend’s divorce at the age of 99. She was intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of Hollywood and waited until “all the bastards were dead” before she wrote her tell-all autobiography. She herself outlived them all, Frederica Sagor Maas, Scriptwriter From the Silent Era, Dies at 111 – NYTimes.com.
This is the background. Her friend, a sweet, not shatteringly talented but very kind and very pretty young lady (and wanna be actress) caught the eye of Josef von Sternberg while waiting tables. He was looking for a meek and pure woman, a virgin, and so they were married. Just prior to their honeymoon he gave his wife’s one warm coat to his mother in exchange for letting them spend the night before they went abroad. They traveled to Europe a step above steerage and when they arrived she was perpetually cold. The stories she heard of marital bliss made no sense to her…due to his erectile dysfunction. And, as it turns out von Sternberg was incredibly cheap, expecting her to entertain lavishly on a household allowance of ten dollars a month, and sad to say, he was a philanderer…
The Blue Angel was Riza’s marital Waterloo, cast for a small part was an unknown (in America) actress by the name of Marlene Dietrich. She recognized her golden opportunity. Joe’s sexual weakness was something that she, in her sophistication and worldly outlook on life, could handily take care of. And she did. To Dietrich, it did not matter if the attraction was man or woman. She was cognizant in all the ways of making love and enjoying sex. Once emancipated from his closet agony Joe lost all interest in Riza and concentrated on his absorbing discovery, Marlene Dietrich. Morocco, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress. The Devil Is a Woman–voilà! The once-unknown bit player became a big motion-picture star, a sex symbol, with her husky voice, her languid eyes, her calculated sexy carriage, and responses so eloquently studied they became an art form. Like Greta Garbo, Dietrich had what I call a plateau face, a cameraman’s face. Also like Garbo, Dietrich was a good and fast study. She worked hard to achieve her stardom. She was no accident. She had what it takes.
It was Joe who offered Riza the divorce… “Joe’s attorneys are handling it,” she said indifferently.
“Not if I can help it,” I shot back. “Your lawyers are going to handle it, Mrs. von Sternberg. You have that husband of yours over a barrel, and he’s going to pay the piper. You can name your settlement, and you’re going to.”
(note: Riza got a huge cash settlement and a collection of Picassos, van Goghs, Monets, and Manets.)
“The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: a Writer in Early Hollywood”, by Frederica Sagor Maas