Monday, 26 August 2013

A Tribute to Marlene Dietrich's Raspberries

/ I can see her raspberries ... Marlene Dietrich giving Las Vegas a memorable eyeful in 1953 /

Of course we all know now that Marlene Dietrich’s signature glittering diaphanous stage gowns weren't quite as peek-a-boo as they initially appeared.  From the early Fifties when she launched her one-woman stage show through to her early Seventies retirement, audiences assumed the aloof and inscrutable "Blonde Venus" was virtually naked, with just a sprinkling of sequins over her breasts to preserve her modesty. In fact the cleverly designed garment was made of opaque flesh-coloured chiffon dyed to perfectly match Dietrich’s own alabaster complexion (and even incorporated an in-built waist-cinching foundation garment) and the nudity was an illusion.

But wait! As the above photo demonstrates, when La Dietrich made her sensational Las Vegas debut at The Sahara casino’s Congo Room in 1953, her dress actually was pretty damn revealing. The definitive Dietrich biography is the late Stephen Bach’s immaculately researched, objective and thoughtful 1992 book Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (her daughter Maria Riva’s embittered memoirs are a fun, gossip-y read but should be taken with a grain of salt; she definitely has her own agenda and axe to grind).

Dietrich deliberately chose The Sahara’s Congo Room as the venue to re-invent herself as a cabaret chanteuse because her old friend and 1930s Paramount Studios contemporary Mae West (whose film career was also in the doldrums by then) had successfully launched a nightclub act there recently, in which she performed surrounded by a bevy of half-naked muscle men (including future Mr Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay).

Imagine how louche early Fifties Vegas would have been – a sin-steeped, neon-lit adult playground for gambling and vice! The sly Dietrich knew exactly how to make an impression on jaded Vegas audiences on her opening night.

As Bach recalls:
Here came Dietrich. In a gown she had concocted with Jean Louis of Columbia Pictures. “It has to be Folies-Bergère,” she had ordered, “but elegant.” It was almost skin-tight black net lined with flesh coloured silk below the waist and flesh-coloured Marlene above. It was a culminating expression of the “nude dresses” she had worn since Seven Sinners (1940) and all through the war. But this time the transparency was real except for strategically scattered leaf-shaped sequin-and-rhinestone clusters that caressed and riveted attention on her breasts, which were veiled and held up by nothing but black gauze. The transparent garment ended at the neck in a glittery necklace that looked like diamonds. Loosely draped around her shoulders was a black chiffon cape trimmed in black fox, which she used as a tease and which swept the floor behind her as she took her position at the microphone, put her hands on her hips, and allowed the cape to fall away, baring all. Photographers’ flashbulbs rivaled the lights on the Strip.

Above: Jean Louis' sketch for Dietrich's dazzling Vegas stage gown via

The agelessly alluring erstwhile Blue Angel – then in her early 50s – had clearly retained her lithe figure (can you say MILF? She was certainly one of the original “cougars” in her love life).  Journalists were torn between reviewing her actual performance and her eye-popping sheer outfit. And thus her triumphant “second career”, touring the world’s music halls as a husky-voiced singer, was born in a tsunami of publicity.

A postscript: I go to Las Vegas regularly to attend the annual Viva Las Vegas rockabilly convention. I've visited and drunk at The Sahara many times. The foyer leading to the Congo Room was lined with huge black and white portraits of all the stars that performed there over the decades. Needless to say Dietrich was represented (a casual shot of her backstage smiling and looking very Fifties in black Capri pants). I say “was” because The Sahara shut its doors in 2011, yet another nail in the coffin of decadent Atomic-era Sin City Vegas once and for all. All the old casinos are vanishing – corporate modern Vegas has no sense of its own history!

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