The Digital Journalist
Photograph by William Claxton

Claxton Interview: Marlene Dietrich

In spring 1955, I had an assignment from Columbia Records to photograph Marlene Dietrich in Las Vegas, where she was performing at the Sands Hotel. It was all quite sensational, not least because she was appearing onstage in a "nude evening gown" designed by Jean Louis - all jewels and netting worn tightly over her naked body. Our meeting was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. in her dressing room backstage. I walked down the hallway looking for the door. On my way I passed a room in which an elderly woman sat. She looked very much like my grandmother, who had come from St. Petersburg. I stopped in my tracks. This can't be. Was that Marlene Dietrich? I slowly approached the dressing room door. "Come in," she said. "You must be the photographer, yes?"

There sat a small, thin lady with fine and delicate features and just a wisp of hair on her head, just like my grandmother. She smiled and invited me in. "Put away that camera; sit down next to me." "Hannah," she said to her assistant, "bring our young photographer friend a cup of tea." I sat down next her dressing table; she sat facing her mirror, hardly looking at me. "Now, my dear. You see this?" She pulled on the loose skin below her chin and shook it. "We don't want to see this, understand? You sit there and enjoy your tea, and I will explain how I like to be photographed. I have a great deal of experience; and believe me, I know this face." She tugged at her cheeks, not looking at me, looking only at the mirror, and began to apply her make-up meticulously, layer upon layer - eyelashes, rouges, powders of various shades - all the while explaining to me how the light strikes her face, how it hits her cheekbones and reflects back to the camera or to the audience. Her eyes never left the image in the mirror. After about an hour, she snapped her fingers and beckoned her assistant. The assistant came in with a blond wig and helped Ms. Dietrich place it carefully on her head. They fussed with it a bit. Finally, she turned and faced me directly. She looked stunning. "Now," she said, "you may take out your camera."







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