Marlene: A Personal Biography. By Charlotte Chandler

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Previously I read and commented on another biography by Charlotte Chandler, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography.  Ms. Chandler has a string of these biographies all under some form of the “A Personal Biography” moniker. Most are about great actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood, although there are a few on men as well – Groucho Marx and Alfred Hitchcock, for example.

I am only familiar with the two noted above, and perhaps I will leave it at that. If you recall, the Bette Davis work was rather light, introductory, and filled with sometimes lengthy synopses of Ms. Davis’ many films, which were many. This makes a small book even smaller.

Unfortunately, Marlene uses the same format and is equally light in flavor. Again I skipped over the plot synopses and looked for some interesting tidbits about Ms. Dietrich. Alas, there were none. It was perhaps slightly better than my perusal of the Bette Davis book, but I expect that is due to my lesser familiarity with Marlene’s work. I know little more now.

Supposedly this work, like all those of Ms. Chandler, are based on extensive personal interviews she had with the subjects involved. If the work is a reflection these interviews must have been very brief, very shallow, or both. Most of the book reads like an encyclopedia entry and we stay at a level altitude of 35,000 feet- never learning what made the lady tick or how she approached the business.

Marlene Dietrich made movies, some silent, later ones with sound. She had a very unique marriage which lasted most of her life and ended only with her husband’s death. Later she did concerts. Unfortunately she outlived her money and spent her last years in seclusion at her Paris home. That’s the book folks.

Sadly, there aren’t too many good star biographies being written. Sadder still, we have a series of books all skimming the surface of these great legends, with content which could easily be scanned from imdb, wiki, or numerous other websites – even archival interviews could be integrated in such a fashion.

And a balanced and objective biography, even a “personal” one, would and should include the above- at least the archival footage as imdb and wiki may be good only for a quick brainstorming session. But beyond that an author must invest something in the subject, regardless of what that subject is. These personal biographies have no perspective, no context, and, most importantly, no feeling or engagement with the reader.

As an example, look at historian David Irving, considered by most to be a revisionist type of author regarding World War II, Nazism, and the Holocaust. His work often mitigates, obscures, or even denies facts which are in the historical record.

Is he wrong? Yes. Does anyone in their right mind put credence in his thinking? No. But what he has done is invest himself in his work- he isn’t merely regurgitating an encyclopedia. The results of this investment are ludicrous, but it doesn’t mitigate the investment itself.

Perhaps Ms. Chandler should put down the scanner, er, laptop, and actually dig deeply into one of these greats and stop churning out chum. From my standpoint, a great injustice is being done to both readers and the legacy of these great stars.

Thanks for the review copy, provided by Simon and Schuster! I do appreciate it, but will be surprised to get another!

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