Dietrich’s in the ether lately…
If you’ve been following Bravo’s reality show Project Runway, its episode last night was unintentionally funny – with competing designers honored by the presence of wrap-dress legend Diane von Furstenberg. Von Furstenberg offered designers a unique challenge: add an item for her new collection, inspired by Marlene Dietrich’s classic film A Foreign Affair. Sadly, the designers – including retro gal Kenley Collins – either had never heard of the movie or were misled about its plot (one describing the story as mostly being about her spy adventures!). Multiple designers went for a retro, Chinese-inspired style, apparently unaware that “Shanghai Lily” was Dietrich’s prostitute character in Shanghai Express – about twenty years before Billy Wilder would direct her and Jean Arthur in the postwar ruins of Affair. In one of her signature roles, Dietrich plays the jaded ex-mistress of a Nazi. (Shades of infamous designer Coco Chanel’s real life story.)
No one, however, attempted a dress that spoke to the make-what-you-can-of-it mood of postwar Europe, before Christian Dior’s New Look told fashionistas they could wear lots of fabric again. The winner, however, made a lush 30s-inspired dress that croons Lili Marlene – and is now for sale by American Express, with some of the proceeds going to charity.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s famous Friedrichstadtpalast (literally, Friedrich or Friedrich’s State Palace), is threatened with bankruptcy. As part of a chorus oft-compared to the Folies Bergère of Paris (ze “can-can girls”), Dietrich first stretched her gorgeous legs on its stage. In the 1920s, theatre impresario Max Reinhardt had given the Friedrichstadtpalast new life after a series of poor judgments by previous owners, though he’s better known in the US for his large-scale presentations at the Hollywood Bowl, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (its whimsy and romantic fantasy managed to last into a film adaptation – despite the incongruity of Jimmy Cagney as one of its stars!). The Friedrichstadtpalast’s tawdry, sexy shows reached a Golden Age during the height of the Weimar Republic (well, we’ve all seen Cabaret, haven’t we?). Today, it’s looking for an angel investor to rescue its history.
The New Yorker has been courting a little controversy lately – especially with the recent caricature of presidential candidate Barack Obama (and wife Michelle Obama) appearing on its cover. Interestingly, another controversy is brewing — over Charles Van Doren’s recent article.
Van Doren, as you may remember, or have seen from one of our DVDs, was the urbane professor involved in the 1959 “Twenty-One” scandal, in which the winners of the ’50s game show were carefully coached on their answers and behavior. For years, Van Doren has said little about his involvement. In the 1990s, he turned down an opportunity to speak to WGBH, then making a PBS documentary, and also nixed working with Robert Redford in the making of Quiz Show. Herb Stempel, his opponent on the show, worked with Redford, wanting in his own way to set the record straight.
Now, after fifty years, Van Doren has written a long piece about his experience with “Twenty One”, and what happened after. It’s ultimately a beautifully written narrative that explains very little.
Greater sinners have experienced absolution, and sometimes bolder success, after reemerging, and speaking candidly to the public, so it’s interesting that Van Doren doesn’t give much reason for his long silence. After fifty years, you’d think there would be a book, not an article, full of things to say. On his refusal to work with Redford and PBS, he mainly states his wife Gerry’s pressure not to come forward.
The average person wants to know – Why did Van Doren do it? Is he sorry that he did it, beyond the immediate impact on his wallet and his standing in the community? Why did he choose to remain silent for so long? How does he really feel about Stempel and the other people involved? (Beyond a backhand in which he refers to rumors about Stempel having psychiatric trouble.) There are no answers here.
It’s telling that Van Doren chose The New Yorker, to write this non-apology.
Stanley Fish penned an intriguing piece for the New York Times, pointing out that Van Doren’s family, and the circles they ran in, in the 1950s, considered TV to be vulgar, and that they considered New York to be the center of the intellectual universe. He points out that “…[T]he same crowd (or their children and grandchildren) still read The New Yorker, which means that Van Doren has found a way of going public and speaking only in-house.”
Van Doren has no interest in speaking to the same general audience for whom he performed on “Twenty-One”, people who were inspired and entertained by his work on the show. He didn’t write this piece for the average American, who was disappointed to learn that the man she had cheered for was a fraud.
The word “apology” never appears in the article. The only time the word “sorry” appears in this piece, he’s describing events in the past. He apologizes to his father about the unhappy course of his celebrity, and again apologizes when he tells Dave Garroway (formerly of The Today Show) that he has to leave a meeting to deal with the growing scandal.
Yet after fifty years, a period in which most people take wistful stock of their past deeds, Van Doren never apologizes to, or addresses, that broad American audience in his article. This is the same audience who helped him make a tidy sum of money in 1957, 1958 and 1959 – the people, ultimately, who he was most responsible to. This is why he began to be perceived, after the scandal, as an entitled “elitist WASP”. They may not have Van Doren’s talent or education, but you’ll see more contrition from a crass, two-hit wonder appearing on Behind the Music, or a cranky-yet-talented spazz on a Bravo reality show.
Van Doren is intelligent and an excellent writer. His mistake was made by many others involved in the game shows of early television – an unethical mistake that shocked millions, but also “humanized” Van Doren’s image as a Golden Boy.
It could be reticence to talk about his innermost feelings (which seems almost quaint in today’s media), but it’s hard not to wonder if he just feels he’s above explaining himself to the average person.