James Leavey's Sharing An Ashtray With... Marlene Dietrich!

Marlene Dietrich!

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James Leavey's Corner
  By James Leavey

Peter Riva, 51, is a literary agent and TVdocumentary producer who lives and works in New York.  He agreed toshare an ashtray on behalf of his late, legendary grandmother – theBerlin-born singer-actress who glamourised smoking in the first halfof the 20th century, in such films as ‘The Blue Angel’and ‘Destry Rides Again’.  December 27, 2001, marked thecentenary of Dietrich’s birth.


JL: Where did Marlene Dietrich first take upsmoking"


PR: In 1920’s Berlin. I think pretty muchall women in Germany at that time smoked for affectation; it was apart of the cabaret scene.  It was the accessories as much asanything else that brought her to smoking – all those terriblyelegant cigarette cases, holders, lighters and boxes.


JL: What was her preferred smoke"


PR: Cigarettes.  She used to smokeGauloise with Jean Gabin but Chesterfield were her preferred choicein America - she also advertised Lucky Strikes, once.  


JL: What would she have said if she were stillalive today and someone in a public place told her to put hercigarette out"


PR: You’re making the supposition thatsomeone would ask her.  A) they wouldn’t dare and B) shewouldn’t answer.  It’s exactly as if you were asking the Queen to dosomething - you wouldn’t dare.


JL: She smoked in most of her early films…


PR: Yes.  Smoking for her was a wonderfulaffectation, but like most singers she didn’t smoke very much.  Sheprobably only smoked 5-10 cigarettes a day in real life.  It was awonderful aural sexual gesture to have a cigarette. In those days alady held a cigarette between two fingers, and a guy held acigarette between his thumb and two fingers. In pretty much all ofher films, you see her holding cigarettes in different ways. As oneof the guys in ‘Destry Rides Again’, she used two fingers and athumb. When she was a grand lady in The Flame of New Orleans withJohn Wayne she made sure she held the cigarette between two fingers- as a lady did.


JL: She once said, "I started smoking duringthe war. I have kept it up ever since. It keeps me healthy." Whendid she quit smoking"


PR: She was told not to by her doctor, inthe 1960s, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  With hertypical discipline she never lit another cigarette.


JL: After that, did she mind people smokingaround her"


PR: As someone who was well-bred andwell-mannered, she wouldn’t have presumed to tell anybody else abouttheir personal habits.  There was one occasion on a flight when aman lit a rather large cigar and she asked him politely to refrainfrom smoking because it was making her airsick. However, she wouldnever have told him to put the cigar out as a right.


JL: If your grandmother was still alive, wouldyou like to share an ashtray with her"


PR: It’s not a thought that ever occurredto me. I had smoked in my grandmother’s presence but it neveroccurred to me it was a social occasion.  I stopped smokingcigarettes when I was 21 but I occasionally smoke a cigar.  Smokingtoday is becoming more ritualistic than it was 20-30 years ago whenit was part of everyday life. Now, it’s something you contemplatedoing each time you light up. I was a 3 pack a day smoker and justwoke up one morning, stepped out of the shower, lit two cigarettesand forgot I had already lit them. Everybody stops for their ownreasons.  I stopped because I didn’t like it controlling me.

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