Press : Like my hero Marlene Dietrich, I’m a free spirit

Singer and actress Ute Lemper pictured in London    CREDIT: Andrew Crowley

Publication: The Daily Telegraph
Date: 31 January 2020

Ute Lemper: ‘I’m definitely a free spirit… I have tried sexual encounters with women’

The screen and stage star reveals that she has more in common with Marlene Dietrich than meets the eye

If you’re channelling the great Marlene Dietrich in your new one-woman show, it’s perhaps not surprising if you and your heroine share everything from German genes and camera-loving Cubist cheekbones to… a certain free-spirited sexual history. And so it proves with the West End and Broadway star Ute Lemper, who has been compared to Dietrich on and off throughout an international career over nearly four decades as an actress and singer-songwriter. Slinky glamourpuss looks? Check. Seductively husky vocals? Check. Outspoken foe of fascism, especially Nazism and neo-Nazism? Check. Bisexuality?

Well, let’s say there’s an intriguing parallel, as Lemper goes on to reveal, between these two women born 62 years apart. I’m meeting Lemper in London to talk about Rendezvous With Marlene, which is now touring UK theatres. Mixing legendary Dietrich songs and stories with her own life, it’s based on a three-hour encounter by telephone with the octogenarian Dietrich when the latter was a semi-recluse living in Paris in 1988, while Lemper was playing Sally Bowles in a French production of Cabaret. She had sent Dietrich a fan letter in the form of a postcard and was astonished when the octogenarian diva, who died four years later at the age of 90, rang her back.

The star of  such iconic films as The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express and Destry Rides Again was married to assistant film director Rudolf Sieber, by whom she had her only child, Maria. But Dietrich was openly bisexual and had many affairs with female performers, Edith Piaf and Mae West among them, as well as with such leading men as James Stewart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. None of which put an end to her 53-year marriage, which seems to have to be an open one – because Sieber himself had a mistress.

“I’m definitely a free spirit like Marlene; I have tried sexual encounters with women,” Lemper says without hesitation. “But I did not have a lesbian relationship with any of them – although I would say never say never!” Men, she says, often resent her strength “because then you can take decisions, protect yourself, establish a life you want to live  – you are not a victim.”

The rebellious daughter of a Munster bank manager and a hausfrau who dabbled in amateur opera-singing, Lemper first made her name at 24 for that Sally Bowles performance in Paris, winning a Moliere, the French equivalent of an Olivier. She went on to bag an Olivier and an American Theatre Award for playing murderess Velma Kelly in the acclaimed revival of Chicago in the West End and on Broadway in the late Nineties. She has worked with Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Daniel Craig, very nearly becoming a Bond girl (sorry, woman) in Goldeneye until she turned down the role eventually played by Famke Janssen.

‘It was frustrating to my two husbands that they could not be on the same level’ CREDIT: Luciano Viti/Getty
But after making her name in other people’s shows, Lemper is now creating her own work: Songs For Eternity – a collection of music from Holocaust survivors, Forever: The Love Poems Of Pablo Neruda and now Rendezvous With Marlene, which she hopes will eventually reach the West End and beyond. The epitome of the crossover artist who can seamlessly move from jazz and rock to pop and her speciality, the Threepenny Opera composer Kurt Weill, Lemper’s success in concert halls, recording studios (more than 30 albums), theatres and vast stadiums – including the Olympic one in Munich in 1989 – proved so lucrative that it paid for her two older children’s university education.

That has brought its own domestic challenges, however. “To be successful, the breadwinner, to be in charge – I would say that the man has a bit more of a problem to accept that reality. It was frustrating to my two husbands that they could not be on the same level… Once the competition starts, there are unhealthy feelings in a relationship.”

She lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her second husband, musician Todd Turkisher, and their two children Julian, 14, and Jonas, eight, to whom she gave birth at 48, with frequent visits from the two older ones – Max, 25, and Stella, 23 – by her first marriage to former comedian and drama teacher David Tabatsky.

One eyebrow-raising solution, she reveals, to making her relationship with Turkisher work over 20 years so far is to “go out with other men at night. I’ve learned that it’s important to invite other strong sources into your life to support you. So when I go to the movies, it’s not always with my husband… I have chosen to do this just to take the weight off the marriage, you know? We don’t always have to be together and watch each other and control each other. I enjoy very much other relationships.” When I ask if that means physical, she laughs and says, “Maybe. But too much information!”

The directness of New Yorkers has proved a natural fit for this citizen of the world, who grew up with a mother and father that were brought up to shake hands with their own ultra-formal parents every morning and night instead of embracing them. “German women are pretty direct too, they have a natural self-confidence,” she concedes, adding “that’s true of a lot of women these days. But I always thought German men were a bit bureaucratic, though I haven’t had one [as a partner] for a very long time.

“I would have to work very hard to be with a German man: it’s hard to relax a bit, the sense of humour lacks a little bit. My first and second husband are both New York Jewish men who talk a lot; they’re very much alike. I have to ask for some silence in the house,” she adds with another laugh. As a post-war German born in 1963, she still broods over her country’s dark mid-20th-century history. “It does make you wonder what it is in the German character that the population went along with Nazism,” she says in her forthright way.

“If you look at Germany now, it’s an incredible country: they are good people, they march in support of immigrants, they’re exemplary. But the way earlier on that the people followed those Nazi rules – was it just the failure of the Weimar Republic or is there something authoritarian in their character to have that obedience to authority?” That’s why, with the resurgence of the far right among nationalist movements in Europe, Lemper feels the need to tell Dietrich’s multi-faceted story of courage and defiance in her public and private life.

After she was brought to Hollywood by her mentor Josef Von Sternberg in 1930, Dietrich established a fund with the director Billy Wilder and other exiles to help refugees escape from Nazi Germany. In 1947 she was awarded the American Medal of Freedom for her work in entertaining Allied troops overseas during the war as well as France’s Legion D’Honneur.

As Lemper says, “Germany had lost its conscience, its soul, at that time, which is terrifying for a civilised country. Marlene was its expatriate conscience, which was why she should be a role model for so many of us. “Like her, I’m very independent and freedom-loving. Problematic judgement is of no interest to me. I just keep going.”

  Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene tours until February 8. For details,

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