Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Queer(ing?) Solidarity

Dr Will Visconti

In the last twelve months, two icons of cinema history have exploded back into the public consciousness, but not, perhaps, in a manner that was entirely expected. Both Mae West and Marlene Dietrich have reappeared on televisions – or screens of some sort – around the world, but as channelled by drag queens. This in itself is not entirely surprising, since Mae West (1893-1980) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) became staples of drag acts, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, alongside other stars of Old Hollywood including Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. What is more unusual about the choice of Miss West, as Mae was known to those around her, or Marlene, as Dietrich referred to her public persona, is that they were chosen by younger performers on a show where other impersonations have regularly included reality TV personalities, models and pop singers.

The appearances of Alaska Thunderfuck and Sasha Velour as Mae and Marlene respectively were entirely unexpected discoveries to make in the course of my research – and indeed, it is nothing if not fortuitous that they have catapulted both women back into the public eye in time for me to present my paper. Their choices of adopting these personae while competing on the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race raise interesting questions about the nature of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich as queer icons in the first instance. West and Dietrich were both heavily involved with queer communities such as they existed in New York and Berlin in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, each approached the incorporation of queer identities into their own in varying ways. Could their links to subcultures such as the drag bars of Greenwich Village or Schöneberg’s lesbian clubs in fact be a form of cultural appropriation rather than an act of solidarity? Is their incorporation of queer style and the legacy of openly gay and lesbian performers more attributable to opportunism and trading on the frisson of transgression for broader audiences, rather than an identification or alliance with unacknowledged queer muses?

There are arguments for and against such an interpretation of the respective “acts” and personae of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, and the closeness of the stars to their material or inspiration. Where the former had grown up around performers on the vaudeville circuit and was close friends with stars like Julian Eltinge (one of the premier female impersonators during the early twentieth century), the latter had even closer ties to queer performers in Berlin and beyond, taking male and female lovers including heiress Jo Carstairs, singer Edith Piaf, and possibly the pansexual avant-garde dancer Anita Berber. The fact that Dietrich could be identified as queer herself is noteworthy, though she refused to label her own sexuality. West had many gay male friends, but was rather less keen on lesbians. She did, however, get on well with Dietrich (with whom she spoke heavily Brooklyn-accented German; the legacy of her Bavarian-born mother Tillie), and with Greta Garbo.

What is most important to notice is that whatever queer elements there were in West and Dietrich’s public personae or material, queer sexuality was never the punchline. When there was humour, it was directed elsewhere, as with Dietrich’s duet with Margo Lion, Wenn die beste Freundin, which played on the ambiguity of the girls’ relationship. Similarly, in Mae West’s plays, when the drag queens Winnie and Kate or The Duchess trade barbs, the humour is not at the expense of their sexuality, but is comes from the characters’ sniping at each other’s weight, clothing and popularity.

A final question to pose in regard to the appropriateness or degree of solidarity that West and Dietrich showed with queer fans and queer communities is whether the end justifies the means. Harvey Fierstein famously spoke out in defence of the “sissy” as a comedy character in early film, reasoning that bad representation is better than none, and the same may be argued here. Certainly, not all of the ideas espoused by either Mae or Marlene would still be acceptable today, and some have been superseded by emerging research or evolving attitudes. West and Dietrich were, however, ahead of their time in their acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, and set a precedent for later celebrities and activists to follow.

Further reading:

George Chauncey. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Mel Gordon. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Venice, CA: Feral House, 2000.

Emily Wortis Leider. Becoming Mae West. Thorndike: Thorndike Press, 1997.

Maria Riva. Marlene Dietrich. New York: Ballentine Books, 1994.

Will Visconti completed his PhD in French Studies and Italian Studies. His research examines sexuality, representation, transgression and performance, with particular emphasis on the fin-de-siècle and the interplay of past and present in contemporary cabaret and burlesque.

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