MARLENE DIETRICH AFTER MA RAINEY: SCATTERED THOUGHTS ON TWO TUXEDO’ED LADIES OF THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY

For whatever reason, one of three CDs on rotation in my family’s car growing up was a compilation of Marlene Dietrich recordings entitled “The Cosmopolitan Marlene Dietrich.” I didn’t enjoy her singing, low-pitched and half-spoken, but I became obsessed with her pale, sculptural face on the CDs cover, smirking behind a lit cigarette, the top of her suit and tie visible. (Obsessed, as in: “This is the eighth year I have failed at putting together a Marlene Dietrich Halloween costume,” obsessed.)

K-through-8, I was a “tomboy.” For me, that meant not acting “girly.” But I didn’t want to be a boy– I wanted to be a girl who acted like a boy. I understood that this distinction was why some boys developed crushes on me, and though I would have denied it then, I was probably milking my tomboyishness for all it was worth as a result. Maybe I found myself so attracted to images of drag Dietrich, posing haughtily in a tuxedo, because there was something I admired in her performative masculinity, a quality that actually made her more sexually desirable as a woman. Of course, these outfits made her desirable to women as well as men. Dietrich’s bisexuality is widely known; Anna May Wong and Greta Garbo were among those rumored to have been her lovers.

And so, when I first saw images of Ma Rainey in a tuxedo, I immediately thought of Dietrich. Both performers were altos with an affinity for tuxedos, and women. While watching the Bessie depiction of Ma Rainey’s drag act, I recalled Dietrich in Morocco, kissing a woman during a musical number. The fact that Rainey preceded Dietrich by a few decades caused Dietrich’s star to shine a little less brightly for me. I wondered if Dietrich was to Rainey what Elvis (in this instance a cultural thief) was to Big Mama Thornton (another fan of menswear), but a quick Google search reveals a lineage of tuxedo-wearing-women that extends even to the Edwardian period! The tuxedo, on Rainey, seems to signal something different than it does on Dietrich. It seems less oriented toward the goal of attracting men than it does to signal a brazen queerness.

Dietrich in "Morocco"

Dietrich flirting in “Morocco”

 

I had hoped to read more about homosexuality in blues songs than I did in the Davis, but it seems that, with the notable exceptions of “Prove it on Me,” “B.D. Women’s Blues,” and (kind of a stretch) “‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” there isn’t much there. I wondered if Dietrich sung anything that alluded to her bisexuality. I came up with Dietrich’s duet with Rosemary Clooney, “Good for Nothing,” which declares: “Good for nothing/ Men are good for nothing/ I haven’t met a good one yet!/…If you love ’em, nothing’s what you’ll get!” The song concludes rather tritely on the lines: “Good for nothing/ Men are good for nothing/ A girl who’s smart will leave them be/…But can we live without ’em? No siree!”

This song brought to mind several things for me:

1) The way in which Cusick describes the Indigo Girls’ harmonization and intertwining of voices as intelligible to us as lesbians

2) The implications of two women singing a vaguely lesbian separatist song, that ultimately turns out to be tough-love adulation of heterosexuality, that was written by two men. I thought of Davis’ discussion of the song “Sweet Rough Man,” which glorifies abuse and was similarly written by a man. For Davis, Rainey’s decision to sing this song reconstructs a private issue as a public problem. I don’t see a similar effect in “Good for Nothing.” But the role of the male songwriter reminds me of the ways in which women performers still found themselves subject to various social constrictions, whether through an absence of female songwriters, or the desire for success in the mainstream that Davis reminds us Bessie Smith probably ceded to in her career.

 

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