Dietrich and Isherwood: LGBT Icons – Inspired by Berlin

Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-14627,_Marlene_Dietrich


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Berlin has a uniquely powerful way of connecting with so many people who visit. 

Whether your ideal holiday is one filled with late nights of all-weekend clubbing or leisurely trips to some of the world’s best fine dining, concerts and operas – this is a city that is brim-filled with inspiration: for Berlin’s visitors and its residents alike.

Two perfect examples of people the city affected greatly are legendary singer – and bisexual film icon – Marlene Dietrich  and the acclaimed gay novelist Christopher Isherwood. Both of these LGBT icons acknowledged Berlin as being instrumental in making them the great artists they became. 

Dietrich:

‘I still keep a suitcase in Berlin.’ – Marlene Dietrich, 1957

Marlene Dietrich was born in Berlin and went on to become one of the most famous women of the 20th century. 

At a time when most LGBT people felt constrained to hide, Dietrich made a career out of not only not  hiding her bisexuality but also reinventing her career so frequently – and so successfully – that she is often cited as a necessary pre-requisite for the later career of Madonna. 

Dietrich loved the town of her birth so much she sang “Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin”, which translates as ‘I still keep a suitcase in Berlin.” You can see how powerful is her love in the song’s lyrics.

Dietrich eventually left Germany and emigrated to the USA but her love for Berlin never dimmed. 

Her sentiment of always wanting to keep a suitcase in Berlin so she could travel back and stay whenever she wanted, likely rings true with so many others who have lived or visited this stunning German city.

Marlene Dietrich was very proud to be a native Berliner and in 2001 – on what would have been her 100th birthday – was bestowed an honorary recognition as ‘Citizen of Berlin’ for having been a lifelong ambassador of freedom-loving Germany.

Some places to experience Marlene’s Berlin:

Marlene Dietrich’s birthplace was in Leberstraße 65, Berlin-Schöneberg. 

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0121-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

El Dorado nightclub– Speisekammer (bio supermarket) Motzstraße 24. Inside this building still situated in the heart of gay Berlin, you can see photos of the glory days of this LGBT favourite club of the 1920s and 1930s. Marlene Dietrich sang at El Dorado and Christopher Isherwood – who lived just around the corner – was a frequent visitor to the club. 

Isherwood

“I didn’t want to go home.” — Christopher Isherwood, 1962 

At the age of 25, British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood could never have imagined the life-changing impact Berlin would have on his life and on his work. 

His semi-autobiographical book Christopher and His Kind paints a vivid picture of the city’s immense and exciting potential for a gay Brit in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s. 

In fact much of the excitement which inspired Isherwood remains today for modern-day visitors to enjoy. Berlin has long revelled in one of the world’s most vibrant gay and lesbian nightlife scenes, something which remains today.  

Two of Isherwood’s most famous works – Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin– are based on his time living at Nollendorfstrasse 17 in the Schöneberg district, right around the corner from the El Dorado where Marlene Dietrich performed. 

In fact the El Dorado venue inspired parts of Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin parts of which later became the award-winning musical and film ‘Cabaret’. 

“Always in the background was Berlin. It was calling me every night, and its voice was the harsh sexy voice of the gramophone records,” he writes in his 1962 novel, Down There on a Visit. “Berlin had affected me like a party at the end of which I didn’t want to go home.” 

Isherwood is not alone in finding much to inspire them in Berlin. Another icon – David Bowie – described Berlin as “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” 

Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin:

His apartment– Nollendorfstrasse 17 in the Schöneberg district. Right around the corner from El Dorado nightclub and still in the very heart of gay Berlin’s nightlife scene. 

Reading ‘Christopher and his Kind’ gives a Berlin roadmap of places to visit and makes a brilliant travelling companion on your next trip to the city. 

Kleist Casino venue Kleiststraße 35 – is mentioned in Isherwood’s writings and was operational under that name until as recently as 2002. It is now trading under a new name as one of Berlin’s late-night gay bars and is believed to be the oldest gay bar in Europe.  

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