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Parallel Universe

July 25, 2010

Ten years ago, I was attending a family reunion at my mother’s house in southeast Iowa. It was a hot July day, and everyone was outside on the lawn enjoying the shade of the big River Birch while chatting and drinking tea. A lot of people had come that summer of 2000, including my Great Aunts from Florida, Missouri, and other parts unknown. I didn’t really know these Aunts. They were in their upper 80’s and 90’s but as spry and sharp as one can imagine, with clear blue eyes to match their blue hair. I was visiting with a cousin while my mother talked to the oldsters nearby when above the general din, I overheard some snippets from the adjacent conversation: “…Marlene Dietrich…oh, I don’t know…well! We just don’t talk about her, even if she IS our cousin.”

I turned and looked at the group. Mom was joining right in with them and seemed to be in the know. I walked over. “What are you talking about Mom?”  “Oh…nothing” she replied. “It didn’t sound like nothing to me! I thought I heard one of you say that Marlene Dietrich is your cousin.”  They all stood looking at me, blinking for a moment, then one of them finally spoke up: “Well, she IS our cousin, but we don’t want anyone to know it, and we just don’t talk about her. I don’t know why we’re talking about her now!” they laughed. I was astounded. “What do you mean you just don’t talk about her? And how is she your cousin? And why didn’t I know this?”

“Well, she’s our first cousin. Her mother is a Felsing just like us. And we don’t talk about her because she’s a bad girl.”  “What do you mean she’s a bad girl?” I asked, even more incredulous, “She’s a movie star!”  “WELL!” they replied, “It’s nothing we can talk about out loud! Let’s just leave it at that!”

Marlene Dietrich in the 1940’s.

By this time, I had grabbed Mom and pulled her aside and asked her “just exactly when” did she ever plan to tell me that we were cousins of Marlene Dietrich; I was 40 years old, and she was 65 and I was completely unaware of this connection. She said never; she just didn’t think it was important. Her father, Paul Felsing, was Marlene’s first cousin on Marlene’s mother’s (Josephine Felsing) side. “We just think the sort of things she did were not always in the best taste,” she said.

Of course, by 2000 Marlene had already been dead a number of years, having spent the last years of her life as a recluse in Paris. After her death her body was returned to Berlin, where she had grown up. She had been on the outs with the Germans for years because she was so outspoken against her own people and Hitler during WWII, but by the time she was finally returned the Germans turned out in great numbers to honor her and throw flowers on her casket as the procession went through the streets.

It turned out that I didn’t know enough about Marlene, so I bought a biography and any other information I could get my hands on, and sure enough, her family tree includes my great grandfather. Some of the family emigrated to Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota from Germany, so it was true. Her family owned the Felsing Clock Co. in Berlin. Eventually I found an old Felsing clock made for the Parisian market; it sits on my book cabinet and I’m looking at it right now. The antique dealer from which it was obtained thinks it was brought to the U.S. by a G.I. returning from the war. It still works.

My Turn-of-the-Century Felsing Clock, designed for the Parisian market.

So, this summer I went to Berlin for the first time. Of course, there is nothing left of the Felsing Clock Co. store at 20 Unter der Linden avenue where Josephine Felsing, Marlene’s mother, was living when the war ended, but nonetheless I tried hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in Berlin in the early 1900’s when she was there, having watched all the Marlene footage I could find, along with some documentaries. Eventually I walked down to Pottsdamer Platz where the Marlene Dietrich film museum is located and spent a great deal of time walking slowly through, looking at movie clips, clothing, and accessories and reading personal notes of hers. She was a lot taller than I imagined, and incredibly beautiful. (She reported, though, that she always felt like the ugly duckling in the family, as the Felsing women were all incredibly beautiful, a statement I can easily believe: the first time I saw my mother’s little sister Margaret Felsing, I nearly fainted; I was only 5 and she was 18, but even at that young age I was stunned by her flashing black eyes, magnificent black hair, flawless skin, fantastic teeth, bell-like laugh, and astounding figure. And years later most of my seven sisters could cause a ten-car pile-up just by walking down the street; my nieces can now do the same thing. It’s seriously ridiculous.)

And what an interesting and full life Marlene had! We wandered down to the gay neighborhood around Nollendorf Platz in Schoneburg (where she is buried), where she performed in one of the local bars in her twenties and we explored that area too. So much history there! Christopher Isherwood stayed in that same neighborhood in the 1930’s and I’m pretty certain he knew Marlene; his “Berlin Stories” are based on his experiences there and are, of course, the basis for the musical “Cabaret.” Ironically, I sat for a portrait with Don Bachardy – Isherwood’s partner – just a few years ago in Los Angeles when my son was enrolled briefly at USC; Don had been introduced to – and painted a portrait of – my partner back in 1999; they had a mutual acquaintance. Don happily agreed to paint me as well when I visited. So, I spent a day in Isherwood and Bachardy’s house and art studio, not knowing he had drawn Marlene’s portrait too in 1963 when I was just 3. Later we had dinner at a little diner down the street that you can see in the new movie “A Single Man,” based on the book by Isherwood. Don is a really interesting and kind man, and an amazing artist. He is well into his 80’s now, and Chris has been gone for many years, as he was much older. Anyone interested in the lives of these individuals can get the documentary “Chris and Don” through Netflix, as well as at least two good documentaries about Marlene.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

The photo of Chris and Don at left is, of course, old. Living life as an out gay couple at the time this photo was taken was not easy and was fraught with potential danger. They had some security because of their connections and work, but even that wasn’t enough. The gay community was mostly hidden. An example: my father had a first cousin who died in 1979 in his late 70’s; he was a gay man, very accomplished – an author, artist, and more, who had traveled the world. Did I know him? No. I was never allowed to meet him. I knew nothing about him until he died, and then was given only sketchy information because his gay life was just something not talked about. It’s upsetting, frankly. I wondered about him all the time. Most of his papers were destroyed, and only fragments remain of his art, books, and diaries and letters; it was just enough to convince me that knowing him would have enriched my life. So, I tracked down all of the papers and books that remained at the University of Iowa’s historical archives, obtained one of his paintings, read his diaries and letters, and found a woman – Gretchen Spencer – in Des Moines, who knew him and had spent a good deal of her life trying to reconstruct the history of his life. After my research, I wrote up a biography with my findings, and you may now see it on this site, entitled “Artist Lee Ver Duft 1910-1985.”

Lives touch and reconnect across time and generations; how often we don’t know the connections or importance of certain events and experiences until much later! And how often we don’t know what we missed or lost entirely! I am fortunate to at least finally know as much as I do, and incredibly fortunate to have met Don Bachardy – the closest direct connection to someone who knew Marlene Dietrich I will ever encounter.

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