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Object of the month: Marlene Dietrich, Gaby Tupper, and the key box

1. December 2021

Sometimes, history is in everyday objects.

The key box, decorated with Marlene Dietrich’s portrait and the quote “Sag mir wo die Blumen sind” (“Where have all the flowers gone”), was in use at the Sonntags-Club in Berlin until recently. Founded in a living room in 1986, the Sonntags-Club was one of the first LGBTIQA* organizations in the GDR. The key box, presumably hand-made from a poster around this time, carried out its duty until it was gifted to the SMU for the exhibition “Rosarot in Ost-Berlin”. There, it attracted Gaby Tupper’s attention.

The community queen, who is closely involved with the SMU for many years, evolved into a sort of Marlene Dietrich ambassador. She gives regular city tours titled “Ein Koffer, ein Leben, eine Diva” (“A suitcase, a life, a diva”) that trace the most important steps in Marlene Dietrich’s life and career. All accompanied, of course, by the proper costume. Why does Gaby Tupper dedicate a big part of her work to the actor, singer, and style icon? “While many people connect something to the name Marlene, most of them don’t know anything about the person”, the drag artist told us. At the same time, it is not her goal to sing unconditional praise. Gaby Tupper wants to render the complexity of Marlene Dietrich visible, because it is often overlooked. The diva also put on airs, the life in the limelight finally ended in poverty and loneliness.

Already during her lifetime, Marlene Dietrich was an icon for LGBTIQA* communities. This was on the one hand due to her gender presentation – she inspired the Marlene-Hose, a specific style of pants, at a time when other female actors rarely wore them. On the other hand, she left her sexuality open to speculations, frequently included queer subtext in her work. In the song “Wenn die beste Freundin” („My best girlfriend“), she sings together with Margo Lion and Oskar Karlweis about a ménage-à-trois between two best friends and the husbands of one of them. In her first Hollywood movie, “Marroko”, she kisses another woman while dressed in a smoking. The aesthetic that Marlene Dietrich represented and the queer undertones in her artistic work made her an important role model for LGBTIQA* people since the 1930s. Even though she never labelled herself and her sexuality, she went down in lesbian and bisexual history.

This is visible in the key box from Sonntags-Club. It is not only one of many memorabilia for a LGBTIQA* icon but also an important testament for Dietrich’s fandom in the GDR. “Finally, not another object from a Westberliner Marlene collection”, explains Gaby Tupper her fascination for the object. All these stories, of Marlene the person, Marlene the artist and Marlene the queer role model are united in this keybox.

On December 27, Marlene Dietrich celebrates her 120th birthday.

Marlene Dietrich key box from Sonntags-Club. Photo: Orlando Brix/SMU.