At the glamorous Press Ball in Berlin, which took place on New Year’s Eve 1928 and lasted well past midnight, Alfred Eisenstadt, a young photographer, took a series of photographs of three young women arm-in-arm, almost like old friends. One of the photographs, reprinted many times, has achieved an iconic status. The women were Marlene Dietrich, Anna Way Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, and all of them were on the brink of achieving international fame and varying degrees of infamy. Wong is in the center, flanked by Riefenstahl on the right and Dietrich on the left. Dietrich clenches a cigarette holder between her teeth, her lips slightly parted. The women were modern, full of confidence and hope.
Since their deaths, all three women have been the subjects of numerous biographies, studies, and essays. Dietrich and Riefenstahl wrote memoirs, which were full of evasions and exaggerations. In Karin Weiland’s double biography, Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives (2011) and other tomes, their biographers write about Dietrich’s bisexuality, which she projected onscreen, Wong’s negotiation of Hollywood’s racism and China’s outrage at the roles she took, and Riefenstahl’s troubling relationship with the Nazis and her groundbreaking, controversial film, Triumph of the Will (1935), glorifying Adolph Hitler at the Nazis Nuremburg Rally.
Eisenstadt’s photograph shows the first Asian woman to become a Hollywood star, flanked by a German actress and singer who transformed herself over a career that lasted from the 1910 to the early 1980s, and a German filmmaker, actress, and photographer whose films Hitler, admired, championed, and supported. Between this remarkable chance meeting and their deaths, the world has undergone convulsive events and changes pertaining to racism in Hollywood and America, anti-Semitism, displacement and migration, once-forbidden love, and patriarchal oppression of women. The lives of Dietrich, Wong, and Riefenstahl are intertwined with these changes and with one another. They give anyone interested in examining history, women’s rights, racism, and much else having to do women’s personal relationships and the glass ceilings they encountered, a lot to think about.
Giving readers a lot to think about, while writing an entertaining, episodic narrative is precisely what Amanda Lee Koe has done in her marvelous debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star (Nan. A. Talese/Doubleday, 2019), which centers on the three women. In the acknowledgements, Koe writes: “[…] I was waylaid instead by one faithful Alfred Eisenstadt monograph containing the curious picture (and its kinetic twin) that would begin (and end) this all.”
Koe’s narrative moves back and forth across time and jumps from one locale to another. It is clear from the episodes and set pieces that she has read a lot of background material, absorbed what she has read, and selected both major and minor incidents to fictionalize, usually by adding an array of diverse and wildly interesting characters — bit players, to use Hollywood parlance — that achieve star status. By establishing multiple view points within each episode, she is able to go down different, overlapping, and parallel paths.
In one episode, Koe effortlessly switches from Riefenstahl considering all the obstacles to making a film in the mountains, far from the war and Berlin, to a crew member, Hans Haas, recalling his service in the Afrika Korps and being hopelessly in love with fellow soldier. Like a film camera changing its focus and frame, Koe is able to draw together a rich array of characters within a historical framework created with a dense tapestry of details and feelings.
In another episode, the reader is inside Wong’s head as she prepares to drive to Las Vegas to see Dietrich, now long past her prime, perform a nostalgic version of her nightclub act. Wong has not been a star in years, since she was turned down for the lead role in the 1937 film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931). The reason she was denied the role, which went to Luise Rainer, was because she failed the screen test: “Too Chinese to play a Chinese. Does not fit my conception of Chinese people look like. Recommend to use as atmosphere and not principal characters.” Jealous and insecure, she and Dietrich have a revealing encounter, which takes place over a few hours. This is just one of the many wonderful, extended scenes in this terrific book.
Koe understands her subjects — their vanities and vulnerabilities — well enough to invent scenes that are simultaneously believable and fantastical. This is what makes the book riveting. Along with exploring their complicated feelings about each other, Koe muses on their relationships to Joseph von Sternburg, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Goebbels, and Adolph Hitler, all of whom appear in the book (though it should be noted that Hitler is referred to as “H”).
Mixing together fact and fiction, Koe has woven in material that builds upon decades of gossip and speculation. Were Dietrich and Wong lovers? Did Dietrich see or talk to anyone in the last 10 years of her life, when she lived in Paris, bedridden and alone. Koe’s invented maid, Bébé, a Chinese immigrant, offers another view of Dietrich, at once tender, tough, and sympathetic. More importantly, Koe gives Bébé her own rich life and biography.
Did Riefenstahl know what would happen to the Roma and Sintli extras she had in her movie after they were sent back to the camp? Koe’s nuanced handling of this well-known incident in Reifenstahl’s life could stand alone as a piece of fiction, as could many of the other chapters.
My only quibble with the book is that I thought Koe could have built upon some real-life incidents rather than changing them. In one chapter, she recounts Walter Benjamin’s interview with Anna May Wong, who was in Berlin to act in Peter Eichenberg’s films. Eichenberg became a Nazi sympathizer, which may be one reason why these films are not better known (and are seemingly difficult to obtain). Koe’s description of the films and Wong’s major roles in them are right on the money, from what I’ve read. Yet in the book the interview is in English, not German, as it actually was. Within a short amount of time, Wong had learned German well enough to converse with Benjamin, which both surprised and delighted him. It should also be noted that very few Chinese women were in Berlin at the time, and Wong and her sister, who accompanied her to Europe and the interview, were likely the only Asian women Benjamin ever spoke with.
By changing the language to English and including her adaption of Pauline Fran’s translation of the interview, with its famous description of Wong’s loose long hair as resembling “a dragon frolicking in water,” I think Koe misses an opportunity to consider Wong’s mastery of different languages, which gave her a certain advantage in the Berlin film world and elsewhere. In this alone, one senses the voracious depth of Wong’s determination and genius. However, my quibble is the kind you can only have with a nearly perfect novel. Delayed Rays of a Star is the strongest debut novel I have read in a very, very long time. Like the figures she writes about, Koe will soon become a star.