When Marlene Dietrich found herself in between takes on movie sets, or so the story goes, she sucked on lemons. The acidity, she figured, would make the wrinkles surrounding her mouth vanish. She wanted to make sure her facial muscles would remain firm enough for cameras to capture her face's particular, puzzling contours.
Dietrich’s love of drink was fierce and public. She nursed a lifelong love of one drink in particular, the Old Fashioned—or her own riff on it. Like many movie stars of her era, she frequented the Hollywood Hi-Ho Club, a private venue in Los Angeles during the thick of the Prohibition era in the early 1930s. It was a drink of Canadian whiskey, orange curaçao, and Angostura bitters, shaken furiously with ice and strained into a rocks glass. She ordered it so often that the bartender dubbed it "the Marlene Dietrich."
Starting this week, Dietrich is the subject of an expansive, 19-film retrospective at New York City’s Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side. The series surveys Dietrich's singular career, one that spanned many decades and continents. Dietrich embodies certain fantasies that bring us back to the movies; she makes small, forbidden gestures, vices like smoking or drinking, look good.
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“There are films that really make you want to drink,” Aliza Ma, Metrograph’s Head of Programming, explained to me last week. “I think that must have something to do with the ritualistic aspect of filmgoing. Watching film flicker in a dark auditorium, smoking, and drinking are rituals that surround filmgoing as much as they provide fodder for filmmaking, a century on.”
As an accompaniment to the films, then, Metrograph has constructed a drink solely around the series. It's a refurbished take on the drink served at the Hi-Ho Club. "I came up with the recipe after finding the original Marlene Dietrich cocktail a bit dated,” Gerald Crippen, Metrograph’s bar manager, wrote me. When devising this cocktail, he wanted to enliven the flavor profile without distancing the drink from its mythic, simple origins.
So the drink, like Dietrich’s original object of affection, is a whiskey-based cocktail. The modernizing twist, though, is a garnish of roasted lemon. It adds an element of smokiness and sultriness to the drink, Ma claimed. And it keeps your face taut.
Metrograph's take on the Marlene Dietrich calls for 2 oz. rye whiskey, .25 oz housemade Orange and Almond oleo saccharum (here's how you can make oleo saaccharum on your own), and 3 dashes of Angostura bitters. Put these all in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake vigorously, and strain the drink into a rocks glass with ice cubes. Garnish it with a wedge of a roasted lemon.
You can learn more about Metrograph's Marlene Dietrich series here. Our advice? Screen one of her films at home, and make a Marlene Dietrich to go along with it.
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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.