Born in Berlin, Dietrich played the violin before joining an acting school in 1921, making her film debut the following year. After playing in only German movies at first, she got her first role in a Hollywood movie in 1930: Morocco (for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress), after her role in the German movie The Blue Angel.
Her most lasting contribution to film history was as the star in several films directed by Josef von Sternberg in the early 1930s, such as The Scarlet Empress and Shanghai Express, in which she played "femme fatales". She gradually broadened her repertoire in roles such as Destry Rides Again, A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, and Judgment at Nuremberg.
Dietrich sang in several of her films (most famously in von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, in which she sings "Falling In Love Again"), having made records in Germany in the 1920s. Following a slowdown in her film career, she made a number of records first for Decca and later for Columbia.
From the 1950s to the mid-1970s Dietrich toured internationally as a successful cabaret performer. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Until the mid-1960s her musical director was pop composer Burt Bacharach. His arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's narrow vocal range and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect. Spectacular costumes and careful stage lighting helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.
Her show business career largely ended, however, in 1979, when she broke her leg during a cabaret performance. She spent the last twelve years largely bed-ridden, in seclusion in her apartment in Paris.
Her distinctive voice was later satirized, along with that of Lotte Lenya, in the song Lieder by cult British trio Fascinating Aïda. Madeline Kahn did the same in the Mel Brooks film "Blazing Saddles".
Dietrich was known to have a strong set of political convictions and a mind to speak them. She was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised Germany's anti-semitic policies of the time. Her singing helped here too, as she recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German.
Dietrich became an American citizen in 1937 and entertained American troops during the Second World War. She is also famous for having recorded Lili Marleen during World War II, a curious example of a song transcending the hatreds of war.
Dietrich was a model whom later stars would follow. Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality. Accordingly, it is no surprise that she had affairs with women (Mercedes de Acosta was among her lesbian lovers) as well as men.
Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich's personal life was kept out of public view. She married once, to film technician Rudolf Sieber. Her only child, Maria, was born in 1925. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed "the world's most glamorous grandmother."
Despite all of this, she was reportedly offered a king's ransom to return to Germany, possibly due to her immense popularity, which she declined. Other sources report that she quipped that she would return only when one of her Jewish friends (possibly Max Reinhardt) could accompany her.
Dietrich died at the age of 90 in Paris, of kidney failure. Her body was returned to Berlin where she was interred in the de:Friedenau Cemetery.