History has a way of inspiring quirky fanfiction. Back in the 1980s, Terry Johnson’s play (later Nicolas Roeg’s film) Insignificance imagined an evening where Marilyn Monroe (or as she was called simply, “The Actress”) finds herself thrown together with Albert Einstein (“The Scientist”), Joseph McCarthy (“The Senator”) and Joe DiMaggio (“The Ballplayer”), who collectively spin an intriguing rumination about the meaning of fame in America. Johnson’s dialogue rather deviated from historical record, but hearing The Actress explain relativity to The Scientist was a hoot.
Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, attempts a comparable feat through utterly different means. By reducing the principal players from a quartet to a trio, limiting the professional frame of reference to the cinema, and essentially reversing the construct from a momentary convergence of disparate figures to subsequent reverberations of a single encounter, Koe focuses less on the moment than its aftermath.
That moment concerns a 1928 photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl—a chance encounter at a party in Berlin that, in Koe’s account, continues to resonate throughout their lives. Scholars of German cinema have long juxtaposed the career paths of Dietrich and Riefenstahl, the anti-Nazi German star who made her way to Hollywood versus the talented actress later anointed Hitler’s house filmmaker. Fans of Hollywood’s suggestiveness before the Hays Code regulated onscreen morality have marveled at Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), not least for the Sapphic charisma between Dietrich and Wong that perennially inspires the question, “Did they or didn’t they?” (Most accounts assume they did.) Koe completes the triangle with another twist: What if Riefenstahl, before trading the glamor of being in front of the camera for the power of being behind it, had been up for the role of Shanghai Lily before Dietrich was cast? Like much of this book, it should’ve made me head straight for Google, but as a dramatic device it was too good to check.
Much of the known historical record weaves through Koe’s pages, which makes for an eclectic cast of secondary characters. Walter Benjamin’s interview with Wong allows the reader become a fly on the wall during their meeting. Susan Sontag’s conflicted views of Riefenstahl—initially admiring her work, later condemning her in a sadly error-filled essay—gives Riefenstahl the last word in taking down America’s most prominent female critic as an ill-informed windbag.
Koe handles conflicting female perspectives so well that, for many readers, gender may be her main point. Such a reading seems too limiting, though. Koe’s principal trio—an immigrant star in Hollywood, an American-born actress coming to terms with her Asian ethnicity, and a German woman director navigating the political whirlwinds in her home country—touch on a range of themes still making headlines today.
Not least of which, though, is that old reliable topic of fame. Unlike Insignificance, Koe’s characters are not merely different slices of America. Riefenstahl’s career as Hitler’s propagandist costs her a shot in Hollywood. Dietrich, though a Hollywood darling, gets booed on her return to Germany. Wong, having reached a surprisingly level of notoriety in Hollywood, is castigated in China for playing “bad women” and catering to Western stereotypes.
Fame, we see, is a non-transferable convergence of time and place. Regarding time, Koe’s sprawling narrative reveals its tolls. Dietrich goes to great physical pains to preserve her youthful glamour, even as a young driver confuses her with Mae West. Riefenstahl maintains remarkable physical health, even as her ideologies betray their age.
Ultimately, the novel’s greatest accomplishment is a masterful subversion of the Hollywood myth. Most consider the tragedy of, say, Marilyn Monroe to be that she died so young. The misfortune of Koe’s illustrious trio is that they didn’t.