Update: Marlene Dietrich’s short snorter sold for $5,250.
What you see: A short snorter–a collection of paper money covered with autographs–compiled by Marlene Dietrich during World War II. It comes directly from Dietrich’s descendants to Swann Auction Galleries, which estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.
Who was Marlene Dietrich? She was a Berlin-born actress and singer who became an international star from her role in the 1930 German film, The Blue Angel. She actively resisted the Nazis, who assumed power in her home country, by funding efforts to help refugees flee Hitler’s regime. She renounced her German citizenship in 1939 and threw herself into the U.S. war effort, touting war bonds and embarking on two long tours in 1944 and 1945 with the United Service Organization (USO). Her war work earned her the Légion d’honneur from the French government and the Medal of Freedom from America. She regarded the latter award as her proudest accomplishment. After the war’s end, she continued to act in films and perform as a cabaret singer. She died in 1992 at the age of 90.
What is the purpose of a short snorter? The tradition seems to have started among aviators in the 1920s. If two flyers met, each would sign a piece of paper money belonging to the other. If they met again, one could challenge the other to produce the signed bill, or else buy the challenger a drink–but a small one, as full-on drunkenness and flying don’t mix. The small drink, known as a short snort, gave its name to the signed roll of bills. At some point the tradition spread beyond aviators to military personnel.
Do we know when Dietrich started her short snorter? “We have the story of how it likely happened, but not how it actually happened,” says Marco Tomaschett, autographs specialist at Swann, explaining that Dietrich’s collection dates to the 1940s, and she might have started it on one of her USO tours. “Someone who was collecting signatures for his short snorter asked her to sign his, and she thought it was a cool idea and decided to start one herself.”
Dietrich’s short snorter measures 38 feet long. That’s kind of unwieldy. Did she really carry the bill roll on her person during her war travels? “The tradition at the time was you were supposed to have all of them [the signed bills], so if a compatriot asked to see a signature, she could present the signature so she wouldn’t have to buy a drink for them,” he says. “Most short snorters were easier to carry, because most could fit the signatures on a single bill. If you ran out of room, you got a second bill. But not everyone was called to the front repeatedly, and not everyone did as much travel as she was doing.”
Do we know if she was ever challenged to produce a signed bill? “I don’t know. Probably not,” he says, laughing. “But she did use it to demonstrate solidarity with the soldiers.” He adds that seeing Dietrich’s short snorter inspired Army Air Force Captain John L. Gillen to start his own, and his bill roll ultimately grew to contain paper money from 36 countries and measure 100 feet long.
How often do you, as an autograph specialist, handle short snorters? “They don’t come up, mainly because they generally don’t have the value that brings them to auction,” he says. “This is unusual in that it has collectible autographs and it was owned by a celebrated figure.”
Has the short snorter tradition disappeared? “The historical factors that made it exciting at the time have dropped away,” he says. “The drinking game has completely vanished. The last time you get a serious collection of signatures on a bill is in the 1960s, connected with the space race. The analogy of space exploration to aviation made it a natural continuation.”
Who are some of the notable people who signed Dietrich’s short snorter? Author Ernest Hemingway, whose friendship with the actress predated World War II, wrote, “She’s long gone She never stands to fight knowing etc. Oct 4 1944.” Tomaschett is unsure of what the message might mean, but suspects it’s an inside reference of some sort. Military signers include George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and Nathan Farragut Twining; entertainers include Danny Thomas and Burgess Meredith.
What is your favorite signature on the Dietrich short snorter? Tomaschett cited the inscription of Lieutenant Buck Dawson, who wrote, “Even a paratrooper must admire your courage. You volunteer for many things we have to do. Thanks. The 82nd Div.” “The courage he’s referring to is that she performed in these conditions,” he says, referring to the rugged environment of the war’s front lines. “We’re certainly not used to being shot at or bombed, but she did it [staged her USO act] repeatedly, for years.”
If you click the link to lot 46, you can see a period black-and-white photo of Dietrich draped in her short snorter.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.