Austrian-born Susan, 22, came to London as an au pair girl, joined the famous Bluebell Girls, and was spotted by a film man from Las Vegas …” ran The Daily Mirror on Monday 22nd August 1966, as a part of a fashion spread (“Susan finds filming can make quite a change”) on the model/actress, shining star of Frankenstein Created Woman.
In fact, Dietlinde Ortrun Zechner was actually born in war-torn Poland, at midday precisely, on 2nd August 1944. Come peacetime, her family moved to Klagenfurt, Austria, a winter sports resort with a population of around 70,000. Her father owned a string of electrical shops there. The young Dietlinde would ski to school during the cold Austrian winter. An early theatrical experience saw her play an angel in a school play. She grew rebellious; a later report card claimed her to be “Restless and a bad influence on the others, but good at athletics and all forms of sport.” By the time she was eighteen, she had had enough. “I’d had it with the provincial ways of Klagenfurt,” she said in 1966, “so I kissed Momma, Poppa, and my two kid brothers – Ulrich and Reinhard – goodbye and headed west like your Horace Greeley advised all young people to do. My first stop was England …”
She started work in London as an au pair girl, but soon tired of playing nursemaid to somebody else’s children. After a liaison with an airline steward, she found herself “a rich sugar daddy” to keep her in a Chelsea flat. Her life began to change in the summer of 1963. Lazing away one afternoon in Hyde Park, she met a tall redhead, Helen Kosta. They struck up a friendship, and, entranced by Kosta’s life as a Bluebell Girl, Dietlinde inveigled her way into a meeting with Peter Baker, the Bluebells’ London manager. Impressed, he sent her to Paris for an audition with the Bluebells’ autocratic, semi-legendary founder, Margaret Kelly. She was duly hired and found herself earning a princely £80 per week on the London chorus line. She would later claim that “my childhood ballet lessons and the fact that I was blonde” won her the job. The work was hard, but she stuck at it and was eventually asked to tour with the troupe to the Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas. There, she bade the Bluebells adieu, having “decided to stay on in the States and have a go at every young girl’s dream: a movie career.”
Her decision was not entirely unprompted. She’d been sharing an apartment in Nevada with a young gay couple, Ruben and Nicholas. A disagreement over sleeping arrangements (to put it tactfully) led to her packing her bags and moving in with a Texan gambler, Bud. That didn’t last; at a party, she met and fell in love with a handsome Latino named Tony Scotti, a singer at the Desert Inn who was being groomed for stardom by 20th Century Fox. By this time she was tiring of the Bluebell routine, and feuding regularly with one of the other girls. Bright lights beckoned; she and Tony were invited to a party thrown by Elvis Presley. She married Tony Scotti secretly at midnight on 15th October 1965, quit the Bluebells and headed for Hollywood.
Her film debut was a well-received cameo as Ruta, a randy German chambermaid in the hysterically-paced film of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, known as See You in Hell, Darling in the UK. She said of her character, “Like me, Ruta is a Teutonic import with a weakness for strong-willed men. Of course the fact that I speak with a German accent didn’t hurt my chances of being cast in the part … I couldn’t have asked for a better cast or director to work with on my first film. They were all screen veterans, but they still found the time to take me under their wings.” She had, by now, adopted her stage name – but that didn’t prevent Warner Brothers’ publicity agents from dreaming up a promotional scam to rename their budding starlet, offering a $500 prize for the best suggestion. Over 5,000 responses were received (including, amusingly, Norma Mailor), but to no avail; she was to stay a ‘Susan’.
Her marriage failed, and she and Tony divorced after only six months. She claimed to have had a brief affair with Stuart Whitman, the male lead of An American Dream. “What was important to me,” she said, “was that I was being noticed by people that mattered. My philosophy was: Be nice to the stars, let your name be linked with theirs, and sooner or later you’ll make it. Why not use sex to get on? Others do it and I haven’t heard an actor or a producer complain.” The saddest of these liaisons was undoubtedly that with a man she nicknamed ‘Stud’, a “rugged six-footer” she knew from his appearances in Westerns. He introduced her to marijuana, amyl nitrate, and swinging parties. One night, jealous of others’ attentions, he bullwhipped her viciously across the back.
Other alleged dates at this time included Sammy Davis Jr and Richard Pryor; she gave her number to Lee Marvin, but he never called back. She took an apartment in Beverly Hills, and acting classes at LA’s Desilu Studio Workshop. They soon paid off when she secured a place as Magda, one of the eponymous heroines of Desilu’s early Star Trek episode, Mudd’s Women. Her classes continued; she was coached in voice and diction by one Madame Gertrude Fogler. “If the studio heads think I have an accent now, they should have heard me murder the language when I first hit town.” It was a perennial problem for the young wannabe starlet; learning lines, for example, took her twice as long as most. “I still haven’t learned to think in English as much as I should… I always end up translating lines) into German first.” She made a few more TV appearances, and played some minor parts in minor films; their titles are unrecorded.
Playboy magazine selected her as their Miss August 1966. She posed topless for the magazine’s centerfold, and a gushing profile (“Hollywood seconds Playboy’s premise that Miss August ought to be in pictures” appeared alongside candid shots of Denberg shopping for clothes, dropping into a patisserie for a strudel break”, and lounging languorously beside a pool. She would also appear in the issue of April 1967, but by the time the spread hit the news-stands, she’d returned to England and was playing the pivotal role of Christina in Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman. “I was waiting for my chance,” she later said, “and finally it came. I was tested for the rolel… They were looking for an unknown and outside Hollywood very few people had heard of me.” Presumably, it had been the Warner Brothers connection that had brought her to the company’s attention. She was contracted via agents Plunkett Greene for a staggering fee of £12,000, very generous indeed by Hammer’s standards at the time.
Her last nights in Hollywood were distinguished by an outrageous incident at a party hosted by Frank Sinatra: she performed an impromptu striptease beside Sinatra’s swimming pool. “Off came my bra, my panties, every stitch I was wearing, while an appreciative audience clustered round and roared their approval. I was the hit of the evening, even though I heard later that Frank wasn’t too happy about what happened…”
She flew to London and rented a flat in St James’s Street, Mayfair, commuting to Bray Studios to work on the film. The language barrier caused her difficulty once again, and her voice was later dubbed (by Jane Hands of the Ripper Merrow, it has been suggested.) She threw herself on the mercy of the company’s publicity machine; there was a photo session on the Frankenstein set on her 22nd birthday, complete with Cushing cake, and cleaver. (Her evening celebrations, incidentally, took place at Victor Lowndes’s then notorious and oh-so daring Playboy Club in Park Lane.)
Frankenstein Created Woman opened in May 1967…. I was hailed for my looks, if not my acting”, she bemoaned. Now resident in the UK, she took a jaunt to New York for a beano to celebrate the opening of John Huston’s The Bible. There, she and a friend, Claudine, were introduced to Anthony Quinn. They got on famously. Her alleged dates grew ever more celebrated. Charles Bronson, Trini Lopez, Hugh O’Brien, Sidney Poitier, Roman Polanski…
All of swinging London was her oyster. She wasn’t unduly concerned by her lack of work. “I held out for the top scripts, and turned down more than a dozen that didn’t come up to the mark,” she claimed. She is thought to have been the original choice for the part of Rebecca, the title role of the 1967 Anglo-French co-production, Girl on a Motorcycle. Reportedly, star Alain Delon refused the part initially because he did not approve of those originally intended as his director and co-star; on 5th August 1967, Marianne Faithfull won the role.) And so Denberg carried on, her nights spent living the high-life in restaurants and nightclubs: The Mirabelle, The Caprice, The White Elephant in Curzon Street, Dolly’s Discotheque. She’d also been re-introduced to the dubious pleasures of dope, which made her feel “very sexy and wild. And there was never a hangover.” Getting over an affair with Jim Brown, whom she met while he was shooting The Dirty Dozen at Elstree, she booked a flight and somehow ended up in Sardinia. There, in the company of a Swedish man, Lars, and his chum Glenda, she discovered LSD.
It turned out to be the biggest mistake she’d ever made. “I took a little white tablet … and learned for the first time that hell could exist,” she testified. “People called it a ‘bad trip’. For me, it was a frightening mind-crippling journey.” But acid, together with the dope, would become a habit, and appear to precipitate a breakdown. Back in London, she found herself – unsurprisingly – fast-running out of money. She found it impossible to maintain the rent on her Mayfair flat, and moved to a shabby bedsit at Earl’s Court, where “I sat alone among my piled-up luggage containing my beautiful clothes, and cried day after day … Under the influence of grass’ and LSD, which I was now taking every day, I did things I’d normally have never dreamed of. I slept badly. I had bad dreams all the time, and often they overlapped into the day so that in the end I could hardly tell the dreams from the reality… I’d wake up screaming.”
Word got around of her crack-up and her father flew over from Austria. Reluctantly, she agreed to return with him to Klagenfurt, where she was made an appointment with a neurologist. The story twists further here; evidence of a childhood abuse incident involving ‘a cousin’ appears to have been uncovered. She was sent to a hospital in Vienna, where she endured electric shock therapy. ‘The Treatment’ as she called it, involved her being strapped into a chair with a metal skullcap on her head. Electrodes were placed over her body. A switch was pulled, and the current coursed through her. Three times she underwent this ‘therapy’ before she absconded. She was briefly discharged, before being sent to a mental asylum. “There were no chairs. We could sit on the floor or walk or just stand there.” At night, she was locked alone in a cell.
She lived to tell the tale. “The Girl Who Went to Hell and Back” roared a headline in Britain’s News of the World on Sunday 23rd November 1969. “Actress Susan Denberg writes the astonishing story of what she had to do to be a star.” Over three editions, she luridly told the story of “a Hollywood dream that became a nightmare”; “A Spinning Top Game – and suddenly I’m on the slippery slope” – “The terror treatment”; of the drugs, the sex, the disillusionment, the horror. “If this story warns other young girls who are offered a bite at the red apple of stardom, only to find a Garden of Eden swarming with vipers,” she wrote, “I shall have achieved something.”
“I’m cured now, and determined not to make the same mistakes. I feel everything’s in front of me again. Despite all that’s happened, it’s a good feeling. I’ve learned the hard way that the wild life does not pay … I’m still only 25, Hollywood is beckoning once more – and this time I’ll go there with my eyes open.”
The call never came. Her comeback was not to be. The story’s end remains the subject of some debate, although the overwhelming weight of opinion has it that the unfortunate girl’s death soon followed. Perhaps we know too much already, and it’s best to content ourselves with what we’ve got; a good film containing a wonderful performance by a little girl from a little town in Austria …
Now as Dietlinde Scotti, she resides in the tenth district of Vienna, Austria.
Hammer Horror#05 1995