Dietrich was a man of multiple talents and marriages. He met his first wife, Natalie Valley (1901-1988), an emigré from St. Petersburg, Russia, in San Francisco in 1940. A self-taught photographer, Natalie worked for Life magazine and delighted in shooting Dietrich in a variety of settings and poses in and around the Bay area, while he captured these locales in sketches and drawings. After she became pregnant, the two married in 1942 and had a daughter later that year that they named Ingrid. As the prospect of employment at the film studios drew Dietrich to Los Angeles, Natalie and Ingrid eventually followed. However, their life together in L.A. was fueled by disagreements and distrust, culminating in Natalie’s decision to take their daughter and move to New York.
Dietrich met his second wife, Mai Britt Cedeby (1920-1980), in 1947. Mai Britt was an established script supervisor in Sweden, who had come to Hollywood earlier in the year to work at the studios. Introduced by mutual friends, the two became good friends and eventually lovers, culminating in a marriage in 1950 that ironically was championed by Natalie as a condition of his seeing Ingrid again. The following year, Dietrich and Mai Britt had a baby that they named Thomas, followed by another baby in 1953 that they named Timothy. By the mid 1950s, the couple had grown apart and decided to separate, with Mai Britt returning to Sweden with the boys in order to re-establish her career. Despite their break-up, the two remained lifelong friends and Thom and Tim had the experience of getting to know both sides of their family in Sweden.
Dietrich’s third marriage was to Reneé Gold (1927-1976), who was a fashion designer, illustrator, costume supervisor and artist from West Caldwell, New Jersey. After enrolling in the Art Students League of New York, Reneé fell in love with her instructor, Edward Zutrau, and the two married and had a son in 1950 that they named Dana. Five years later, they divorced and Reneé resolved to start a new life with Dana on the West Coast. In 1958, she met Dietrich through a mutual friend and the two bonded over their passion for art. The following year, Dietrich bought a studio residence overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades and they got married. In 1960, they had a son that they named Tore (after Dietrich’s best friend, Tore Nilson), followed by another son in 1963 that they named Gregory. Tragically, by the fall of the latter year, Reneé began exhibiting paranoid tendencies fueled by a fear that someone was going to harm their family—tendencies that could only be counteracted by electro-shock therapy treatments. After undergoing treatment, Reneé would resume a normal life at home until paranoia crept back in, creating an uncontrollable and debilitating mental condition that could only be addressed through another round of shock treatments.
In August 1965, Dietrich and Reneé attended a dinner party, where he met Patty Gilbert (1936), a single mother and loan processor from Beverly Hills, California. At the time Patty met Dietrich, she was going through a divorce from Lawrence Hurst, Jr., who she had married in 1957 when he was studying to be a mudlogger. In 1962, they had a daughter that they named Christa. Although Dietrich and Patty had immediately felt a connection on that August night in 1965, it would be 8 months before they would see each other again. As the stress of his wife’s mental illness dominated his life, Dietrich, unable to work, suffered a heart attack in early 1966. Heeding the advice of his doctor, he moved out of the house and eventually settled in Mexico for 10 months, while Reneé continued living in the Palisades with Tore and Gregory. Dietrich’s time away from Reneé gave him a chance to recover and to re-focus his energies on his art. Invigorated by a visit from Patty, the couple imagined the possibility of a future life together. Upon his return from Mexico, he filed for divorce, which was granted in April 1967, and the following month, he and Patty eloped to Reno. After the divorce, Reneé moved out of the house and Dietrich moved back in, initiating a new chapter in his life with Patty, Tore,
Christa and Gregory. Over the years, the house in the Palisades was the site of family gatherings, small and large dinner parties, weddings, backyard art exhibitions, as well as the place where he painted, showed and sold his work. In 1993, Dietrich and Patty sold their house and moved to La Quinta, California, where he continued painting until the late 1990s, while also writing his memoirs in 1997.
Dietrich’s American citizenship was complicated by his objection to combat and ill advice from the Swedish Consulate. Having arrived in America on a student visa in 1938, he subsequently dropped out of school and was eventually able to secure permanent resident status. However, one year after the U.S. entered World War II, he was drafted. Heeding the advice of the Swedish Consulate, he applied for an exemption, citing his Swedish citizenship. While in the short term, this exemption enabled him to avoid having to go to war, in the long term, it prevented him from becoming an American citizen. Dietrich did contribute to the war effort through non-combative means between 1941 and 1943, when he worked at the Kaiser shipyards, translating one-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional blueprints to aid in the manufacture of U.S. naval vessels. In 1994, he learned that he could potentially become a citizen, contingent upon his passing the requisite tests and a positive hearing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Three years later, after having succeeded in doing this, he fulfilled his lifelong dream of being sworn in as an American citizen on October 16, 1997 at the age of 80.
Dietrich’s love of art was only equaled by his love of sports. After arriving in San Francisco, he met Harry “The Coach” Cowell, a regular fixture in Golden Gate Park who routinely watched tennis matches from the sidelines and then approached players with tips on how to improve their game. Dietrich credited Cowell with teaching him how to play, instilling a lifelong love of the sport. In the ensuing years, he would derive great pleasure from tennis, whether it was from the steady calm he felt from a back-and-forth rally, the thrill of a singles or a doubles match for fun or for sport, or the satisfaction of coaching his children and watching them grow. Around the same time that Dietrich was developing his tennis game, he also began taking up soccer again—a sport that was an integral part of his childhood in Sweden that became a crucial part of his rehabilitation following a near-devastating train accident when he was 20. Five years later, his perseverance paid off as he was part of a team that competed in the California State Soccer Championship held at Los Angeles Stadium. By the 1950s, Dietrich had returned to another sport of his youth: skiing. Like tennis, skiing would provide him with endless hours of enjoyment with friends and family at a time when the industry itself was being transformed from a DIY culture of trudging to the top of a slope to get a run to a multi-lift resort operation boasting all of the amenities. Beyond its thrill-seeking potential, skiing also offered a spectacular natural setting, which like Dietrich’s travels, would inspire his art. Even in the last decade of his life, Dietrich’s love of physical activity could not be contained. After enduring a series of heart-related issues, compounded by a staphylococcal infection that resulted in the amputation of his right leg, he continued to get himself in and out of his pool in La Quinta for his daily swim. On May 21, 2003, he died of congestive heart failure, one day after he and Patty celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary; Patty, who saw him through all of it, remained devoted to him to the end.