Friday, May 09, 2008

Mae West: Turpentine Quarters

The humor of Mae West was influenced by the farce and frisson of vaudeville, noted Edward Rothstein. Vaudevillians also based their humor on seemingly rigid categories, including race and gender; yet they play with boundaries, exhilaratingly breaking them down while exploring ambiguities.
• • Rothstein's article continued: Consider the revealing analysis offered by Ms. Jill Watts. She dismisses the longtime rumor that Mae West was a man in drag, but raises the unprovable hypothesis that she may have had black ancestry. It really doesn't matter though because, as Ms. Watts shows, key elements of West's persona were rooted in black traditions.
• • Mae West herself said that her earliest influence was the black entertainer Bert Williams. She popularized the sexually charged black dance the shimmy (it was sometimes believed she had invented it). She tinted photographs to make herself look like her black maid. And the black writer Zora Neale Hurston in a 1934 essay, ''Characteristics of Negro Expression,'' said that Mae West ''had much more flavor of the turpentine quarters than she did of the white bawd.''
• • [Ed: Speaking of Zora Neale Hurston's 1934 essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression"
this was perhaps the first attempt to define the jook joint. Of course, Mae West set "Diamond Lil" in a Bowery saloon that was not too far distant from a jook — — i.e., the "turpentine quarters."]
• • At the same time, Ms. Watts points out, racist caricature appeared in her acts along with attempts to emphasize her ''whiteness.'' Invoking Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ms. Watts argues that this double perspective stems from a particularly black style of humor and that it led to ''an indeterminacy that challenged the whole idea of racial fixity.''
• • The same indeterminacy characterized West's sexual persona, in which her saucy femininity was conjoined with a masculine assertion of power — — an opposition that led to the ''drag'' rumors. W. C. Fields called her ''a plumber's idea of Cleopatra.''
• • Mae West steered a course between respectability and vulgarity, racism and identification, femininity and masculinity. But of course, Mae West's interest in black culture did not determine such tensions. Rather, she and other 1930s motion picture actresses emerged out of the same popular tradition: vaudeville.
• • Vaudeville thrived on racial caricatures, satires of respectability and sexual inversions. Jews appeared as Irish; blacks appeared as Chinese; Eastern Europeans masqueraded as high society types; men appeared in drag. . . . This kind of humor, of course, is far from genteel; the jokes are tinged with discomfort and uncertainty. It's all very funny, but as Mae West might say, goodness has nothing to do with it.
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Article: "Connections — — Vaudeville Haunts Not So Strange Bedfellows."
• • Written by: Edward Rothstein
• • Published in: The New York Times — —
• • Published on: 11 August 2001
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo:
• • Mae West • •
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Mae West.

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