Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mae West: Plain Dealing

Critics continue to weigh in on MAE WEST.
• • Cleveland journalist Tricia Springstubb did a column for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. According to her, 'She Always Knew How' by Charlotte Chandler [Simon & Schuster, 317 pages, 2009] is a sexy, smart biography of Mae West, who ruled the screen and her own career.
• • Tricia Springstubb writes: The sofa is gilt, covered in eggshell satin, and the extended hand is baby soft, dripping with diamonds. But look out. Those diamonds are "old-cut" and sharp enough to scratch your palm. According to Mae West, that's the best kind, and what better authority than Diamond Lil herself?
• • "She Always Knew How," a biography from Charlotte Chandler, reads like an extended conversation with this witty, provocative, surprisingly sweet woman, and it's hard to imagine better entertainment than the musings of a "girl who climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong."
• • Born in Brooklyn in 1893 as Mary Jane West, the adored daughter of a beautiful corset model and a "bare knuckles fighter," she was never guilty of false modesty. Her father's offer to build her a dollhouse baffled her — — what she wanted, and got, was a toy stage. Baby May (she later changed it to Mae because it looked more cheerful) began her career at age 5 on the stage of Brooklyn's Royal Theater, where she took first prize in the amateur hour and never looked back.
• • Her formal education ended at third grade. "School kind of got in my way, you might say. . . . They told my mother, 'Mae's an average student.' Can you imagine?"
• • Her career was everything to her, and she insisted on complete control of it. She turned down an offer from the famous New York producer Florenz Ziegfeld because the theater where his "Follies" played wasn't intimate enough for her.
• • With titles like "Sex" and "The Wicked Age," her plays were never the darlings of critics or censors, ("Imagine censors that wouldn't let you sit in a man's lap! I've been in more laps than a napkin!"), but the public idolized her.
• • Throughout her career onstage and in film, she wrote her own lines, including that invitation to come up and see her sometime, and Diamond Lil's reply to the innocent coat-check girl who cries "Goodness!" at the sight of all those gems. "Goodness," Lil purrs, "had nothin' to do with it, dearie. "
• • In 1934, West was the highest paid female performer in the world. "Sex and work have been the only two things in my life, but if I ever had to choose . . . it was always my work." Yet the distance between the real West and her stage persona seems approximately the width of an emery board.
• • With the exception of her beloved mother, she preferred the company of men. "Women spend too much of their lives saying no."
• • West scripted parts for drag queens, championed black actors and musicians, and donated her used Cadillacs, still in pristine condition, to convents because "I just can't stand seeing a nun waiting for a bus."
• • She discovered George Raft and Carey [sic] Grant, and counted Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich among her confidantes. At the end of this book-length conversation, carried on with Chandler when West was in her 80s, the star leans forward with a confession.
• • "You know, my diamonds I told you all those men gave me? I wanted you to know — — I bought some of them myself." As she'd be first to point out, no one deserved them more.
— — Source: — —
• • Book Review by: Tricia Springstubb
• • Published in: The Cleveland Plain Dealer — —
• • Published on: 15 February 2009

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
Add to Google
• • Photo: • • Mae West • • none • •
Mae West.


  1. On Monday Feb. 23 at 7:30 PM, cinema & pop culture icon Mae West will be celebrated with a tribute at the James Bridges Theater, on the UCLA campus. There will be guest speakers, film clips and actual dresses worn by Miss West and designed by Edith Head and Schiaparelli! We are planning more surprises and goodies to make it a night to remember so join us as we honor a sassy hottie who was way ahead of her time and lived her own bling-bling lifestyle.

    The event is FREE and open to the public.

    Scheduled speakers include (pending availability):

    Charlotte Chandler, author of SHE ALWAYS KNEW HOW: MAE WEST, A PERSONAL BIOGRAPHY (

    Kevin Thomas, film critic

    Tim Malachosky, personal assistant to Mae West

    Deborah Landis, Costume Designer (

    Jonathan Kuntz, UCLA film historian (

    Moderated by Robert Rosen, Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

    Actress, playwright, screenwriter, and iconic sex symbol Mae West was born in New York in 1893. She created a scandal -- and a sensation -- on Broadway with her play “Sex” in 1926. Convicted of obscenity, she was sentenced to ten days in prison. She went to jail a convict and emerged a star. Her next play, “Diamond Lil”, was a smash, and she would play the role of Diamond Lil in different variations for virtually her entire film career.

    In Hollywood she played opposite George Raft, Cary Grant (in one of his first starring roles), and W. C. Fields, among others. She was the number one box-office attraction during the 1930s and saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy. Her films included some notorious one-liners -- which she wrote herself -- that have become part of Hollywood lore: from "too much of a good thing can be wonderful" to "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better." Her risqué remarks got her banned from radio for a dozen years, but behind the clever quips was Mae's deep desire, decades before the word "feminism" was in the news, to see women treated equally with men. She saw through the double standard of the time that permitted men to do things that women would be ruined for doing.

    For information and directions to the James Bridges Theater visit:

    Parking is $9 in Parking Lot #3. For a map visit:

  2. In the opening pages of Charlotte Chandler's new biography of Mae West, She Always Knew How, the author inadvertently tips off readers that they may be getting diluted goods. In regards to granting Ms Chandler's interview request West is quoted, "I'm saturated, I'm not promoting anything or selling anything, so I don't have any reason."

    When excerpts of the interview were originally published in the February 1984 issue of MS magazine, the short article's snappy editing made for fascinating reading. Presented in this expanded form, the conversation seems to drag (no pun intended). That Chandler in fact conducted this interview is not in question. She has authored many acclaimed biographies of cinematic luminaries, but its the exceedingly talkative nature of the material presented here that raises the question of what West actually said, and what Chandler interpreted as what she said, interwoven with comments made about West by other subjects the author interviewed over the years. Arranging this data into coherency may account for the large amount of elapsed time since the interview and the publication of this biography, some thirty years later. While it is improbable that Chandler has attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, it appears West succeeded in pulling the wool over her eyes.

    The fact that Chandler does not state a time frame, or how long a duration of time she interviewed West is troubling. Born Lyn Erhard, no personal facts about Chandler are available, and she appears to be somewhat of an enigma. Perhaps this is why she can relate to a personage such as West who had no problem rearranging the facts of her life to suit herself, or the listener at the time.

    West certainly warms up talking about her favorite subject - herself, and it is wonderful to hear her voice throughout this book. However, to the informed Mae West fan, this voice is somewhat muted and self serving rather than being reflective. For example, when the subject of one of West's lovers is brought up, he is simply referred to a "D." Guido Deiro and West were in fact married and ample proof lies deposited in Envelope 7, Miscellaneous Letters, and Legal Documents in the collection at the Center for the Study of Free-Reed instruments at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Years earlier, In 1911, West married Frank Wallace without obtaining a divorce, making her a bigamist. No mention is ever made of this.

    Although West scored numerous successes in vaudeville and on Broadway, she suffered many setbacks as well, but these are conveniently overlooked and glossed over. Any biographer worth their salt having done background sleuthing would be aware of the ups and downs of West's long and varied career. As a result the uninitiated reader would believe that West's career was smooth sailing and everything was sunshine and roses. Far from being the truth, West was toughened by the assaults of critics and the resiliency she developed ultimately made her successful, yet little of that struggle is revealed or acknowledged on either part here.

    In her search for validation and add credence to her angle on West, Chandler has hitched her wagon to Tim Malachosky, the last of a long line of "personal assistants" to Miss West. Malachosky spent eight years rendering unpaid secretarial services to West and his utter devotion to looking after her needs is beyond reproach. West in turn, was grateful to have him as part of her entourage. However, in a somewhat misguided effort, Malachosky has attempted to rewrite West's history in regards to diminishing the role of the other young men she befriended in the last two decades of her life, placing himself in a more prominent position than is his due. By sheer good luck of being the last fan having close contact with her at the time of her death, he came into possession of many of West's personal items. In his dogged determination to sanitize the importance of Mae West's contribution to the sexual revolution of the 20th century he has kept papers that he deems "Miss West would not like others to see" locked away in his personal archives, and Chandler's book suffers for it.
    West encouraged her young male fans to come up and see her and in fact Malachosky was present during one occasion when West hilariously conducted a verbal lesson on fellatio, much to his consternation. None of this is mentioned and Malachoksy is adamant that few visitors were ever invited to visit her Ravenswood lair. This flies in the face of a long list of guests that included Burt Reynolds, Elton John, John Phillips, Ian Whitcomb, Paul Williams, Van McCoy, along with an army of others.

    West's lover and defacto common law husband, Chester Rybinsky, AKA Chuck Krauser AKA Paul Novak is dealt with in a very one dimensional manner. Novak unquestionably loved and adored West but had much more going for him as a well rounded individual with interests of his own than what Chandler presents here. As well, Mae's love/hate relationship with her sister Beverly is somewhat glossed over. According to Dolly Dempsey, long time West confident, the two sisters' tumultuous relationship harkens back to their early years living in a Brooklyn tenement when young Beverly broke her ankle and there was no money to have it set properly. Guilt and anger over that incident, made for a lifelong bitter sweet bond between the two sisters.

    Despite the score of other Mae West biographies that have been published over the years, Chandler's examination of West's life and career is refreshing and welcome in that we hear Mae West in her own voice. Sadly little of the famous West wit and sparkle surfaces in their conversation. The reader can't get over the feeling that what Chandler offers the reader is a lack luster and pale imitation, paste if you will, of what Diamond Lil stood for, and was about.