Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mae West: Blush-worthy?

Here's another drive-by scattershot embrace of the latest book on MAE WEST — — the hardcover with that dreadfully Photoshopped dustjacket, a retouched image that makes Mae's lower lip look like something you bait a hook with.
• • Tsk tsk.
• • And it is also sad to realize that the brief interval when had insightful scribblers keeping abreast of new titles is over. No longer a model of narrative rectitude, has current standards calibrated to the average soap opera fan.
• • Check out Bronwyn Miller's column below. Blush-worthy, cringe-inducing, gullible, inept? We demur — — you decide.
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• • • • SHE ALWAYS KNEW HOW: Mae West — — A Personal Biography
• • • • Charlotte Chandler
• • • • Simon & Schuster [ISBN: 9781416579090]
• • As Mae West herself once proclaimed, “Some women know how to get what they want. Others don’t. I’ve always known how.” This epigram explains the title as well as the mindset of this very driven and singular woman. Charlotte Chandler, venerated biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx and, most recently, Bette Davis, turns her keen eye to the life and career of one of the most iconic stars of Hollywood.
• • Born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, in 1893, she quickly found her calling, and it involved a stage, a spotlight and a receptive audience. Mae, who changed her name only slightly from the nickname of “May” for aesthetic reasons, was the first child of Matilda and Jack West. Jack was known throughout New York as “Battlin’ Jack,” a tough, no-nonsense neighborhood boxer who once laid a guy flat with one punch for merely looking at his young wife. Her parents wanted to give their talented daughter all they could and encouraged her to perform on the stage, which she did, with great success. She spent her formative years in variety shows, vaudeville tours and the burlesque circuit, literally growing up in front of her audience.
• • When she came of age, Mae decided that instead of fitting a rather voluptuous peg into a square hole, she would do far better if she wrote her own material. Thus, Mae West the playwright was born. Her first play, scandalously titled Sex, opened in 1926 and became something of a cause célèbre. Mae was convicted of obscenity and sentenced to 10 days in jail. She could have had her lawyer and soon-to-be lover persuade the powers-that-be to knock the sentence down to community service, but Mae felt it was more honorable to do her time — — and, of course, think of the publicity!
• • Years later, she commented, “They say censorship was my enemy, but I’m not so sure about that. Maybe censorship was my best friend. You can’t get famous for breaking the rules unless you’ve got some rules to break. Where would censorship have been without me? Like I always say, I made censorship necessary.” After that, there was no stopping her. Plays that tackled very tough, very modern issues continued until Hollywood came to call. There, as on Broadway, she called her own shots, never afraid to push the envelope.
• • Not only did her trademark sayings like “Come up and see me sometime” (which is actually a misquote from one of her early films) and that one-of-a-kind walk define her persona, Mae proved herself to be a rather acute arbiter of talent. She made sure that Cary Grant was cast alongside her in I’m No Angel, and she persuaded George Raft, a local tough she had known in New York, to come to Los Angeles to pursue acting, eventually becoming her leading man in Night After Night. She was always about the work and took it most seriously. If W.C. Fields turned up to the set of My Little Chickadee inebriated, West would promptly leave. “Sex and work have been the only two things in my life,” she once said, “… but if I ever had to choose between sex and my work, it was always my work I’d choose.”
• • But apart from the work and the men (amazingly, there were only a few really important men in her life), Chandler also divulges what a kind and generous woman Mae was — — always eager to sign an autograph (she kept extra photos in the car, just for this purpose), faithfully keeping up with her fan mail, answering most letters herself, and generously donating to local charities in need. Once, she donated her slightly used limousine to the local convent because she couldn’t bear “to see a nun waiting for the bus” and decided they need a little luxury, too.
• • Most of the stories in this book were culled from conversations Chandler had with Mae at her Ravenswood apartment in Hollywood the year before her death. Her recall is astounding, and her desire to protect her image is unmistakable: “I made up my mind very early that I would never love another person as much as I loved myself. Maybe that sounds selfish to you. It is. But I saw what a mess a lot of people could make of their lives when they are smitten. Some of them go temporarily insane. They find a person who they think holds the key to their happiness — — the only key to their happiness that exists. They don’t understand they’re the ones who give the other person that power. It’s like a fever. The person in that condition may ruin their own life, and the lives of others, as well.”
• • Both reader and author find it difficult to ascertain if Mae is all about protecting the image she carefully created over so many years, or if she really believes it. But with her trademark wit, she retorts, “Some people thought I ought to see a psychiatrist, but why spoil a good thing?”
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— — Source: — —
• • “Review
• • Written by: Bronwyn Miller
• • Published in: — —
• • Published on: 20 March 2009
• • © Copyright 1996-2009,
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• • N.B.: We put the copyright line there so no one will think WE wrote this drivel.

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

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