Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mae West: Shades of Safire

Imagine it's 1949 and you're about to come face to face with MAE WEST.
• • Sixty years ago, William Safire, then a cub reporter, went to Times Square where the Brooklyn bombshell was starring in a revival of "Diamond Lil.'' The Bowery queen's leading man in those post-war years was handsome Richard Coogan — — better known as TV's "Captain Video" than as the rialto's Captain Cummings.
• • According to Safire, Miss West, from her reclining position on a chaise longue, looked up at me with an expression of ''Have I sunk to this? They're sending the office boy?'' Worse, my first question was painfully puerile: what was it like to play opposite the hero of thousands of kids, Captain Video [New Jersey native Richard Coogan]?
• • Mae thought about that. Then, coming to a decision, she changed her expression. Batting those long false eyelashes, she looked at the ceiling and murmured, ''Mmmm . . . suppose you ask Captain Video . . . mmmm . . . how does it feel to play opposite . . . Mae West!''
• • She had caught the editor's angle, as I had not: send an innocent to the symbol of sin. She would play along for publicity's sake, presuming her persona would sell more tickets than her person.
• • Shimmy Sha-wobble • •
• • As she rose to usher me out, I dared ask if she ever did the shimmy onstage. ''In an Ed Wynn show ['Sometime'], I did a shimmy. But never'' — — Miss West reached up to brush an imaginary blonde hair off my shoulder, a touch I can feel right now — — ''never did I do the shimmy shewabble!''
• • William Safire clarified this narrative for his New York Times readers back in the year 2000: The shimmy sha-wobble is "a shimmy with bumps and grinds. Low class. Not our Mae."
• • William Safire was born on 17 December 1929 in Mae's hometown — — New York City. The youngest of three sons of Oliver C. and Ida Panish Safir [an "e" being added on to clarify pronunciation], Safire graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and attended Syracuse University. However, he quit after his second year in 1949 to take a job with Tex McCrary, a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune who hosted radio and television shows; the young legman interviewed Mae West, Lucky Luciano, and other known names.
• • William Safire called himself a pundit and defined his political stance as "a libertarian conservative." If this position supported individual freedom and minimal government, which it seems to suggest, then he would have seen eye to eye with the screen queen.
• • The versatile journalist and former publicist had been President Richard Nixon's speechwriter. He won a Pulitzer Prize during his tenure with The New York Times. Keeping his pen and mind moving, he also wrote novels, books on politics, and numerous columns on language usage.
• • Last Sunday, the lively and prolific 79-year-old Safire came to the final end of his sentence while at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland. Cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

• • And, by the way, the shimmy sha-wobble — — a shimmy with bumps and grinds — — is the kind of titillating dance that Mae excelled at, got fired for, and was still performing at a Masquers event in 1973.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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