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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Mae West the Goddess Who Made Herself

Aggiornamento: 13 apr 2023

With the death of Raquel Welch in February, one wonders if the last movie sex goddess has hung up her bikini. Has pornography at thumb pressure and kids blasé about picturing each other naked and acrobatic on their phones ended an era? Madonna is out of breath trying to keep up with her publicity. There is little patience to wait around to find out whether within the armour she wears there is a body, even a much lifted, rebuilt, plastified one. We seem to be moving toward a gender neutral world that would make body parts as passé as last year’s gadgets. Some say bisexuality will be the next big thing, a double feature on every bill. But that old codger Tiresias never generated much box office.

It’s an old story. The goddess begins by giving us a peek, (high-) kicking up such gossip as the scurrility standard of her decade will allow, undressing with a grin for a while and then drifting out of currency to be remembered with a sigh by a libido -enfeebled generation. It’s not that she grows old—nobody ages in Hollywood—but her public does. New decade, new goddess.

We know it’s simply bodies commodified, redesigned if necessary, and jerked like puppets by ad-man warriors exhaling cigar smoke and dispensing pep pills. That’s all too familiar wisdom. Third Millennium theorists have added their solemn touch. They insist that the sex goddess is more than a construct of the male imagination. The divine women who act out hyper-femininity for us, we’re told, capture agency, that is, take control. They overpower the other characters in a movie and make it their story. In the process they also ride the gawking ticket-buyers in the audience like Lady Godiva on her nag.

What would Mae West, after an unladylike guffaw, have said to that? Probably that the professors were teaching the retarded to suck eggs as big as her own proud boobs. She had long before undercut their solemnities with a couple of wisecracks. 1 “A man’s imagination is a woman’s best friend.” 2 “I knew how to handle men….When you get rid of one, you don’t want to sit around moping…. There are enough men to go around.

In an obituary of Mae, Clancy Segal wrote: “She was always impersonating herself impersonating Mae West parodying a male impersonation of a woman.” The weapon of the sex goddess is, in fact, impersonation. Mae used it like a serial killer in an endless chain-effect, one artifice to the next. She was Her Majesty of artifice.

It started with her account of May Jane West born in Brooklyn in 1893, the favourite of her mother, Tillie, who had modelled corsets. Little May, soon to be done over as Mae, impersonated the brightest kid in the liveliest family of the borough. She insisted with a wink that she was grown up at thirteen.“Before that I was finding my way.” At fourteen, as she tells it, she was a vaudeville wow doing a male impersonator and inventing her trademark, floating-hip walk. She was a show-stopper as a “baby vamp” till she reached Broadway, welcomed by a New York Times critic. There, the bright star of failed shows, her glory was finally unobscured in 1918, as Mayme, opposite and outshining Ed Wynn. She danced the shimmy. Broadway sang along, “Ev’rybody shimmies now.”

But switching stage names wasn’t enough make-believe for “baby May”. She wanted to construct another world for herself with words. Under the phoney signature Jane Mast, she wrote a show called Sex, which she directed, produced and starred in. Religious groups co-operated by getting the city to raid the theatre and arrest the cast. Mae spent eight days in jail “for corrupting the morals of youth”. It was a shot in the arm for her career of pretending and propped up the limping show with publicity. Mae dined with the warden and told reporters she wore her silk panties while serving time.

Mae wrote her next play, Drag, about homosexuality. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice stopped it from opening on Broadway. Here we should say a word about Mae’s liberalism. Her enlightenment had limits and depended on which way the wind was blowing. The titles of her plays showed that, though Puritanism harrumphed, there was a good market for the indelicate. The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, The Constant Sinner are clear about what they are peddling.

Mae agreed with Woman’s Lib but said she wasn’t a “bra-burning feminist”. She seemed in favour of the Gay Liberation movement. However, in her 1959 autobiography, written with Stephen Longstreet, she talks like a Cold War ideologue: “In many ways homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system of western civilization.” Elsewhere, more herself, she repeated, “Live and let live is my philosophy on the subject, and I believe everybody has the right to do his or her own thing or somebody else's—as long as they do it in private.” We have to conclude that if Mae was an icon, it was not of ideas but of basic vaudevillian humour of the leer and smirk sort. She gave old chestnuts a fresh roasting by her writing. It may not have been deep, but it was sharp. She bubbled wide-awake epigrams:

“It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”

“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”

“There are no good girls gone wrong—just bad girls found out.”

And she never stopped composing plays. Her Diamond Lil of 1928 was a Broadway hit and put a seal on her carefully shaped persona of a controlling sexpot as clever as she was ready to frolic. It was what got her called to Hollywood in 1932. Paramount Pictures signed her to a contract, and she appeared in Night after Night with the already famous George Raft. Finding there was too little of her Lil in it, she touched up the script. Mae saw to it that the Diamond-Lil prototype got more seductively into her next movie, the 1933, She Done Him Wrong. Its huge profit saved Paramount from bankruptcy. The success of her next picture, I’m No Angel, made Mae’s salary among the highest in the country. The trade mag Variety said, “She’s as hot an issue as Hitler” and F. Scott Fitzgerald called her, “The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark.”

The coming of the Hays Code in 1934, meant to keep sex off the screen, only perfected Mae’s juggling with innuendo and double meanings. Her Klondike Annie, 1936, marked the peak of her filmmaking. Her portrayal of a Salvation Army worker as more intent on fun than the Pearly Gates drove the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst apoplectic. She had made an enemy of him by her catty remark about his mistress Marion Davies. It was on a visit to his kitschy earthly-paradise, San Simeon. Mae commented: “I could’a married him, but I got no time for parties.” (The press baron would suffer more than apoplexy in 1941 as Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.)

Go West, Young Man, 1936, was cute as a title but like Everyday’s a Holiday, 1937, was a dud at the box office. Mae, well into her forties, had stalled as a film star. She toyed for a while with family radio and had to laugh off attacks of “immoral, obscene, impure, vulgar and indecent”. Her screenplay for My Little Chickadee, 1940, failed to bring her back to mainstream stardom but produced an all-time cult favourite.

Universal Pictures had give her creative control and she conjured up a collision between the two great movie pretenders, herself and W.C. Fields. His well-honed persona was of a whiskey-soaked curmudgeon and could be summed up by the philosophy that came out of the side of his mouth:

Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad” and “It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it.”

The coupling of the two cynics was a master stroke. The monumental souse fought to a draw with the religiously teetotal, well-pickled, fifty-ish sex symbol. The age of the political correct was seen in with the sound of a popping cork and the snap of a garter.

Mae performed here and there, often in nightclubs, but did no films for twenty-seven years from 1943. Then in Myra Breckinridge, in 1970, she danced along to what some considered her swan song. However, Mae didn’t die until 1980 and there was still to be done, Sextette in 1978, a movie based on her play, and finally Charlotte Chandler’s interview in 1979.

In Myra Breckinridge, Mae was as out of place as her mother’s corsets of the 1890s, and what Brooks Atkinson, the eminent New York Times critic said of Mae forty years before was still true:

However creditable an impersonator of scarlet roles Miss West may be, variety of attack is not among her qualifications as an actress []. Her peculiar slouching about the stage, which seems to provide firsthand evidence that, as the program says, she originated the shimmy dance, her vocal stunts, her exploitation of blond buxomness—all these grow pretty tiresome through repetition […].”

But with the years none of that mattered. The public wanted her that way, lurid along with the hokum. The big musical comedy number assembled around her with dozens of dainty males dressed as bananas was as it should be. When fans seek out Myra Breckinridge on YouTube today, it’s for Mae’s scenes. Which is rather a pity for an adventurous 1969 script from Gore Vidal about a surgical sex change and full of counterculture bite and subversion, with Raquel Welch thrown in.

The Charlotte Chandler interview was a sisterly chat that took place in Mae’s penthouse in the Ravenswood Apartments, built in 1930. She had lived there since her arrival in Hollywood two years later. Salvador Dali pictured Mae’s face as a room and that would have to be in the Ravenswood. She nested there fifty years, happy days, except when the management had barred entry to her Black boyfriend, boxer William ‘Gorilla’ Jones.

The art-deco Ravenswood proved the best introduction to Mae’s apartment. She treated Chandler to a view of her white satiny bedroom and the interviewer said it was one of the most famous bedrooms in the world. Mae corrected her: “The most famous bedroom.” There were mirrors on the ceiling, and Mae explained: “I like to see how I’m doin’.” That big I, the absent we, put her eighty-seven years in a plastic nutshell. “If you don’t think you’re wonderful,” said Mae,“why should anyone else?

She was all decoration. Not that there was nothing within—a person lurked there, a decorator busily primping and self-embellishing. A mystery too. What happened back in gay-nineties’s Brooklyn that made necessary “baby May’s” in-your-face love affair with herself? Whatever it was also made Mae a writer. She told Chandler, “Being an actress and a writer both—that’s the best thing you could be because you can be anyone you want. You just write yourself the part, and then you play it.”

Death in 1980 silenced the subject of dirty jokes that small boys and their grandfathers had been making for three-quarters of a century. Salvador Dali had created a surreal sofa shaped like her lips in 1938. In 1941 the RAF called its life-saving inflatable waistcoats Mae Wests to rhyme with breasts. In Quebec, a dessert cake called a Mae West is still popular. Of all the movie sex goddesses, she had been the the most devoted to artificiality, making it the point and sex only a joke. Along the way she had been crowned the Queen of Camp. Her most famous line will echo forever in the annals of smut: "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?"

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