Saturday, November 25, 2000

Michael Kesterton

The sex goddess who had a way with words

Mae West, who died 20 years ago this week, was one of the great female impersonators.

Fans, both straight and gay, consider her to have been a woman ahead of her time. Her bad-girl caricature, which often enraged moralists, was rendered acceptable by her carefully polished witticisms. "Haven't you ever met a man that can make you happy?" she was asked in an early movie. "Sure," she replied. "Lots of times." Mae had a million of 'em.

The exhibitionist actress was even sexier in real life than on the screen. She was constantly on the alert for men. Mae once greeted a new scriptwriter at her Hollywood apartment in her negligée. "Feel these," she said. "They're hard as rocks."

Mary Jane West was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1893. Her voluptuous, Bavarian-born mother, Matilda, indulged the youngster for as long as she lived. She gave Mae her first diamond and taught her daughter that it was okay to enjoy life's pleasures, such as men, so long as she put her career first.

Mae was less fond of her father, Battlin' Jack West. He was a belligerent, cigar-chewing, bare-knuckle boxer and layabout with roots in Newfoundland. He was a drinker who quickly made his wife regret their marriage. Mae grew to despise smokers and drinkers, but developed a lifelong interest in boxers and strongmen as lovers.

Matilda pushed her seven-year-old daughter into a talent show: "Baby Mae — Song and Dance." When the child won the gold medal, her father built her a basement stage, so she could practise her performing. Show business took up so much of Mae's time that she attended school only until about Grade Three.

She was not a great singer or dancer, but the brunette tomboy cultivated a memorable "eccentric" persona, partly inspired by female impersonators, that was suited to vaudeville theatres.

At 16, Mae was taking lovers, but she didn't go steady. "My mother thought I was the greatest thing on Earth and she liked me to play with the boys," the actress recalled. She may never have spent a full night in bed with a man.

In 1911, on a theatrical tour in Wisconsin, Mae got married. She only wanted to sleep with Frank Wallace, a dancer, but the other girls persuaded her she needed the licence to protect herself if she got pregnant. Mae quickly regretted the union and concealed it from her mother for as long as she lived.

Mae kept her theatre work snappy by adding the shimmy, a kootch dance with lots of pep. At 28, she became a blonde.

By the 1920s, Mae was describing herself as a writer. She took full credit for plays that others helped her create. Eventually she wrote 12, including Sex (a prostitute's rise from a Montreal brothel), The Drag (a homosexual comedy) and Pleasure Man (an everyday story of cross-dressers). She got nine days in prison for producing Sex.

Her lovers included gangsters, boxers and entertainers such as George Raft. Her daily workout included sex in elevators and back seats of cars.

In 1930, her mother died. Mae fainted, wept, howled that she wanted to die and she stopped speaking entirely for three days. ("There wasn't anyone to play to," she later recalled. "It was the first time I had opened without my mother.") In 1935, when her father died, Mae spent only a half day at the movie studio, so she could attend his funeral.

Later, she developed an interest in spiritualism and tried to keep in touch with her departed parents.

At Mr. Raft's suggestion, Mae was called to Hollywood in 1932. The future sex goddess was 39 and a comparative unknown; she had to carry her bags from the train station herself.

That soon changed. Her first few movies were socko at the box-office. By 1934, Mae was the highest-paid woman in the United States.

On stage, Mae had created the role of Diamond Lil, a character she never tired of playing. Her movies, which became increasingly campy, were generally set in the 1890s and featured the actress, wearing Gay Nineties fashions, as the centre of attention. Adored by all men and the only blonde in sight, her character sashayed around the screen ("as if she had sore feet," said one critic), slowly dispensing well-crafted one-liners.

The censors got her. By 1935, the new Motion Picture Code put a virtual halt to her screen career, which was beginning to pall with the public, anyway. Some of her banned movies would not be seen again until the 1960s.

Mae never gave up performing Diamond Lil or some variant, in nightclubs and off-stage.

Her last movie was Sextette (1977). By then a forgetful, disoriented 84-year-old, Mae had to be fitted with an earphone so she could be prompted with her lines. Critics questioned the wisdom of her playing a sexy youngster, but Mae knew what she did best: Years of hiding from sunlight, bathing in bottled water and having a daily enema had kept her a perpetual 26. Into her sixties, she was insisting on sex every day.

In August, 1980, Mae suffered a stroke. Friends tried to cheer her up by bringing her old movies and gramophone records to the hospital room. Later that year, she had a relapse, slipped into unconsciousness and died on Nov. 22.

And, finally

"Ah! The clock is always slow;
It is later than you think."

— Robert Service, Ballads of a Bohemian.

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Created: November 26, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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