She Always Knew How : Mae West, a Personal Biography

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-02-10
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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The acclaimed biographer of Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Joan Crawford once again draws on personal interviews to examine of of Hollywood's most colorful--and frequently off-color--icons. bw photographs.



On my arrival the afternoon that Mae and I met, she held out her hand to me. As I took it, I scratched my palm on one of her diamond rings. Noticing what had happened, she commented in a matter-of-fact tone, "They're old-cut, very sharp. That's the best kind."

All of her fingers were covered with diamonds. She wore a diamond necklace, a diamond bracelet, and a diamond anklet. These, she explained, were just her "daytime diamonds." Holding out her hands so I could examine the stones, she said, "Look, they're all real. They were given to me by admirers." Her gaze settled on my own unadorned hands.

"Oh, my, you poor kid! You don't have any!"

For a moment she regarded me silently with amazement and pity. Then she brightened. "But you have some at home?"

I shook my head.

Her look of deep sympathy returned. She studied me for a moment, then said encouragingly, "Youcould, honey. Youcould. But you've gotta try, and you've gotta knowhowto try. There's nothing better in life than diamonds."

"Maybe that's what one has to believe in order to get them," I said.

"You're right," she said. "You put your finger on it. Everything's in the mind." She touched her forehead. "That's where it all starts. Knowing what you want is the first step toward getting it." She held out her hands for both of us to admire. "These diamonds here -- they're my friends. Aren't they beautiful? The only thing more important is health."

I found myself aware of a distracting sound, something like the fluttering of the wings of little birds. Trying not to appear inattentive to what Mae West was saying, I could not resist glancing around the living room of her Hollywood apartment. But I saw no birdcages.

The sound continued at frequent intervals. Only after Mae had been speaking for a while did I realize that it was the sound of her heavily mascaraed, multilayered false eyelashes brushing her cheeks whenever she blinked.

Our meeting had been arranged by director George Cukor, who had known Mae since the mid-1920s, when they were both working on the stage in New York. She told me when we first met, "You can call me Mae, dear, because you're George's friend, and that's what he calls me."

Mae West was not anxious to give any interviews, especially to a woman. "I don't have anything I want to sell, so I don't like to give it away free.

"If you set your own price on yourself as free, you don't deserve to get anything. If you don't put a high value on yourself, why would you expect anyone else to put a high value on you?

"That's why I was leery of doing any television appearances, which I didn't get paid for. I didn't believe in giving away Mae West and downgradin' her value.

"I'm like fine wine. I get better with age. Now, I'm more me than I ever was, so you get a bonus."

But she could not say no to George Cukor. She was still hoping that she would write and star in a film that he would direct. He was the director she most wanted. The only problem that concerned Mae was that Cukor was "getting up there in age." Thatshewas eighty-six at the time, Mae didn't consider a problem.

Cukor told me that the film he had in mind for Mae would have coâ??starred her with Natalie Wood, who was also a great favorite of his. It was to be the story of a young woman who goes to a clairvoyant. The young woman is Natalie Wood, and the clairvoyant, Mae West.

"The idea was really inspired by Mae's own belief in the extrasensory powers of certain individuals and what Mae liked to call 'The Forces,' " Cukor said. "She tells me she's had dozens of experiences with them and met all kinds of spirits, but none of them particularly interesting. Oh, well.

"Mae has some other ideas, and she wants to do the script, but she isn't working quickly enough for either one of us.

"If you'll pardon the triteness of it, I told her, 'Time doesn't stand still, Mae,' and you know what she said to me?

" 'Not foryou, George.' "

Mae said, "When I talked about it with George, I told him that I didn't want to be the young woman. I insisted on the part of the clairvoyant. He said, 'That's fine, Mae.'

"I told him I didn't want to play a part any older than being in my thirties. He said, 'The ages of the characters will not be specified. They'll be of indeterminate age, so everyone can just see.'

"So that sounded fine to me. I started writing my part."

Mae paused. "I want you to know, this is the last interview I'm ever gonna give."

"Am Ithatterrible?" I asked.

"No, dear. It's not you. You're very nice. It's just that I was already in retirement as far as interviews are concerned when George asked me to do him this little favor. So, I came out of interview retirement.

"These days, I'm not interested in meeting a lotta new people. I've met so many people in my life, I'm saturated. I'm not promoting anything or selling anything, so I don't have any reason.

"I've only got one of me, and I don't want to get spread too thin."

Paul Novak, Mae's friend who lived with her had opened the door for me. He asked how I managed to get through the Ravenswood's protective lobby and up in the elevator without being announced. I said that George Cukor had suggested I ask for Paul, assuming that strangers gave Mae West's name. His name would be the password. Mae liked this.

She already knew all the people she wanted to know, especially in light of the many hours she felt compelled to spend on her hair, makeup, and dress before she could see anyone, because of the importance she gave to first impressions. Her face was nearly hidden by its mask of makeup, but her throat and décolletage revealed strikingly fair, soft, and youthful skin.

I had cost her three hours, I was told more than once, but it would have been double that if I had been a man. If she were going to see anyone at all, a man would have been preferable any day, and especially any night, she let me know.

"They always sent a man," not specifying who "they" were. "I considered spending my time with girls a waste of time, so I didn't mingle with any." The only exceptions were her beloved mother and her sister, Beverly. Men were the ones doing the interesting things, she said, and they were the ones who had the power to enableherto do them.

For Mae, Hollywood had real unreality, and that was the way she liked it. To the end, she nobly resisted any assault on her fairy-tale castle. Her Hollywood apartment in the Ravenswood building was truly an extension of Mae West, not only reflecting her, but also enhancing her and probably inspiring her. She had put a great deal of herself into it, and in return had received a great deal back. The furniture was upholstered in eggshell-white silk and satin, and appeared virginal, as if it had just been moved in for my visit. Actually, most of the white and gold furnishings had been there since Mae first arrived in Hollywood, with time out only for reupholstering or cleaning.

Although Mae had owned a great deal of property, including a Santa Monica beach house and a San Fernando Valley ranch, she preferred her Ravenswood apartment to everything else, having called it home since 1932. She said that was where she felt the most secure.

She hadn't chosen the apartment. That was done by Paramount before she arrived in California. Her only stipulation had been that it be near the studio. Paramount selected the furnishings from its prop department, not realizing that what they did would have to last for almost half a century. Mae liked the results and, over the years, made few changes.

There were none of the ubiquitous house plants. "Plants use up too much oxygen," Mae explained erroneously, but with certainty. The apartment was cool because, as she said, "It's good for the furniture and the complexion. I like the air filtered and moving."

I wondered how her apartment was maintained in such pristine condition, wishing that the answer would be something I could apply to my own, but knowing instinctively that the sorcery could not be transferred. It seemed somehow natural that Mae West's furniture would not get dirty. Magic has a certain fragility; any answer would only spoil the illusion.

Mae did not like change. "There are people who change just to be changing -- their hairstyles, their furnishings, even their faces. I'm not one of those people."

Once Mae had achieved perfection by her own standards, she avoided further change, because she had never forgotten the life of the stock company and vaudeville when she had no control over her environment. "I did enough traveling when I was very young, so I didn't need to do that anymore. I got it out of my system, and I'm too finicky. I have everything I want right here, I never want to have to move."

Mae West's apartment was a home for her and by her that reflected not some noted interior decorator, but Mae herself. The accumulation of memorabilia, gifts from fans she couldn't throw away, together with treasured family souvenirs, indicated that the private Mae West was a more sentimental person than her public character pretended to be.

The celebrations of herself on display throughout the apartment -- the nude marble statue and oil paintings of Mae West at the moment of her greatest success -- evinced no false modesty. They also signified that in her mid-eighties she was not afraid to be in competition with her younger self. She was still optimistic and had plans and ambitions for the future.

The nude statue of her, which was uninhibitedly displayed on the white grand piano, was one of Mae's prized possessions. It represented one of those rare instances when Mae cast modesty aside and allowed reality to triumph over imagination, especially over male imagination. It was done by a sculptress. "I wouldn't have posed for a man," she said. "He'd have never had time to finish the job. Besides, I think a lady is entitled to a few secrets.

"I had murals of naked men on the walls of my beach house. Great art. Nudity in art isn't sex, it's art.

"I wish I could've shown you my beach house. But I sold it. I miss it.

"About 1950, I bought the greatest beach house in Santa Monica, by the architect [Richard] Neutra, who was a refugee from Vienna. It had the most wonderful water views, and people loved to go there and lie in the sun. I kept plenty of extra swimming trunks around, all sizes and shapes. For myself, I kept the drapes drawn all the time when there was sun, to keep it out. I was asked why I wanted a twenty-two-room beach house when I never set foot on a beach.

"Well, it was a beautiful house, and people I cared about enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the inside of the house, and the outside as we drove up to it. Then, when I sold it because I wasn't using it much, I was kinda sorry.

"But I made a good profit on any real estate I bought. Well, I'm not exactly boasting because where I was buying in California, it wasn't easy to lose. Everyone wanted to come here, and they did.

"I never lost any money in art or real estate. Real estate and diamonds, those are the best investments. I always put my money into my own projects, something I was doing or something I could see. Money is sexy for men, but people don't find it feminine for a woman to talk about it. So, you don't have to talk about it, just have it. The real security is yourself. You know you can do it, and they can't ever take that away from you."

"Do you think money buys happiness?" I asked.

"No," Mae answered, "but money is a great love potion for an affair. It buys a good bed in a nice bedroom with clean linens and time to enjoy it all. If you have money, you don't have to worry about it, and worrying spoils your looks and your sexual concentration. Are you doing this whole book about me?

"No," I said. "There are other people in it, too."

"I don't usually like to share. What are you calling your book?

"I don't know yet. Do you have a suggestion?"

Mae thought for a moment. "You could call the bookMae West and Others. That's 'others' with a small 'o,' and I want to be the first. Being first is important in life.

When Mae interjected one of her celebrated epigrams or aphorisms to make a point, frequently she would change from a serious tone to the sultry delivery of Diamond Lil. Sometimes she would break up long words into several syllables, pausing between the syllables to create an exaggerated sensual effect and enhance any innuendos for emphasis. She called it her Brooklynese "slanguage." She was not afraid to use ungrammatical language or incorrect words to make a point, and she occasionally tossed her head so that the movement of her hair would punctuate her comments. Mae always preferred a longer word to a shorter word, if she could think of it in time. "Sometimes I think of the word too late," she said. "In writing you can slip it in, but in speaking, you can't get that same conversation back."

Always the mistress of illusion, Mae wore long dresses or flared-bottom pants designed to cover her stiltlike shoes. Her shoes had the highest heels I had ever seen, and the heels seemed higher than the shoes were long, her feet being quite small. They reminded me of the heels on Carmen Miranda's platform shoes I had seen exhibited at the museum in Rio de Janeiro, which I mentioned to Mae.

Edith Head had speculated that it was the height of those heels that had produced Mae West's famous suggestive walk. Head said, "In those shoes it was the only way shecouldwalk! They were so heavy it was actually difficult for her to rise from a chair."

I asked Mae how she thought men would do if they had to live their lives in high heels.

"They wouldn't make it," she answered. "They'd be wiped out."

Mae loved clothes and was a collector of them. Her perfectly kept gowns were not just stored but seemed to have a life of their own, rather like a row of headless ladies standing there waiting for a party to rescue them from their boredom. The feathered boas and lacy peignoirs looked as though they had stories to tell if I could have interviewed them, but they were forever keeping all confidences. Mae's final fashion show was for her best and favorite audience, preening for herself, alone.

Later, when she was showing me her wardrobe and she encouraged me to try on some of the clothes, I was hesitant, but she insisted I model a black peignoir. "Doesn't it make you feel sexy?" she asked. Her words were barely spoken when she looked at me in disgust. I had put it on over my blouse and skirt. "You can't get the feeling like that," she explained. "You have to be naked underneath."

Perhaps Mae didn't like to give interviews to women because she couldn't act her part. With a woman, she had to reveal more of the private person, because she couldn't use the time to be flirtatious or playful. "With a woman, Mae West has to be there and can't just send Diamond Lil," she told me. "You'll understand if sometimes I refer to myself as 'Mae West.' On occasion, I even think of myself that way. More often, I think of myself as Mae. I'm on very intimate terms with myself, naturally.

"You know, there's more to Mae West than to Lil," she said. "For Lil, happiness was sex and diamonds. For Mae, it was work, but people don't understand how seriously she takes it.

"Not everyone cares the way I do about what I'm doing. Then, they sometimes get angry if you make them work harder. But you don't let anybody stand in your way. You've got to have standards. I wasn't just a lottery winner, you know."

I told her Ididknow. That was why I was there and had wanted to see her.

"If you know you did it yourself," she continued, " you're not scared. You know you can do it again.

"Economic independence is as important to a woman as to a man, maybe more important," Mae said. She had achieved a kind of financial independence, which was rare for a woman, "and I've done it on my own, not by inheriting it, not by marrying it, and not on my back, but by using my brain and talent. Every woman has to make certain she'll always have some change in her coin purse.

"You know, this material you're getting with me is worth a lot of money, so don't sell it cheap. If you don't get a good offer, hold out.

"If you set your own price on yourself as free, you don't deserve to get anything. If you don't put a high value on yourself, why would you expect anyone else to put a high value on you?"

"When you get a reputation for being funny, people start to laugh at everything you say. It makes it hard to try out your material and judge it. You ask for a cup of coffee, and people read things into that. I'm not a flippant person. There was a lot of serious reflection in what I said.

"I hope you're going to show me that way in what you write. You know, there was always something going on in my head. My head was always working.

"Did I have a serious side? Both sides of me are serious. It's pretty serious finding what's funny. I worked a lot during the Depression, and I understood it was important people laughed so they wouldn't cry. There were people jumping out of windows. There were people selling apples on the corners who'd never before had anything to do with an apple, except eating it. Guys who had seats on the stock exchange had seats on buses, driving them -- if they were lucky.

"You know when I was most serious? When I laughed at myself."

Mae gave me a hard look and said, "There's something I've gotta tell you before we really get into it.

"If you want to smoke, you'll have to leave the room and go out into the hall. We don't keep any ashtrays here. I don't let anyone smoke in my presence. I don't breathe it, and I don't want it getting into the furniture. Let me know when you want to go out into the hall."

I assured her that this would not be necessary because I didn't smoke and never had. Her approving look indicated that I had passed an important test.

"Then you'll keep your soft skin," she said. "That's how I kept mine. I always use baby oil. Baby oil's good for the whole body. But the secret is it has to be warm, and you have to have a man put it on you -- all over.

"You aren't wearing any makeup! Is it because I said you'd better come on time? Did you have to get ready in a hurry?"

"It wasn't because I didn't take meeting you seriously," I said. "It's because I never wear any makeup."



"Oh, that's a shame. You'd look good fixed up. Remind me before you leave. I can let you have some powder and lipstick."

She noticed my Hermès scarf, which I was wearing tied around my neck.

"Is that scarf because you're cold," she asked, "or do you have something to hide?"

I took it off.

"That's better," she said. "Now, if you'd unbutton a few buttons...Men like it if you show them a thing or two. I dress for women and undress for men.

"I can smell you're telling the truth about smoking, because if you smoked, your clothes and hair would smell from it, especially your hair. You know, I never liked being touched by a man who smoked."

Mae invited me to smell some of the powders and perfumes on her vanity. She told me that she had always been extremely conscious of scents.

"My mother was responsible for my olfactory development," Mae said. "It wasn't so muchwhatshe said as the way she smelled. We all learn more by example, especially when we're very young.

"My mother always smelled so fresh and clean, like she'd just come out of a bath. I liked to smell her bars of soap. They were perfumed, but not too much. Everything my mother did was delicate. Her perfume just wafted.

"I was especially sensitive because I had great smell buds, like some people have taste buds, you know.

"The baby oil my mother used to rub all over my body was warm, and it had a wonderful aroma. I've never felt anything more wonderful than my mother's gentle massage. She had the softest hands in the world. I guess my baby oil was good forher, too."

I asked about taking a photograph with her, suggesting that Paul could take the picture.

"I wish I could accommodate you, dear, but I never have my photograph taken with a younger woman." At Mae's age, the category of "younger woman" included almosteverywoman.

"I never like to see myself in a picture, except surrounded by men. I only keep the best pictures of myself, you know. You should always keep the best picture of yourself in your own head. You should have beautiful pictures of yourself all around to look at. When you don't look your best, you shouldn't even look at yourself in the mirror. You should put on your most beautiful wrapper. You should look your best for yourself when you're alone. You can't afford not to look good alone or you'll stay alone.

"I'll be glad to give you some pictures of me, and I'll autograph them for you. That's something I take very seriously, autographing. Every person who ever wrote me for an autograph, or asked for an autographed picture of me, or sent me something to sign, every one of them got a genuine autograph from me. It was a lot of work, but those were my fans who were asking, and I always treasured my public. I signed every autograph myself, because I would never cheat my fans."

She signed some pictures for me and a copy ofThe Pleasure Man, which I had brought along. She signed them all "Sin-cerely." When I mentioned her little joke, she said, "I have quite a few little touches like that."

Her next query had the same tone of entrapment as the smoking suggestion. She asked me if I wanted to have a drink. I declined. She said it was a good thing because she didn't have any liquor.

Paul served us each a glass of water.

"Go ahead and drink your water," she encouraged me. ''We only drink bottled spring water here. I wouldn't drink a drop of anything else."

I took a sip and put the glass down.

"Go ahead. Drink some more. We've got plenty."

I drank some more.

"Do you like it?" she asked.

I said that I did. "It's delicious water."

"If you want some, Paul will get ice cubes for you. Just say. The ice is made from the same spring water."

Over the years, Mae had received innumerable offers to do a commercial for any number of products. She always declined. "I don't do that" was her standard answer for one and all. Then, Poland Spring Water approached her.

"For years, I not only drank it, but I washed all my vegetables in it, and I bathed in it. I brushed my teeth with it, and I washed my hair with it. And I sprayed my breasts with it.

"I'd been drinking Poland Spring Water for twenty-six years, ever since I was six." Mae did four radio spots for Poland Spring Water.

"My mother was a health nut and my father an athlete," she said. "I never understood drinking alcohol. It isn't good for your health or your looks, and it cuts down on what you are. I never wanted to cut down on what I am.

"I guess I owe my good health to my mother. In those days, if you thought like she did, they called you eccentric, or odd. Now a lot of people believe the way she did, and they aren't called odd. Lots of fruit, vegetables, not many sweets, you know."

Mae kept looking at the gift-wrapped box I had set down on the table. "What's that?" she asked with childlike enthusiasm.

"George [Cukor] told me you have a passion for chocolates," I explained.

"I do have a passion," she said. "What kind of chocolates are they?"

"One is very healthy, with hardly any sugar. It has prunes and dried apricots inside because I was told you like healthy things. The other is a cream truffle."

Opening the first box, Mae almost destroyed the contents in her haste to get inside. Then she voraciously attacked the second box, nearly mashing a few creams. It was only after she had both boxes open that she made her choice. As if fearing someone might take the box away from her, she snatched two chocolate truffles.

"I like my pleasure," she said, composing herself and holding out the box to me. "You can have one, too, honey." She never let go of the box. Not wishing to deprive her, I selected one chocolate-covered apricot and began to eat it.

"The next time you come, I'm gonna giveyousome chocolate. Have you ever eaten Ragtime chocolate? Hardly anyone does anymore. I know the last place in America that still makes it, and it's not far from here."

Mae indulged in one more and was reaching for a fourth when Paul Novak firmly took the box away from her. She looked petulant, but not displeased. Clearly, she was accustomed to and enjoyed having him watch over her. "I like my men to be men," she said after Paul had left.

"Pills, I never take them. I don't even take vitamin pills because who knows what's in them? If I don't know what's in something, I don't like to put it into me.

"I think what they say is true. If something isn't broke, why fix it? And I'm in wonderful shape, no pun intended.

"I was always indefatigable. I never knew exactly why. I always had this extraordinary energy that I had to do something with. They only just found out that I had a double thyroid. Always had it, but I didn't know it. Maybe that's been the source of my energy, especially my sex energy. When they told me I had a double thyroid, they wanted to take one away, but I wasn't doing that. I don't believe in tampering with what's going right.

"I would never, ever have my ears pierced. I took a chance of losing a favorite diamond earring, which I never did. But I wasn't having anyone make a hole in my ear."

I suggested that what the world considers odd or eccentric might actually be a person's good fortune, but there would always be those who valued conformity over individuality.

"It isn't what I do, but how I do it. It isn't what I say, but how I say it. And how I look when I do it and say it. Individuality is everything. Individuality, and enthusiasm, too.

"I could hardly wait for life. I wanted to run toward it with open arms....

"Do you know what question I'm asked the most? About the mirrors on my bedroom ceiling. I say, 'I like to see how I'm doin'.' It's the truth. It's very exciting. You should try it.

"And the next question I'm most often asked is, am I always the Mae West everybody knows, or am I different when I'm alone?

"The answer is, when I'm alone, I'm the same Mae West. But you'll have to take my word for it, 'cause when I'm alone, there isn't anyone else here."

After my meetings with Mae, I was asked, "Did Mae West understand about protecting her myth, or did she believe it?"

The answer to both questions is yes.Copyright © 2009 by Charlotte Chandler

Excerpted from She Always Knew How: Mae West, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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