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Mae West: She Didn’t Need Women’s Liberation, She Freed Herself

  ‘‘Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’’ — Mae West, to a police officer.
   She was the diva of the double-entendre at a time when what was deemed clever, grown-up conversation was conducted with a verbal scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and when offending the authorities could land a playwright or producer in jail for violating censorship rules.
   Mae West is the subject of a new biography, "She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography," by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Chandler does gauzy profiles of Hollywood greats; I blogged on her biography of Joan Crawford a few months ago.
   I don’t use the term ‘‘gauzy’’ as a criticism.  Not a slash-and-burn author, Chandler gets extraordinary cooperation for her books from the subjects themselves, no doubt because they believe they’ll be treated kindly. Miss West, who died Nov. 22, 1980, spent many hours talking with the author about her extraordinary life and career, giving us a look at this surprisingly reticent star that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
   ‘‘Come up and see me sometime.’’
   Mae West built a career on sex. What young starlet doesn’t these days, but Miss West didn’t just lead the way, she hacked out a professional acting trail at a time when the highest aspiration of most women, or at least what the vast majority of them settled for, was to get married young and raise a family.
   Miss West built her career on sex, and she really, really liked men (she bragged about having a mirror over her bed), but her main interest wasn’t men, despite what she suggested, and implied, and broadly hinted at and built her reputation on. Her main interest was work. Sex, talking about sex, was the vehicle.
   In the early days, it got her into trouble. She spent a few days in jail in New York after she ran into trouble with the censorship squad. She wrote about prostitutes. She wrote a play about the troubles of gay men, decades before society ended that particular taboo.
   Miss West told Chandler that she knew as a young girl (she was born in 1893) that she wanted to perform. What emerges from Chandler’s book is a disciplined, thoughtful, single-minded woman who was determined to succeed on the stage, who lived for her time in the spotlight and loved her fans. Like Crawford, she personally answered her fan mail, even after she became famous and she could have paid someone else to perform that chore, or simply ignored the letters.
   ‘‘Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.’’
   Miss West crafted a persona, Diamond Lil, the sultry, wisecracking, flirting bombshell. In public, she was Diamond Lil, the only Mae West we ever saw, dripping in gorgeous gowns and jewels and sexual possibilities.
   In private, she was quiet, almost shy, an astute businesswoman who invested in diamonds and real estate, the two commodities she trusted, a kind person who quietly provided for aging actors who were down on their luck, and financially supported a brother and sister who struggled somewhat in her shadow.
   ‘‘Don’t cry for a man who’s left you — the next one may fall for your smile.’’
   Diamond Lil would never settle down with one man; that would exclude all the other delicious males out there. Privately, also, Miss West claimed for herself the freedoms that men had, to love and leave as she pleased, to have flirtations and affairs. She lived as she pleased, while along the way, a couple of men devoted themselves to her and remained so for the rest of their lives.
   ‘‘How do you do?’’ she was asked. Can’t you see her, as she looks the questioner up and down with a sideways glance, hands on her hips, and drawls her reply: ‘‘How do I do what?’

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