Mae West: It ain't no sin, by Simon Louvish

Queen of camp quips
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The Independent Culture

Even if Queen Victoria may never have declared herself unamused, and Ingrid Bergman may never have asked Sam to "play it again", Mae West definitely invited assorted men to "come up and see me some time". She also quipped that "a hard man is good to find", "It ain't the men in my life, it's the life in my men that counts", and much besides.

Simon Louvish describes her as the 20th century's "greatest comedienne", overriding such claimants as Fanny Brice on stage, Judy Holliday on screen and Lucille Ball on television. She was definitely the most durable, making all the films on which her reputation rests before 1945 and then returning to the screen after a 25-year absence in Myra Breckinridge. She failed to make an earlier (and worthier) comeback in Sunset Boulevard, when vanity precluded her from playing a woman over the age of 26.

Mae was born in 1893 although, for much of her career, she lopped seven years off her age, until an early marriage to the song-and-dance man Frank Wallace came back to haunt her. Louvish strips away many self-aggrandising myths that Mae created around her childhood to reveal a family background that was genteel but not smart. She had a younger sister, Beverley, who, like Mae, enjoyed an early training in vaudeville, which she was later obliged to obscure to fit Mae's pose of perpetual youth.

Vaudeville, together with the less reputable Burlesque, was where Mae learnt her craft and honed her persona. Her chief influence was the now-forgotten Eve Tanguay, but she also learnt much from the black performers she encountered both on the Vaudeville circuit and in jazz clubs. The extent to which she celebrated - rather than exploited - African-American culture remains contentious to this day.

She made her name on Broadway in her own play, Sex, which Variety described as "the nastiest thing ever disclosed on a New York stage". This was the first of several self-penned works, including two pioneering (though now embarrassingly dated) portraits of gay life, The Drag and Pleasure Man, and her most enduring play, Diamond Lil.

Louvish's major achievement is to have sifted through Mae's newly released archive, examining the drafts of plays and films. Like Barbara Cartland, whom, despite polar-opposite views on love and sex, she much resembled, Mae hated to acknowledge that she worked on her writing, preferring to perpetuate the legend that she dashed it off or improvised scripts. Louvish declares West's great secret to have been not that she had some illicit romance or fetish but that she went home every night and wrote.

Sex was prosecuted, and Mae spent eight days in prison for "producing an immoral show and maintaining a public nuisance". The notoriety did her career no harm and, in 1932, she went to Hollywood. There, after her film debut in Night After Night, where, according to her co-star, George Raft, she "stole everything but the cameras", she became Paramount's top draw in such films as She Done Him Wrong, I'm No Angel and My Little Chickadee.

Louvish describes in extensive detail how these fell foul of the censor and how both Randolph Hearst and the Catholic newspapers waged a relentless war against their supposed immorality. He makes the intriguing point that her camp mannerisms - the languid glances and slow drawl - were a means of subverting the Hays code by suggesting what she was forbidden to say.

Mae has enjoyed a rich afterlife as a feminist and gay icon. In both roles, she remains controversial. For all her feisty refusal to be subservient, she relied heavily on an outmoded and discredited femininity, advising women not to forget "your frills and ruffles and anything else that feminises you". In 1959, using language that would not disgrace Norman Tebbit, she declared that "in many ways, homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system in Western civilisation".

Louvish's biography is meticulously researched and finely crafted. Theatrical and cinematic history are skilfully related to the wider social and political background. It is less successful when dealing with the central figure who, despite all the scholarship, fails to come fully to life. Ultimately, Louvish commits the one sin of which his subject could never be accused: dullness.

Michael Arditti's novel 'Unity' is published by Maia Press