Mae West: It Ain't No Sin by Simon Louvish

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The Independent Culture

Ever since she died nearly 25 years ago at the age of 87, the legend of Mae West has expanded. Making her mark as a vaudeville star, she became a screen goddess during Hollywood's golden era; then the hip-swivelling pin-up mutated into a gay icon and staple of drag acts all over the cross-dressing world. For keeping her men, both on and off the screen, exactly where she wanted them, the Brooklyn bombshell has even been hailed as a feminist heroine. But now another dimension has been added to what might seem to be an already overloaded legacy.

Simon Louvish suggests in this latest Western biography that the most important asset the multifaceted star possessed was the ability to write. Does he make his case? Yes, and with considerable ease. Although West herself said, "The curve is more powerful than the sword," her life proved that the sword of censorship and social control could be defeated by the pen. It helps one's cause, of course, if the pen is wielded by a woman who embodied glamour and vulgarity while, at the same time, writing some of most famous sayings of the last century. But by revealing the sheer amount of hard work that went into what Louvish calls her "spectacular paradox" of setting high style in low surroundings, he explains why this Renaissance woman became such an influence on our sexual behaviour.

Through the first sight of her recently released personal archive Louvish is able to reveal Mae West's unguilty secret: that throughout her career and contrary to the image displayed on screen, the star "stayed at home, night after night and endlessly wrote", learning her craft by a slow painstaking process of trial and error, redrafting and recycling plays, books, jokes and film scripts. While she performed and perfected her delivery on stage and screen, again and again she returned to her material to build up a line, a scene or a song lyric. Almost to the end of her life in 1980, Louvish tells us, she kept a notebook.

With this knowledge in mind it's not surprising that while Hollywood was not prepared for her arrival in 1931. Mae West already knew exactly how she was going to present herself on screen. Not only did she bring a highly honed image carved out of burlesque, black music and dance, and a 20-year long apprenticeship in vaudeville, she brought her own screenplays to the studios. "I'm not a little girl from a little town makin' good in a big town," she told startled reporters at the train station in Los Angeles. "I'm a big girl from a big town makin' good in a little town."

West demanded from Paramount that the script she had adapted from her Broadway hit, Diamond Lil, would be her first star-vehicle. On the page the censors at the Hays Office had few worries, but when they saw what Mae West did on screen they howled. With hand on hefty hip she pulls in men, only to knock them down with sassy one-liners, then moves on - with female friends working the room as pickpockets - to grind out songs for the "suckers" such as "A Guy What Takes His Time" ("I don't like a big commotion, I'm a demon for slow motion").

For film fans this is well-trodden territory, but Louvish conveys the appeal Mae West has for audiences - especially a female audience - with panache, immediacy and originality. He also clarifies why her very presence, with its assertion that a woman's desire can be linked to an uncomplicated urge for sexual fulfilment, lead to such a vicious conflict with the censors. Even though West's popularity proved vital in helping Paramount recover from bankruptcy in 1934, after that the studio let the censors loose on her. Once her first two films had been released - and subsequently banned from re-release - her next five pictures were sanitised to such an extent that West gave up the first stage of her Hollywood career after barely a decade.

Yet, unlike her movie-star contemporaries, she never tailored her image to the prevailing political winds, and for that reason Mae West became one of the most effective fighters of censorship on stage and screen. As such she is an important figure in sexual politics. But Louvish devotes himself to West at the expense of the political environment in which her plays and films were received. This is understandable in a "showbiz" biography, but the disadvantage of the approach is that Louvish has to bypass social issues such as the democratising influence of flappers like Clara Bow who laid the groundwork for Mae West in Hollywood.

Within its own parameters, though, this is by far the most convincing of the many biographies written about Mae West. By concentrating on her performance and reviving that coolly insinuating voice, Louvish lets us listen in as Mae fells men, encourages women and lights firecrackers under the bluenoses. Equally importantly, he dispels the vacuum in which West's snappy wisecracks were always assumed to have come to her with a click of the fingers. Indeed this is the book's greatest service to its subject: it brings to resolute life the writer who projected her fantasies, the quiet creator behind the radical performer, the woman who flaunted her assets, enjoyed the reaction and embraced the consequences.