Goddess of gob

Sometimes it's better to talk about sex than actually to do it - well, it was in the case of the great Mae West, Hollywood's queen of the double entendre. But did Mae really get off on life or was her gift of the gab a cover for a deeply unhappy existence? Without further innuendo, David Thomson surveys a troubled, brilliant career
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The Independent Culture

To this day, if you mention "Mae West" in City offices engaged in law, money or ecclesiastical-trust property, young women with Oxbridge degrees in Chaucer or Spenser will put their hands on their hips - or where once in the history of the female frame hips were - lapse into a molasses-slow drawl and begin to play off double entendres, wordplays that would be enough to make them blush if they were still in their tough north London voices and Amis attitudes.

To this day, if you mention "Mae West" in City offices engaged in law, money or ecclesiastical-trust property, young women with Oxbridge degrees in Chaucer or Spenser will put their hands on their hips - or where once in the history of the female frame hips were - lapse into a molasses-slow drawl and begin to play off double entendres, wordplays that would be enough to make them blush if they were still in their tough north London voices and Amis attitudes.

Everyone can do Mae West, including young people who assume she must once have made as many films as Chaplin or any of the other standard institutions of film history. We all hear that voice, and take delight in the slow-motion lasciviousness that will give a man - any man, they're all alike, they want just one thing so it's up to us gals to show them what we keep under the counter - a prolonged eyes-only examination before sauntering on. Lines are left hanging in the air like flies for fish, lines like: "Why don't you come up and see me some time?" And the modern purveyor of the routine may pause in the doorway, pause long enough for paint to dry, look back and give you the murmured add on, "and I do mean up." The Mae Wests of the world can utter that last "up" as if... well, as if their typing chair had taken it into its mind to elevate seven-and-a-half inches on the spur of the moment. And Mae feels every inch - she learned the metric system because that gave her more to feel. Though her gaze is infinite and serene, she has the touch and the knowingness of a masseuse. It's just that the muscles she works are all those of language and lewd anticipation.

And Mae West is back. In 1997 a new biography - thorough, fond and both modern and feminist in its admiration - appeared: Becoming Mae West, by Emily Worth Leider. The title addressed the historical progress of a Brooklyn girl born in 1893. In 2001, another biography, An Icon in Black and White by the black academic Jill Watts, was much intrigued by Mae's sympathy for black culture. There was also a play on Broadway, Dirty Blonde, very nearly a one-woman show, written by and starring Claudia Shear. Why did it take so long to cross the Atlantic and arrive in London only this month? Let Mae answer: "Well, I only have one stroke y'know - breast stroke, and I like to stop to see the scenery."

The play seemed modest to me when I saw it in San Francisco three years ago, but in large part that's because the impersonation of Mae West is in so many crucial ways redundant - after all, long before copy-cats, she was a puss who was doing this daringly filthy act on what it might be like to be pussy. Sooner or later, if you stay in this voice of Miss West's you're going to get a newspaper's lawyer or a prospective mother-in-law edgy. "What do you mean by 'pussy', Mr Thomson?" Well, it's not what I mean, it's all in what you're wondering. And Mae West might have majored in social satire in her own rough education: for she knew that the lawyers, the clergymen, the teachers and the policemen were required to have filthy minds. How else could they protect the happy idiots from innuendo (and out the other side - don't even think about that one)?

What I'm striving to reclaim from history here is something that you might think was lost for ever - to be sexually suggestive in such a way that respectable people believe they have been outraged. Now, I think most of us will admit that the hardest thing to do in these cynical times is to be truly outrageous - though the talent is not quite dead in America as you will have noticed. The cutest thing about Dirty Blonde is the way it reminds us of the history of Mae West as one of those people who understood the fine balance of getting the ordinary viewer so stirred up that he or she couldn't always tell horror from excitement (hence another classic West line - "Well, say, is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?" A question that still goes deep into the American psyche.)

Mae West (she was born Mary and called May by the family, which she altered to Mae) was the daughter of an Irish boxer and a German woman, and forever afterwards in her act she had the air of commanding her own ring - her immediate local space - no matter that she had slowed movement to the point of being not just arresting, or arrestable, but arrested. Invariably swathed from chin to toe in effulgent gowns (effulgent is a perfectly decent word, however it sounds), she contrived to move, to parade, to sway, to strut, to navigate like a great ocean liner. And while she was so slow as to be hypnotic, still, like one of those famed oil tankers of today, she took an age to come to a stop.

Thus it was that minor tics of motion - the reconsidering gaze, the slow burn of a double take, the shift of her entire lumbar region to give a guy a second glance - became prodigious, orgiastic even. And in the same way you began to conceive of some unnaturally slow pulse or engine beat in her body - it was lazy ("Peel me a grape, Beulah") - yet there was the promise of lethal directness, too. She was a sexual colossus, or as the American drama critic, George Jean Nathan, named her, the Statue of Libido. And, of course, whereas Liberty gets terrific publicity in America, libido is less popular.

Mixing in the worlds of boxing and vaudeville, she kept unusual company with black people, and I think it's likely that her voice was modelled on black singers she had heard. There's no evidence of mixed blood or of her reported parentage being incorrect. But Mae West's stage debut was as Little Eva in a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and her attitude to sex and to the flawed quality of white men owe a good deal to black culture. She was a chum, later, with Louis Armstrong - how one longs to see them together.

We have to assume that Mae's manner developed through being on stage since childhood, though it is difficult to conceive of her as unwomanly - let alone innocent. She was a successful figure in vaudeville (or music hall) and a lead in musical theatre by the time she was 20. Her act had her talking to the audience, and daring them to answer back. The authentic wit of Miss West was acquired the hard way, in being able to top whatever dirty line might be thrown at her in a live production. And here we come to perhaps the most important point about Mae West: she had a brilliant, quick mind and a deftness with words that made the prolonged indecision of body movement all the more intriguing.

But still, her scope was limited: she could wear fussy clothes and sweeping hats; she could do her prowling, mincing promenade, with a parasol and a borzoi, fencing off the jokes from the crowd. But a few viewings of that act might be enough. And so it was that Mae West decided to become her own playwright. Was it by chance or was she adroit enough to pick her moment? Whatever the answer, in 1926-7 she introduced two plays to New York - Sex and The Drag.

It's clear she wrote these plays herself, though at the time, in the legal furore, there was some doubt about that. It's also clear that Mae liked to incorporate little dance steps (like the shimmy) as well as some language she had picked up in Harlem. Thus, very early on, she saw straight sex as a bridge over troubled racial waters. The Broadway director Edward Elsner heard a run-through of Sex and agreed to go with the risqué play and the frontal assault of the title, because, he said to Mae: "You have a sexual quality, gay and unrepressed. It even mocks you personally."

There was another secret - maybe the most lasting one: that Mae West was not just a sexual man-eater, despite the way of looking and talking. She was a strange new intellectual who could look at a guy and ask him whether he reckoned actual sex would ever be as much fun as this droll way of talking about it? "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."

Some people said they were shocked. Mae West was arrested and fined, and it seems clear that she served a few days in jail. And, more or less, she was filling the house on the question: "What did she mean when she said that?" This was the late Twenties, the era of the flapper, the fast set, and girls were wondering what they had to do to go too far. All the more reason, of course, for the pillars of society to feel more threatened. The Drag was banned (and it was a sign that Mae's thoughts were turning to cross-over. She had a gay following from the start, even if Mr Elsner had not meant "gay" in that sense). But her biggest stage hit was Diamond Lil (1928) in which she is the mistress to a Bowery saloon owner who works the white-slave trade - but she falls for a Salvation Army officer determined to stop the traffic. It ran for 171 performances, and was the work that brought West to the attention of the movie-makers, and their medium that was just then acquiring the one thing Mae West needed - sound.

Even so, Hollywood was timid, and apparently it took the steady recommendations of George Raft (an admirer) before Mae got a supporting part in her first film, Night After Night. She was 40, and the grisly figure of Will Hays had already appeared in Hollywood, determined to clean up saucy pictures. Next year, Paramount agreed to make a movie of Diamond Lil, but they were so afraid of that title's reputation that they called it She Done Him Wrong. Mae chose Cary Grant to play the Salvation Army man, and it's plain that he understands what's going on.

At exactly this time, West and Marlene Dietrich were fellow stars and good friends at Paramount: Mae was eager to play the Russian empress, Catherine the Great (she had done her on stage), but the part went to Dietrich. And they are sisterly too, I think, given that Dietrich put much more stress on glamour and physical seductiveness. Their sex is in the head - and the ironic wonder at how terrific it will be! Paramount fell out of love with both of them in time.

West made I'm No Angel (she plays a circus lion-tamer), Goin' to Town, Belle of the Nineties (where she sings with the Duke Ellington Orchestra), Klondike Annie, Go West Young Man and Every Day's a Holiday. The films did well enough (and it was said that Mae made $480,000 in 1935 - a very high Hollywood salary) but, as the script-writer, Mae became increasingly restless at the nervousness of the studio. So she went over to Universal, to join WC Fields in My Little Chickadee. The combination didn't work, largely because both were performers who composed a magical, sultry space around themselves - often by a kind of talking to themselves. The two clouds clashed without chemistry. Mae refused ever afterwards to hear the name Fields. In 1943, aged 50, she made her last movie of that era, The Heat's On.

She then retired. It's hard to believe that peeled grapes were a satisfying diet, and it's sadly clear that while Mae courted younger men and body-builders, her reputation often intimidated them. There had been one early marriage, a disaster, and she had no children. As one might have surmised, real pleasure missed her out - it had been in the head all along.

In the late Forties, she revived Diamond Lil on Broadway and it was a hit again. And then she disappeared - though her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was published in 1950. In the Seventies, resisting sound advice, and feeling that a sexual revolution was in the air, she came back, not just swathed, but cosmetically hardened, for two very bad films, Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978), based on her own play Sex (the title Madonna would later employ for her "shocking" book of character exploration). The photographer Diane Arbus paid her a visit and saw Mae as an old wreck in bed with a monkey. But at much the same time she made an album in which she sang, or breathed, "Light My Fire" and "Rock Around the Clock". It was all a touch creepy.

So there were only a dozen or so films, of which only three or four have - or deserve - much currency today. Yet "Mae West" is better known by far than a number of more productive comedians - like Harold Lloyd. She endures not because of the life-saver - the yellow, inflatable jacket that saved so many downed fliers in the war. I don't think it's the reputation of her plays. No, it's something with which we are still trying to come to terms: whether in our cherished sexual revolutions, we really find ourselves as less ashamed sexual creatures, or do we simply love talking about it? *

'Dirty Blonde': Duke of York's, London WC2 (0870 060 6623), previews from Tuesday, opens 16 June, booking to 28 August