Obituary: Paul Novak

Tom Vallance
Monday 19 July 1999 23:02

THE LEGENDARY star Mae West once said, "A man in the house is worth two in the street", and for the last 26 years of her life Paul Novak was that man, her companion, bodyguard and acknowledged love of her life who shunned publicity himself but ensured that West's last years were happy ones.

He had met West in the 1950s when he became one of the team of musclemen who backed her in her night-club act, and he soon fell in love with her, though she was nearly 30 years his senior. Described as "the epitome of the strong, silent type", he was content to stay in the background and let it be assumed that he was merely the star's bodyguard, but in fact he was her husband in everything but name.

Born Chester Ribonsky in Baltimore in 1923, Novak served as a navy gunner in the Second World War and as a member of the merchant marines fought in Korea and Vietnam. A body-builder with aspirations to be a wrestler, he changed his name to Charles Krauser. His friend Joe Gold, founder of Gold's Gyms and another member of West's chorus line, said, "He changed his name legally in New Orleans to Krauser, thinking it was a good moniker for a wrestler." (It was West who suggested a final change to Paul Novak.)

He also worked as a circus handyman before joining West's line of eight loin-clothed musclemen to whom she sang, "I Like To Do All Day What I Do At Night" in the fabled night-club act that made a sensational debut in Las Vegas in July 1954. Time magazine reported, "Mae's troupe proved invigorating even for jaded Las Vegas", and the act subsequently toured the US for over five years. One of the other chorus-boys was the former "Mr Universe" Mickey Hargitay who in 1956 became romantically involved with Jayne Mansfield.

When Mansfield and West began to fight over Hargitay, and Mansfield made some publicly disparaging remarks about West's age, the ensuing uproar resulted in Novak's punching Hargitay - the only occasion on which Novak made the headlines. An intensely private person, he managed for the rest of West's life to stay out of the limelight, though when photographed with her they made a striking couple, West's tiny if voluptuous body contrasting with the wide shoulders and massive chest of her companion.

Throughout her career, West had been known for her countless love affairs with actors, wrestlers, prize fighters and chorus boys (she once said, "Sometimes it seems I've known so many men the FBI ought to come to me first to compare fingerprints") but, according to the writer Justin Clayton,

Her love affairs continued until she fell in love with beefy muscle-man Paul Novak, who quickly became her lover, bodyguard, driver, cook and anything else to prove his love for her. From that meeting and up until the end of her long life, Novak would be at Mae's side to tend to her every need. His devotion was noted by nearly everyone who was in their company, and for the first time in her life Mae began to settle down in a monogamous relationship.

Though those who knew them attested to their mutual devotion, they were both strong-willed and temperamental, and Novak, like any paid companion, was not popular with all of West's friends and relatives. On one occasion after an argument with West's brother and sister-in-law, whom she supported, Novak rang Joe Gold and asked him to drive him to New Orleans so that he could sign up for another tour of duty with the merchant marines.

Dolly Dempsey, a long-time friend of the couple, said, "It was the first time I ever heard Mae really talk like Diamond Lil. As Paul was leaving, she told him, `Just remember, there ain't no swingin' doors in this place!' " Joe Gold added, "Just as Novak was about to board ship in New Orleans he stopped to make a phone call. Returning, he said, `I've got to catch a plane', and he flew home to West, leaving me to drive back to Los Angeles alone."

During the final years of West's life, she and Novak lived a quiet life, entertaining small groups of friends (including the directors George Cukor and Robert Wise) or strolling by the sea near the 22-room beach house in Santa Monica where they spent most of their time, though West also had an apartment in Hollywood.

With Novak's constant protection and his concern for her diet and excercise, West survived until the age of 87, when she had a series of strokes. On 22 November 1980 she died in her sleep, with Novak at her bedside.

A few years before she had said that Novak was "a good guy", adding, "Of course there's 40 guys dyin' for his job!" In her last years West continually asked him to contact an attorney so that she could change her will in his favour, but he later stated, "I always said to her, `Now now, dear, there's plenty of time to do that.' I guess I thought she would live forever. How did she ever pick me - just a wrestler and roustabout?' "

Chester Ribonsky (Paul Novak), sailor, bodybuilder and bodyguard: born Baltimore, Maryland 1923; died Santa Monica, California 14 July 1999.

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