Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Mae West - A Personal Biography" by Charlotte Chandler

Often, when I have been watching an old Mae West film, I have wondered how much different the character she plays is compared to the “real” Mae West. Thanks to Charlotte Chandlers’ book I finally have my answer – Not much!

In 1980 Ms. Chandler, armed with an introduction to Ms. West from legendary Director George Cukor, was able to interview the star who had weathered all of show business from Vaudeville and on through the Golden Ages of Movies and Radio. And she did it on her own terms at a time when women were not supposed to be so bold, working as performer, writer and even director of some of her own films.

Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn before the turn of the 20th century, Ms. West was raised as a privileged child. She was always told by her mother that she was destined to do great things. Her father was a sometimes boxer and later carpenter and horse stable operator. She loved both her parents deeply and credits them with her early independence and success.

The book is, in a sense, an oral autobiography, in that the author has used Ms. West's responses to posed questions in order to create a seamless narrative of her life in her own words. Extraordinarily insightful reading on so many levels, this book gives us a close up look at the life of a real legend and the times in which she reigned.

Beginning with her childhood the author takes us through Ms. West’s early years, World War One and Prohibition. The 1926 “SEX” trial is of extreme interest. She was charged with “Producing an Immoral Performance.” She was found guilty and sentenced to a $500 fine or 10 days on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the same wards where Mary Mellon (Typhoid Mary) had been held a few years earlier. Ms. West relished this experience and it left her with a new understanding of those who had not had the love she received when growing up. All in all, she counts the experience as being one of the most influential experiences of her life.

The book never stops giving as Ms. West lays bare her views on life, love, money, sex, marriage (she was married once at 17 but never lived with the man.) She explains why she never married and has only ever slept alone. When asked what she is like when she’s alone her sardonic reply is “When I’m alone I’m the same Mae West- but you’ll have to take my word for it cause when I’m alone there isn’t anyone else here.” True Mae West.

She once banned W.C.Fields from the set of “My Little Chickadee” for a day when he violated his contract and got drunk. Although not entirely a tee totaler, she would not abide a drunk. A non smoker as well, she despised cigarettes and cigars as ruinous to ones health and the skin.

She lived in the same apartment that the studio had provided her with in 1932. It was furnished with stuff from the prop department. She liked it so much- she kept it and in 48 years had made few changes.

There is so much more to this book as the author guides us through Ms. West's later career movie by movie. It is the skillful questioning of the author that unleashes this compelling story of one of the 20th Century's biggest stars.

If you like Mae West, or are a fan of her movies, then you will want to read this book. As a matter of fact, the author, Ms. Chandler, has done the same type of “Personal Biography” with the lives of Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis and Billy Wilder. You can be sure I will be reading those ones soon.

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