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BOOK REVIEW

'She Always Knew How' by Charlotte Chandler

A thoughtful biography of Mae West that benefits from a detailed interview the author had with West not long before she died.

April 16, 2009|Kevin Thomas | Thomas reviews movies for The Times.

Charlotte Chandler's gift at getting legendary show business figures to open up about themselves is unique. For "She Always Knew How," Chandler not only got the last major interview with Mae West -- not long before her death in 1980 at 87 -- but also what is almost certainly the most extensive interview West ever gave.

It's not that "She Always Knew How" is full of surprises, but that its depth and breadth brings West to life as thoughtful, caring and reflective, a woman of resilient character, self-knowledge and shrewdness in regard to human nature and in sustaining a career over eight decades.

As is well known, West had an extraordinarily close and loving relationship with her Bavarian-born mother Matilda, whose parents forbade her to go on the stage. As a result, she encouraged her daughter. Here, West talks at length about her mother's unstinting confidence in her; Matilda saw her daughter triumph on Broadway with the iconic "Diamond Lil" in 1928, but she died before West went on to conquer Hollywood.

West is candid about how her mother's focus on her exacted a price on both her younger sister, Beverly, who also had theatrical dreams, and, to a lesser extent, on her younger brother, John. Born in 1893, West began performing in lodge halls in her native Brooklyn at the age of 5 and in time became the key support for her entire family, which she remained for the rest of her life.

She made no bones about being less close to her father John West, who acquired some renown as the prizefighter Battlin' Jack. Yet in talking to Chandler, West discovers that she had more feelings for him than she realized, crediting him for being a loving and attentive father. Surely, it's significant that West was always attracted to rugged men like her father -- especially boxers and wrestlers. She emphasizes the comfort in which she and her siblings were raised; apparently, Matilda got some financial assistance from relatives because John West was no great shakes as a breadwinner.

Chandler leaves it to other biographers to reveal that Matilda ultimately ran a roadhouse; she's more interested in West's sense of self. But there's no question that the underworld contacts Matilda developed would prove crucial to her daughter's success.

To friends, West could be very open about her relationship with the notorious gangster Owney Madden, a key backer in her original "Diamond Lil" production. Through him, she came to know George Raft -- then one of Madden's drivers -- and Raft was instrumental in getting Paramount to bring her to Hollywood to appear in his picture "Night After Night" (1932).

West has often been credited with saving Paramount in the depths of the Depression with her pre-Production Code classics "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel," which, in turn, made Cary Grant, her leading man in both films, a major star. By 1935, she had become the highest-salaried woman in the nation.

The enforcement of the code in 1934 gradually undermined her screen career, but West soldiered on, returning to Broadway in 1944 with the play "Catherine Was Great." In the 1950s, she conquered the nightclub circuit performing with a chorus line of bodybuilders, wrote her memoirs and never really retired.

West often spoke positively about Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley but never in such detail as she does to Chandler. These remarks are among the most poignant in the book. She recognized that both Monroe and Presley were sex personalities -- she adroitly called herself "a sex personality" rather than a sex symbol -- and she lamented that they allowed others to have power over their lives and careers. Early on, she sought Presley out to give him encouragement, but came to believe that he was too insecure to enjoy his success. She could have costarred with him in the circus picture "Roustabout" but was amazed and disappointed that he didn't have the power to guarantee that she could write her part for herself.

West was always her own creation, writing or adapting all her own material. "From the time I was a little girl I loved every minute of the success," she says here, "and it felt more wonderful than I could have imagined."

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