"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Mae West invited and promptly captured the imagination of generations. Even today, years after her death, the actress and author is still regarded as the pop archetype of sexual wantonness and ribald humor. But who was this saucy starlet, a woman who was controversial enough to be jailed, pursued by film censors and banned from the airwaves for the revolutionary content of her work, and yet would ascend to the status of film legend?
Sifting through previously untapped sources, author Jill Watts unravels the enigmatic life of Mae West, tracing her early years spent in the Brooklyn subculture of boxers and underworld figures, and follows her journey through burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and, finally, Hollywood, where she quickly became one of the big screen's most popular--and colorful--stars. Exploring West's penchant for contradiction and her carefully perpetuated paradoxes, Watts convincingly argues that Mae West borrowed heavily from African American culture, music, dance and humor, creating a subversive voice for herself by which she artfully challenged society and its assumptions regarding race, class and gender. Viewing West as a trickster, Watts demonstrates that by appropriating for her character the black tradition of double-speak and "signifying," West also may have hinted at her own African-American ancestry and the phenomenon of a black woman passing for white.
This absolutely fascinating study is the first comprehensive, interpretive account of Mae West's life and work. It reveals a beloved icon as a radically subversive artist consciously creating her own complex image.
Part sexy blonde bombshell, part delusional Norma Desmond, West created an invulnerable, tough-talking, sexually assertive persona, partly to mask insecurities and psychological wounds from early sexual assaults, asserts Watts in this remarkably detailed and well-written biography. West played that indelible character on and off stage the rest of her life, often referring to herself in the third person. But West (1893 1980) was not just the actress who singlehandedly saved the financially strapped Paramount Pictures with her back-to-back hits in 1933, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel. She was also a voluminous writer penning not only her films and plays but also three novels and an autobiography. Although now enshrined as a comedic institution, for virtually her entire career West's writing, singing, personality, acting and looks were blisteringly belittled by critics and yet the hard shell she'd created kept her marching confidently forward. Watts offers outstanding, clear-eyed analysis of West's career and how censorship affected her work. She's on less stable ground with her contention that West had African-American ancestry, which she attempts to prove not through documentation but by noting how West's personality, musical style, taste and interests stemmed from the African-American community. While it certainly appears that West (and others in her era) appreciated and borrowed from black artists and the Harlem Renaissance, it seems a stretch to claim West was attempting to reveal her roots every time a black character or ethnic slang appeared in her work. Still, West fans will welcome this new, enlightening biography of the enigmatic star, which offers a broader view of her impact on social and cultural history and as a First Amendment champion.