Come Up and Signify Me: Mae West Meets Academia

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White , by Jill Watts. Oxford University Press, 362 pages, $35.

Poor Mae West! First, struggling up the hard way-the not-quite-savory background, burlesque, vaudeville; notoriety (well, she enjoyed that); sneered at by the classy side of Broadway and later of Hollywood (Miriam Hopkins huffed of her own films and West’s: “They don’t belong in the same conversation or category”); slow artistic and box-office death at the hands of the Hays Office; desperate attempts to reassert her appeal; the ghastly Myra Breckinridge (when she thought they were offering her Myra, she turned it down: “I like my sexes stable”) and the even-more-ghastly Sextette (she was 84; said The New York Times , “Granny should have her mouth washed out with soap, along with her teeth”); and, ultimately, retreat into fantasy in her all-white-and-gold, all-mirrored apartment-the preferred décor of America’s infamous Diamond Lil.

But lucky Mae West, too-the slow but sure progress until she had kootchy-kootched and shimmied her way up the showbiz ladder and was starring in her own plays on Broadway; overnight stardom in Hollywood in 1932, when she was 39; tremendous box office, huge salary, almost unparalleled control over her movies-writing her own dialogue, overseeing casting, slipping and sliding around the dread Production Code until even she couldn’t get away with her innuendoes and provocations; enjoying as many comebacks as Judy Garland (though unlike Garland, she remained in strict control of her work, her image and her money). She may have been a laughingstock to some, but to others she was a brilliant original-a woman of large talents, if not education, who triumphantly asserted the right to her rampant sexuality and created a type as unique as Chaplin, Garbo or the Marx Brothers. Colette put it with her customary acuity: “She alone, out of an enormous and dull catalogue of heroines, does not get married at the end of the film, does not die, does not take the road to exile, does not gaze sadly at her declining youth in a silver-framed mirror …. She alone has no parents, no children, no husband. This impudent woman is, in her style, as solitary as Chaplin used to be.”

Celebrate Mae West or mock her, you can only feel sympathy for this game (and gamy) woman now that she’s been discovered by academia. First, she was taken up by the genderists-wasn’t she “empowered”? Didn’t she fight for her rights as Independent Woman and prevail? She battled the censors, she battled the moguls, she defied the police (she and the whole cast of her play SEX were thrown in jail, where she seems to have had a good time). Like Catherine the Great-whom she impersonated on Broadway-she chewed men up and spat them out. And most important of all, she never allowed anyone-whether in a professional or personal relationship-to compromise her great creation, “Mae West.” As much as any woman of the 20th century, she took control of her life and kept it: an essential feminist heroine, and rightly so. Except that what gets lost in all the feminist-speak is the vastly amusing and canny entertainer, whose trajectory is part of a great American theatrical tradition of self-invented women stars. Think back to Isadora Duncan, think ahead to Madonna.

And now, as if the feminist approach weren’t enough, along comes Jill Watts’ Mae West: An Icon in Black and White , the book that tells us that it may just be possible, though there’s no evidence whatsoever to prove it, that Mae was-are you ready?-one-quarter African-American! Her paternal grandfather’s early life is undocumented, although it seems he worked on whaling ships, and “50 percent of those serving on whaling vessels were black.” On the one hand, Mae “proudly displayed a genealogy of a West family-purported to have descended from Alfred the Great”; on the other, John Edwin West was “the only grandparent for whom she volunteered no information on background or origins.” As for his “passing”: “While no documents substantiate that John Edwin did, similarly none prove that he did not.” This cunning argument takes us to page four, and is providentially dropped.

What follows doesn’t provide much new information and certainly lacks the scope, depth and wit of Emily Wortis Leider’s 1997 Becoming Mae West , or the zest of West’s own (ghostwritten) story of her life, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. But Ms. Watts’ book could serve as a plausible account of the life and career if it wasn’t skewed in two directions. First, by the insistence throughout on West’s affinity for black music, black culture, black humor and black men. Yes, she was highly influenced by the great black vaudeville (and Ziegfeld) star, Bert Williams; yes, she performed in blackface; yes, her fame was secured by her adaptation of the shimmy; yes, she sang her version of the blues; yes, black maids in her plays and movies have more-than-usual prominence; yes, she wrote a novel and play about miscegenation (she approved of it); yes, she apparently enjoyed the company-and more-of a series of black studs (and an even longer-running series of white ones). If Ms. Watts had written a monograph on the African-American influences on Mae West, she would have provided us with a useful complement to the standard ways of looking at this very complicated performer. Instead, she has so overemphasized this aspect of West’s life and art that her book tilts into obsessive argument: She sees black influence everywhere, until her agenda sinks both story and subject.

And then there’s her modish language. The most valuable lesson West learned from Bert Williams? “The performative was the political.” Or try this: “The ragtime-singing, bones-playing ‘Parisienne’ cooch dancer was just beginning to project an indeterminacy that challenged the whole idea of racial fixity so critical to the ideology of white racism.” Or this: “On stage West had internalized oppositional and conflicting identities, eventually rejecting hegemonic societal forces by embracing African-American culture.”

The author’s favorite concepts involve West’s supposed “signifying” and her identity as a “trickster.” These two words are scrawled like graffiti across the text of the book. The movie censors, for instance, “were attempting to rein in West’s signifying.” (Translation: They were trying to clean up her act.) “For the public,” we learn, “Mae West was no longer just a star. She had evolved into a signifier, both an agent and a symbol that communicated its own meanings.” On her death, journalism’s appreciation of her wordplay “indicated the pervasiveness of Mae’s deployment of the African-American tradition of signification. The trickster’s voice lived on to continue to challenge and upset society’s conventions.” And in a summing-up, Ms. Watts calls upon West’s “links to the topsy-turvy world of African-American tricksterism and signification” to support her central thesis: “Mae West was and is a cultural agent that celebrates and perpetuates the African presence within American society.”

The problem isn’t that all of Ms. Watts’ ideas are foolish; on the contrary, she is shrewd in her discussions of much of West’s writing, and she performs a service in drawing attention to West’s debt to African-American culture. But the author undercuts her fresh ideas with sterile language and overstatement. It’s a gross mismatch: West’s own language was so direct, so witty and so steeped in the vernacular. This is the woman who told Ernst Lubitsch, “Shakespeare had his style and I have mine.” And who remarked, in the wake of the gigantic success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , “I used to be Snow White but I drifted.” Signifying? Tricksterism? As usual, cutting through the crap, Mae West put it best: “All my life I’ve been a put-on.”

Robert Gottlieb is the dance critic for The Observer.