Diamond Lil Still Sparkles

She Always Knew How: Mae West—A Personal Biography
By Charlotte Chandler
Simon & Schuster, 317 pages, $26

It’s hard to think of any of today’s shiny and carefully coddled stars who could hold their own when it comes to the utter cool that was Mae West. Seriously! Just try to imagine an Angelina or Scarlett or Reese trying to match the sultry vamp of the tiny and curvy blonde in films like I’m No Angel (1933), She Done Him Wrong (1933) and Go West Young Man (1936), let alone writing their own plays and scripts, and crafting quips like “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Madonna—who has most definitely studied the Mae West playbook—has pushed the boundaries (and then some) throughout her career, but she never spent 10 days in jail on obscenity charges (as Ms. West did in 1927, after she wrote, performed, directed and produced the very popular Broadway play Sex).

Mae West set out to rule her world in her own inimitable way, defining all of her own terms. As Charlotte Chandler writes in her new biography, She Always Knew How, “when Mae began her career, doors were opened for women. When she finished her career, doors were open to women.”

Charlotte Chandler has written biographies of iconic celebrities before: Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Alfred Hitchcock. In She Always Knew How, she relies mainly on a series of interviews conducted months before the actress’ death, in 1980. From the opening pages, when West shows Ms. Chandler her extensive diamond collection, and immediately offers a few vehement opinions on makeup, spring water and enemas for soft skin, the voice of Mae West jumps off the page, sassy, bossy and clever. In fact, there are moments in the book when one might be forgiven for feeling one’s simply reading some forgotten transcript hidden away for decades in a musty attic. (Ms. Chandler never gets around to explaining why she’s chosen to publish her book now, 29 years after the interviews took place.)

Because so much of She Always Knew How is Mae West talking about her favorite subject—herself—it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s the carefully constructed myth West created. (Ms. Chandler did talk to actors and friends who knew the star, but the meat of the book is Mae West herself.) There’s no doubt that Mae West had a brilliant and shrewd mind when it came to branding her own image: There was her private self, which only an inner circle of confidantes were allowed to see, and then there was Mae West, in her form-fitting Edith Head creations and 6-inch platform shoes (the secret to her deliberate walk), purring about how a hard man is good to find.

“Do you know what question I’m asked the most? About the mirrors on my bedroom ceiling. I say, ‘I like to see how I’m doin’.’ It’s the truth. It’s very exciting. You should try it,” West tells Charlotte Chandler during one of their conversations. “And the next question I’m most often asked is, am I always the Mae West everybody knows, or am I different when I’m alone? The answer 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.’”

Ms. Chandler wisely organizes the book chronologically, and it’s through Mae West’s voice that we hear about her childhood in Brooklyn; the early marriage she didn’t admit to for many years; her Hollywood ascent; and the love she shared with Paul Novak, her constant companion for 27 years, who took faithful care of her at the end of her life. Along the way we get Mae’s sometimes true and sometimes wild assertions (that she discovered Cary Grant, that she saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy). And if Charlotte Chandler neglects to provide supporting facts (or proof to the contrary), who cares? She Always Knew How succeeds in making the reader feel privy to a private conversation—a chance to overhear a singular voice that makes us wish a Mae West were around today.

Sara Vilkomerson is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached books@observer.com.

Diamond Lil Still Sparkles