By Terri Schlichenmeyer.
When you’re sick, those daytime showings of black-and-white movies are quaintly perfect for recuperating. Some of them are even still funny.
In the new book, She Always Knew How by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, simonandschuster.com), you’ll read about the life of one star who made her first movie nearly 80 years ago.
Mary Jane West was born August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn to a father who was a boxer and “the most beautiful mother in the world.” Little May (later changed to Mae) was an only child who was pampered until she was five years old, which, she believed, formed her strong personality.
Because May’s favorite toy was a stage that her father made for her, it was no surprise that she became a professional performer by age eight. Though she had tutors and attended school sporadically, “[e]ducation was . . . optional,” West said. Still, she learned racial tolerance from her parents at a time when Jim Crow laws were enforced, and she was a supporter of gay rights “before it was the thing to do. . . .”
Retired at age 12 (because she was too “developed” to play children’s parts), West returned to the stage at age 14. At 17, she was married for “five minutes” to a fellow performer, a nice boy from Queens, in a wedding that was kept secret for over 20 years.
Long before the marriage was revealed, West was famous—in part, because of her time spent behind bars (in 1926) for the then-scandalous play Sex.
In 1933, Mae West arrived in Hollywood with over 30 years of acting experience. So large was her draw at the movies that she claimed to have “saved” Paramount Pictures from “going down the drain” during the Depression. Her power was such that she once successfully had removed from the set a very inebriated W.C. Fields. Ever the visionary, West had her attorney and her agents work a provision into her contract that gave her residual payments for future showings of her films on a new medium called television. And she continued to make movies well into her 80th decade.
Author Charlotte Chandler reportedly befriended Mae West just before the star’s death in 1980. This book, the result of interviews, is filled with oddly meandering and not-always-cohesive thoughts, memories that are viewed through multiple pairs of rose-colored glasses, strange scenarios (one, in which Chandler awkwardly wears black lingerie belonging to the almost-90-year-old West), and more tiresome bragging than I was almost able to bear.
It’s obvious that Mae West never lacked for self-confidence, so egregious is her boasting. No part of her body, including her teeth and her feet, escaped self-admiration. This overabundance of horn-blowing is simply no fun to read.
There are better books about Mae West out there. Find one of those instead and take a pass on this one. She Always Knew How is no good, no how.
Terri Schlichenmeyer works with over 250 newspapers and magazines around North America and is the treasurer for her local PFLAG organization. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.