Friday, August 17, 2018

Mae West: Between the Covers (Book Review)

"In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out: I have been misunderstood."
           -- Mae West

Mae West: Between the Covers, edited by Michael Gregg Michaud, is not a biography of Mae West though first impression from the outside was that this was a 540-page biography. I welcome a biography that can dig up more facts than the prior volumes but this is not that type of book.

The name Mae West conjures up a sex symbol whose status diminished as a result of the Hayes Code,  but few remember that she broke box office records, earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" with She Done Him Wrong, and fought against William Randolph Hearst who insisted his editors avoid mention of her name in his newspapers. In private, she was different from her screen counterparts: he led a quiet, moral life. It was West herself who confessed, "I am a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment, and I give it to them." 

It is this last remark that makes up the majority of the book -- reprints of vintage magazine articles of the times, chronicling her career as it was documented on the newsstands beginning with an article from Liberty magazine, August 10, 1927. As most serious scholars and historians will attest, many articles in magazines and newspapers of the times were fluff pieces -- with quotes and information provided by the movie studios and their publicity departments. In short, we take what was on the printed page with a grain of salt. 

The earliest articles in this book provide interesting information on the stage plays she starred and co-starred, including one from 1929 that appeared in the International Police Bugle, printed and circulated in Detroit, Michigan. The year of 1933 featured numerous articles warning readers to be prepared for the Mae West that was coming to a theater near them, with such headlines as "Broadway's Most Daring Actress Drops Into Hollywood" and "Look Out! Here's Mae West!"

The supposed daring jewel heist from which Mae West was a victim is documented in the January 1933 issue of Movie Classic, Lew Garvey's fascinating article "I Fired Mae West for Doing the Shimmy," and "Mae West's Personal Maid Tells All" from January 1934 verified she was headline news of the time. Of amusement was a rash of articles from late 1933 and early 1934 suggesting sh knew more about sex than the average reader, with such articles as "Sex is Beautiful, Mae West Sex-plains It All," "Mae West Tells How to Handle Men," "Mae West Discusses Men and Sex Appeal" and "It's the Caveman Within Us Calling for Mae" that suggest she would say almost anything to hype her latest motion-picture.

For a fan of old-time radio, such as myself, the March 1934 issue of Radio Stars featured "Can Mae West Beat the Radio JINX?" The articles venture to May 1977 when After Dark printed an article about her personal and screen career.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read. If you love reading those old magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, you will enjoy this book. If I had but one complaint... there is no index which would have been great when someone like me wants to look up Cary Grant or Edgar Bergen to see how her name was reported alongside those personalities.

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