- Historic Sites
The Immortality Of Mae West
Nearly a century after she came on the scene, her wit, bravado, and sexuality are a bigger presence than ever
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Paul Novak, one of the bodybuilders in her 1950s nightclub act, became her devoted companion, and the woman who had once told an interviewer that “one man was about the same as another… I learned to take ’em for what they were—stepping stones,” spent the last 27 years of her life in a loving and monogamous relationship. Novak served not only as her friend and lover but as her secretary, chauffeur, exercise coach, dietician, bodyguard, public relations man, buffer, and nurse, and he told friends that he believed he had been “put on this earth to take care of Mae West.” He discreetly arranged for treatment of the medical problems of her final years, diabetes and cataracts, and protected and reassured her as she became remote, defensive, and increasingly paranoid. She was convinced that “the forces” that had once protected her health and career had abandoned her, that the sun was her enemy, that Tennessee Williams, Mart Crowley, and Warren Beatty had stolen ideas from her early plays for Suddenly Last Summer, The Boys in the Band, and Shampoo.
Her death from a stroke at 87 on November 2.2., 1980, was front-page news. The embalmer made her look half her age.
Mae West invented her persona so early and stuck to it so rigorously that no study of her penetrates the woman behind the permanently closed Venetian blinds. But I knew from experience that singers can’t keep their accompanists from seeing them at unguarded moments, so I found a couple of musicians who had worked with her.
Lennie Marvin was her pianist in the late forties and early fifties, when she toured with the play Come On Up, Ring Twice. She included him in her entourage when she went out for dinner after her shows. “She knew everybody in every town—judges, mayors, gangsters,” he says. He describes her as “quiet offstage, but when she got onstage, she lit up. It was an amazing transformation.” She went to her dressing room an hour early, “for solitude.” Marvin regarded her as an extremely intelligent woman who never missed a trick. “She was buying diamonds from everybody,” he relates. “I saw one guy, a dealer, palm a stone from her safe-deposit box and slip it in his dog’s mouth. She didn’t say anything, but when he was leaving, she said real quiet and polite, ’Give the stone back now,’ and he did.” Marvin drove her Cadillac to Boston. “I was a kid, and I learned so much. She taught me about smooth driving, and to wait for a question, don’t volunteer the answer.”
Ian Whitcomb, the musician and writer, produced two of her last records and was friends with her from 1966 to 1976. Recording new songs was her idea, he told me. Whitcomb placed West musically in the “coon shouting” school of white singers like Sophie Tucker and Beatrice Kay, and he had suggested red-hot-mama material. “No, we ought to be modernistic,” she told him. “Maybe a tune by this new girl. Rita Frankel?” She meant Aretha Franklin. When he brought her a batch of rock hits, she read through them carefully and rewrote lines that didn’t suit her. “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” became “Happy Birthday, Twenty-one.”
Whitcomb called working with her “one of the most meaningful things in my life.” He told me that “she knew nothing about music,” and that at her advanced age “she needed a cue to come in at the right place on every line. But then she’d take it and do something great with it. The greatest performers have an instinct. They shouldn’t be analyzed.”
When he went to her apartment, “there was invariably a 10-minute wait for her grand entrance from the bedroom.” Dressed in a negligee, with a towering wig and full makeup, she always sat facing a mirror. Whitcomb found her apartment “a little shabby, the white walls dirty, a really old TV. The furniture looked as if it was coming apart. If she was well off, she didn’t live ostentatiously.” His lunch was always prepared and waiting for him, “tuna salad under Saran wrap and a dessert like carrot cake.” In her book Sex, Health, and ESP she condemned sugar, but he often spotted her sneaking sweets. He speaks of her with genuine affection: “She was like an aunt to me. She took a real interest in my career. She’d adjust my tie or pull up my shirt if I was going to an audition. She came to my show, sat in the back row, laughed at my jokes.” Whitcomb found aspects of her “mysterious—all her talk about ’the forces.’ She attracted some charlatans with that ESP.” But he admired her greatly. “She had her life completely under control, and she always knew Mae West the public figure from Mae West the private person. The private person was very considerate, keen to push other people to the front, to further their careers.” He adds that “she lived in her own world” and “she had a completely instinctive way of thinking of life. She had collaborators sit with her, throw out ideas, and she’d say, ‘Miss West wouldn’t do that.’ When she was more relaxed, she was another Mae West, sweet, demure. She had a sensitive side, a retiring side. She’d say, ‘The world is about spiritual power, it’s about feeling.’”