She Always Knew How: Mae West
Charlotte Chandler's She Always Knew How: Mae West is a look at the life of a true American icon. Told mostly through first-person interviews with West and her contemporaries, this biography offers a lot of wisdom in an entertaining, perhaps slightly embellished, format. One can never be sure if West is being sincere or if she is playing a role, or perhaps performing some idiosyncratic combination of the two. A perfect vacation companion, you'll feel like Mae West is with you sunning on the beach (something she insists she would never be caught dead doing) and regaling you with anecdotes from her storied past.
The book is dotted with tall tales from a bygone era, like West's assertion that the early audience for her 1926 play Sex was comprised entirely of sailors. Sex was the show that, after 42 sold-out weeks, eventually landed West in jail for "producing an immoral theatrical performance." Her next play, The Drag, focusing on the secret world of gay men in the 1920s -- and produced a full forty years before the Stonewall Riots -- was equally eyebrow-raising in its time. Chandler quite convincingly presents West as one of the central figures in the liberalization of expression in American culture.
A master of the double-entendre, West used language as a weapon. Chandler recounts how she once asked a particularly tall actor his height. "Six feet, seven inches, ma'am" he answered. She replied, "Forget about the six feet. Let's talk about the seven inches." Even after she moved to Hollywood and worked with less-racy subject matter, West was constantly battling with the censors. Not that this bothered her. Late in the book she opines, "You can't get famous for breaking the rules unless you've got some rules to break."
Certainly West broke down a lot of barriers with the sexy and powerful roles she played. Her work is thought-provoking and forward-thinking even by today's standards. Chandler does her readers a great service by presenting her subject in the most unfiltered way possible and allowing West to tell her story for herself.
David Kaufman's Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam is not only a comprehensive biography of one man, Charles Ludlam, but a history of his life's work, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. This meticulously researched documentary of the Ridiculous sheds light on the life of a man and a theater with whom every serious thespian should be acquainted.
Perhaps best known for his outrageous two-man penny dreadful, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Ludlam is the author of a Shakespearean array of 29 plays. Like an American Moliere, Ludlam directed and acted in most of them at his theater at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, his most famous roles impersonating women in Camille and Galas. Of course, having a dedicated theater space is a rare luxury in New York City and it took Ludlam and company decades of hard work (on their feet and on their backs) to get there. Some of the most intriguing passages detail the RTC's early performances in gay bars and porno movie houses.
The summertime traveler will most certainly enjoy the accounts of the RTC's multiple tours of Europe and the west coast. The section about the first European tour, in particular, details Ludlam and Co's hilarious and sometimes frightening adventures behind the Iron Curtain, including a story about being escorted to a waiting airplane by Yugoslavian border guards so they could make their curtain time at the state-run theater in Belgrade.
Kaufman offers a contextualization of Ludlam, explaining his relationship with contemporaries like Richard Foreman, Ellen Stewart, and Joe Papp. He further explains Ludlam's influence on more mainstream figures like John Waters, Bette Midler, and Andy Warhol. While Ludlam thought he was the only artist making truly groundbreaking theater in his time, his significance had often been overlooked in favor of less farcical, less comedic work. Kaufman endeavors to change that, connecting Ludlam to some major artistic forces of the twentieth century; the Ridiculous! index truly is a painstaking labor of love.
Beyond his cultural significance, Kaufman paints a larger-than-life portrait of Ludlam as a dynamic and bold leader whom everyone was constantly trying to impress. That kind of magnetism allowed Ludlam to live a life just as fantastic as any of his plays.
Recently adapted into an Off-Broadway musical starring Christopher Sieber, Dan Savage's adoption memoir The Kid is a great way to spend a lazy afternoon on the beach. Full of humor and Savage's razor-sharp political prose, The Kid presents a complete and honest start-to-finish account of one family's adoption story.
After a brief flirtation with in vitro fertilization, Dan and his boyfriend Terry decide to adopt a baby. Opting for an open adoption, in which the birth mother is meant to be a part of the child's life after the adoption is complete, they travel to Portland to begin the procedures. What follows is a tale of the typical anxieties that all adoptive parents go through (Will the baby be healthy? Will the birth mother change her mind at the last minute?) as well as those more specific to gay families (Are we less likely to be chosen because we're gay? Do all the other couples in this adoption seminar hate us?). Dan and Terry are eventually chosen by Melissa, a teenage gutter-punk who brings along her own unique set of complications.
Savage's point-blank honesty is refreshing and illuminating. He brings up a lot of questions and thoughts that most parents -- gay or otherwise -- would blush at mentioning. In the chapter, "The Real Reasons" Savage casts off the typical gift-from-god rhetoric surrounding children to expose his real reasons for wanting children. This is followed by a chapter directed toward Savage's son DJ -- in the event he ever picks up the book -- instructing him to put it down if he doesn't want to read details about his daddies' sex lives. The effect on the reader is not so much cringe-inducing as it is endearing, drawing you into Savage's life and making him a familiar presence.
Even if you didn't get to see The New Group's eponymous musical, The Kid is just as entertaining and dramatic as a night of musical comedy and you can bring it with you in a tote bag.
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