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.