Mae West: An Icon In Black And White – Jill Watts (OUP 2001)- A Real Life Review

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“It isn’t what I do, but how I do it.  It isn’t what I say but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

This, in her own words sums up perfectly the Hollywood legend, Mae West (1893-1981).  It explains why she was successful and also why she encountered problems, particularly with censorship, throughout her career.  It also connects her with, in Jill Watts’ words her links to “African-American tricksterism and signification” (more of this later, although as a British reader of this book I’m still a little vague on the details).

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Mae West began on stage at a very young age and alternated between Vaudeville (fairly respectable) and Burlesque (less so).  She created the character of “Mae West”, which cemented herself into American and European culture.  She wrote plays.  “Sex” (1926) landed her in prison for obscenity (after it had been playing for a year).  “Diamond Lil” (1928) established her as a major star.  At one point she was reputed to be the second wealthiest American after William Randolph Hearst.  Hollywood (eventually) beckoned (when she was nearly 40) when old pal George Raft pushed for her to be in his “Night After Night”.  In what must have been one of the rarest and earliest examples of Hollywood reverse inequality Raft starred in the movie for $191 a week whilst West co-starred for $4,000 a week.

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Hollywood, initially nervous of her controversial reputation began to see her potential and began greenlighting a series of films which began with “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) her biggest and best during which she wielded extraordinary power for a woman in the Hollywood studio system.

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Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”

Nowadays we would find little sexually outrageous in West’s output but she regularly overstepped the boundaries of the Hays Code of censorship, brought in to return respectability to the movie world.  We might, however, express surprise at the existence of her much raided and closed down theatrical show about homosexuality featuring a  cast of drag queens in 1927, as it probably seems at least five decades ahead of its time.  Much of the obscenity was implied (cue much reading of scripts in courtrooms to spot the implications) and was indeed mainly because (back to my opening quote) to how things were said by Mae and what she was doing when she said them.

This is the second book about Mae West I’ve ever read.  Mary Beth Hamilton’s “The Queen Of Camp” didn’t really bring the star to life for me in the way I thought it would.  I enjoyed this more but again have reservations.

Watts begins her very thorough and quite academic study of West’s life and career by citing two rumours that were commonplace during West’s lifetime.  Firstly, that she was actually a man and secondly that she had African-American heritage and was in the terms of the time “passing as white”.  The first rumour was firmly disproved at the time of her death and has probably much to say about how a powerful woman was viewed.  The second hinges on, and this is not known definitively, whether she had an African-American grandfather.  Immaterial of this, Watts argues, is the performer’s  heavy borrowing for her character “Mae West” from African-American traditions and the quips and the use of language for which she became famous is a form of “signification” and that the character is based upon “the trickster” of African-American folk tales.  West’s famous “shimmy dance”, her walk and love of blues were adapted from her experiences in black nightclubs.  Her total acceptance of African-American friends and lovers was unusual at the time and she carried this consistently through her private and professional life.  Her play about mixed relationships even began a tour of the South and led to a lynch mob after her leading male.

True, nowadays, we can cite racism in her films which cast African-American actresses as her maids but their relationship was different to most films and something bordering on equality was often implied if not explicitly stated and she was known to be adamant in her support for casting even within the limits which mainstream Hollywood set.  There’s also the issue that for a time in her early career she performed in “blackface” in an act termed as a “coon shouter”.

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Mae West, Gertrude Howard and Hattie McDaniel

It is these issues which makes up the “Icon In Black And White”of Watts’  subtitle and provides the focus for her work.  It is all very interesting but perhaps I should have read a more general biography first.  Watts, however, does not stint on biographical detail.  We end up knowing as much about West’s private life as she chose to reveal (actually very little despite her continual sexual witticisms and bravado), there’s quite thorough break-d0wn of the plot of her films and we get a good sense of Mae West the person, the character and the star.

This was one extraordinary lady and I think perhaps over the last generation her star has waned a little.  “She Done Him Wrong” is a superb movie and at the other end of her career there’s much entertainment to be had (most of it unintentional, or was it?) in her last film, the pretty disastrous “Sextette” (1979) with Mae’s final outing as an 86 year old sex goddess.  I want to read more about her thanks to Watt’s depiction of a woman born both decades ahead of her time and yet very much part of it.

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Mae West and friends in “Sextette”

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Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.

100 Essential Books – Toast – Nigel Slater (2003)

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When I first read this book when it was first published I had really only a vague idea as to who Nigel Slater was. I had his “Real Fast” cookbooks which I used a lot but he hadn’t become the very recognisable TV cook of recent years. I’m not sure if I would have got a different impression of this had I read this more recently after seeing him so much on TV presenting his reassuring, comforting cookery programmes and food documentaries.  Perhaps I would have found this memoir more of a shock. A very watchable TV adaptation was made with Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) as Nigel and Helena Bonham-Carter as his step-mum but reading the book is the more valuable experience by far. I re-read this whenever I want a fast read which will have me laughing out loud and a few minutes later feeling close to tears. However well-written Nigel’s cookbooks are they do not have the same effect on me as this.

There’s a marvellous line from a review on the paperback copy from the Independent which claims Slater as the “Proust of the Nesquik era”. It was famously a Madeleine sponge cake that got Proust reminiscing at great length (haven’t read that and probably now unlikely to) and that is so appropriate as nothing kickstarts the old nostalgia like food (except perhaps music) and Slater cleverly uses this to provide the structure for his reminiscences.   As his childhood was in the late 60’s/early 70’s (he was born in 1958) his memories are evoked by such joys as Arctic Roll, Cream Soda, Space Dust and Grilled Grapefruit. He tells his story through his hunger and does so admirably. The era is marvellously conjured up through his examination of his life through the foods we ate. It also contains in the section “Spaghetti Bolognaise” perhaps one of the most laugh-out-loud funny pieces of writing ever. I am grinning as I recall it as it is so close to my first experience of spaghetti. It is hard to believe that in the late 60’s pasta would be deemed to be something almost inedible to the British palate packaged in its “blue sugar paper that looks for all the world like a great long firework.” We Brits were not used to food that had to be forced into the pan and once cooked;

“We all sit there staring at our tumbling plates of pasta on our glass Pyrex plates. ‘Oh Kathleen, I don’t think I can,’ sobs Aunt Fanny, who then picks up a long sticky strand with her fingers and pops it into her mouth from which it hangs all the way down to her lap.” 

Now in my household and my first introduction to spaghetti that is exactly how we ate it – plain and unadorned and I must say it was some years later before the experience was repeated. I’m really not sure why we did that- My Mum used to make Macaroni Cheese so must have known that it needed something on it. Luckily, in the Slater household they had a tin of “a slurry of reddy-brown mince that smells ‘foreign’”. With that addition things seem to be picking up, indeed the impressionable Nigel thinks he “wouldn’t mind eating this every day”, until that is, Dad remembers the drum of grated Parmesan cheese that he has been advised by a sophisticated friend to sprinkle on top.

“Daddy, this cheese smells like sick,” I tell him.

“I know it does, son, don’t eat it. I think it must be off.”

We never had spaghetti bolognaise or Parmesan cheese again. Or for that matter, ever even talked about it.”

I have laughed the whole time I have been typing this. I’m sure it will do the same to you when you read it. It’s not all fun in the Slater household, however. His mother dies when he is young (her memory kept alive poignantly by marshmallows on his bed-side table) and there is subsequently a difficult relationship with his step-mum. His almost obsessive interest in food begins to form itself into a potential career. It is a very British book, I’m not sure how well its sheer Britishness would translate for an international audience. This section sums up Nigel’s relationship with his father but the sensory value may be lost if these words do not sum up the same sensations;

“He always had something disgusting in his mouth, a Setler, a glug of kaolin and morphine, his pipe. When it wasn’t one of those it would be a Senior Service or a Mannekin. I flinched on the rare occasion he kissed me, even though I wanted him to.”

There is a danger to consider this to be a  “celebrity biography” because to a point that is exactly what it is, but it is far more than that. This is Literature. It stands head and shoulders above most contemporary autobiographies because it is so well written and because of its disarming honesty. Family tensions and a coming to terms with his sexuality are all beautifully handled. It manages to be both touching and outrageous and was a highly deserved British Book Awards Biography of the Year Winner. A couple of years back it was one of the selected books to give out on World Book Night and I would have loved to have had a few copies to pass around. It also seems to be appearing as a book that is studied in schools and colleges and I am thrilled by that as it is truly a modern classic. Butterscotch Angel Delight anyone? fivestars

“Toast” was published in paperback in 2004 by Harper Perennial

Passion For Life (2013) – Joan Collins – A Chick-lit from a Male Point of View Review

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Okay, I know I’m pushing my boundaries a bit here by categorising this memoir as chick-lit but I have been thinking a bit recently about the novels of Joan Collins (prompted by a conversation on this blog) which I always had a sneaking affection for. I find sister Jackie’s novels somewhat over-blown but Joan (and I hoped she actually wrote her novels- I’m sure she did) seemed to perfectly capture the brittle world of celebrity and 80’s glamour. We didn’t call it “chick-lit” in the days when these were first published but they are more likely to attract a female readership.   I’ve just looked them up on Amazon and they are available on Kindle, but with my to-be-read pile slightly groaning at the moment they may have to wait some time for a re-read. The two I particularly remember are “Prime Time”(1988) and “Love And Desire And Hate” (1990) and there are certainly two I know I haven’t read “Star Quality” (2002) and “Misfortune’s Daughters” (2004). Anyway, those thoughts got me digging out Joan’s latest book “Passion For Life” (2013) which I was sent for  review purposes when it was first published.

I do think Joan Collins’ previous two autobiographies are probably up there amongst the best celebrity biogs. She has the knack of giving the reader exactly what is wanted – a perfect combination of fact, analysis, outrageousness and gossip and she’s had quite a life.  I read a library copy of “Past Imperfect” (1978) when it first came out when I was an impressionable teenager and had really read nothing like it. I remember renewing it quite a few times! At this point “Dynasty” was quite a few years away and Joan was best known to me as a guest star in TV programmes such as “Batman” and “Star Trek”. In 1978 the year she published “Past Imperfect”, a bit of a golden year for La Collins, she took the lead role in the film version of sister Jackie’s “The Stud”, began a series of much-loved Cinzano adverts with Leonard Rossiter and never looked back. Her career switched up a gear which would lead to her become a worldwide household name a few years later when the role of Alexis Carrington came along. The height of this renewed fame is covered in the aptly titled “Second Act” (1996) which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

With this third instalment of her life story and with the passing of the years, a slowing down of career and greater stability in married and family life Joan has opted for a more laid-back memoir approach, sorted in themes with a lot of pictures.  The reproduction of photos in this hardback edition is top quality and Joan writes in a clear, identifiable voice.   Fans could not really hope for more. By its very structure it obviously has less depth than the previous two autobiographies but it still gives me the same sense of guilty pleasure. threestars

“Passion For Life” was published in the UK in 2013 by Constable.