As I was reading the bios of Kate Bolick’s awakeners in Spinster, writers whose independence had inspired her own, I inevitably began to consider my own awakeners. Which literary women had encouraged me to live by my own definition of womanhood?
I came up with many answers, but soon one figure nudged the others out: No costar could ever prevent being upstaged by Mae West. My brain was no different: what other woman could share my consciousness once the shimmying, voluptuous, smart-talking, smart-writing dame arrived?
Others might think of her as an actress first, but for me, it’s the writing that dominates. I grew up worshipping one-liners from Dave Barry and Jane Austen. How I love a quip that’s not only hilarious, but timeless, that captures something of human nature that’s real and honest. And West, well, we all know she had a way with the lines.
And what a pioneer she was! Her play, brazenly titled Sex, produced in 1926. Her arrival on the screen at 38, with an insistence on writing her own dialogue that ensured her place in movie history. And most of all, a sense of humor so unmatched that her words have become part of the American vernacular—whether all of us realize it or not.
I suspect Bolick never fell for West’s language, for if she had, she would have had no need for five writers to inspire her; one would have been more than sufficient. So in honor of Bolick, whose book celebrating singlehood I enjoyed, I will share two of my favorite West comments on matrimony for my monthly Mae West celebration:
First, the famous quip:
“Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”
And second, that marvelous rejoinder from I’m No Angel:
Man: “I don’t suppose you believe in marriage, do you?”
Tira (West) “Only as a last resort.”
What I love is that a male character saying these words onscreen now would get big laughs—not to mention a female. (Of course, no one else could say them with the kind of oomph West did; she ignites the screen while current bombshells play with matches.)
And West not only says the words, she means them; she was every bit as unconventional as they imply. Of course, I know not to confuse fictional characters with their authors. Luckily, West gave me permission, stating about her racy creation, Diamond Lil, who bears a strong resemblance to Tira: “I’m her and she’s me and we’re each other.”
Like Bolick’s awakeners, West did have an encounter with matrimony, but since she was underage, denied cohabiting with the guy, and didn’t even admit to the union until it was discovered, I think we can agree that its impact on her was as negligible as she claims. (And of course, there’s also the accordion player from her vaudeville days some claim she married; she left him too.)
Which leaves us with her writing.
It would be easy to interpret West as simply of her time, as the pre-Code era certainly had some loose moral guidelines. But she acted the same AFTER the Code. Some might also suggest she was provocative for the sake of being rebellious. Or—perhaps even more dangerously—that she was condemning others’ choices in favor of her own. I’ve never thought of her that way, perhaps since her heroines are friendly with other women in her films, and only snarky when they oppose or judge her. And with a delivery that friendly and relaxed, who could take offense?
What West demands for each of her heroines is simply what we all should: the right to be who she is without regard to others’ morals and traditions. To be an individual, with all that implies.
As for West herself? Well, she never got to that last resort, instead cozying up with Paul Novak, a muscle-bound (and decades younger) man from her Vegas act. But it wasn’t a fling. The romance lasted until her death 26 years later; he’d never let her change her will in his favor, not wanting to think about her death. Early in their relationship, when Jayne Mansfield suggested she’d rescued Mickey Hargitay, another of West’s Chippendale-like chorus, from her employer, Novak responded by punching Mr. Universe.
West’s reaction was perfect: she implied they were at war over her affections. Kind of like her films–all the men longing just for her, she casually dating them all. Leave it to West to joke about her famous lack of monogamy while other women were pining for it. Leave it to her to confront a scandal with laughter, as she confronted everything.
I haven’t lived or loved like West. Who could? But oh, how her moxie inspires me.