Wait For The Moment When: Mae West

Mae-West_SheDoneHimWrong

…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an indolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.

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Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980

Vignettes of Old Marylebone 4: “King to Abdicate” – December 1936

Duchess of Windsor in Sleeveless Dress on Lawn

Two minutes walk to the north of Les Senteurs is the imposing but discreet bulk of Bryanston Court, such a solid but withal modest dowager that it has taken me nearly two years to find. From here – Flat 5B 1st floor – Wallis Warfield Simpson sallied forth to win the heart of a king; here, she and her second husband Ernest entertained; here, the Ladies Colefax, Cunard and Cooper knocked back Sidecars and Martinis to oil their repartee; and to this flat Cecil Beaton bustled round with proofs of his latest flattering snaps. ” Quite a Wallis Collection”, quipped Mrs Simpson and the King Edward fell about with that curious yelping bark of a laugh.

Even before she became France’s hostess with the mostest, Wallis was getting her hand in with natty little dinners at Bryanston Court. Stick-thin and coruscating with Cartier she’d maybe sport Schiaparelli’s Surrealist lobster gown (brought over from Paris in the diplomatic bag) to serve her Aunt Bessie’s recipe for chicken Maryland (a big ‘hit’), salad leaves graded to identical size and never, ever soup: “you can’t build a meal on a lake”. Every afternoon Mrs Simpson would be off down to the German embassy at Carlton Terrace for tea with the Ribbentrops and it was said that whatever was discussed in Cabinet in the morning would thus be the talk of Berlin by the cocktail hour. It was this curious friendship which some 70 years later led to the blocking of a Blue Plaque on Bryanston Court, it being argued that the “traitress” deserved no such memorial. A short-sighted decision, for surely one of the most influential women of the last century deserves to have her presence marked as well as felt. In a piquant contrast, the original lavatory pedestal at Flat 5B was recently reported to be still in place.

If you are curious to know how Mrs Simpson smelled – Beaton disloyally recorded a trace of halitosis, no doubt due to the rigid dieting – come round to Les Senteurs and inspect Caron’s 1930’s best-seller “French Can Can”. This fragrance first appeared in the year of the Abdication and was created originally for export sales only, expressly designed to suit Anglo-Saxon women especially those of the Simpson type; slim, brunette, burnished and ultra-chic. A rich floral chypre it is less outre than many of the Caron classics and is quite at home in the modern West End: brittle, sparkling, emerald-green and teaming perfectly with fine tweeds, furs, patent leather and loads of chutzpah. A strange thought that Mrs Simpson may well have known our little shop in Seymour Place, though not as a perfumery: 30 years after her death it still carries her sillage.