I once came up to see Mae West sometime. And I got her floor lamps. And something else. Having just been through an exhausting inventory of all the things I’ve inexplicably bought over the years and August 17 being her 119th birthday makes today an ideal time to reflect on the woman I came to think of as “Great Aunt Mae.”
I first heard the name Mae West because a kid in our neighborhood had a turtle named after her. Then my family went to Montreal and we stopped at a grocery store where they sold snack cakes called “May West.” When we returned home, at a Sunday dinner, I told my grandmother about the snack named for the turtle.
My grandmother explained that both the turtle and the snack were named after a real person, an actress from the 1930s and recalled how much she loved laughing when she went to see her movies back then. Lucky enough, another relative there that Sunday was my Great Aunt Antoinette, a hardworking, lighthearted blond woman who was a born storyteller. “Annie” as her friends called her, was a cut-up and did a dead-on impression of Brooklynite Mae West. Long before I ever saw a Mae West movie, my impression of her was, literally and figuratively, familial. In truth, they could have been twins.
I tried reading about Mae West, but while her autobiography was listed in the card catalog in our local public library the book was suspiciously never on the shelf. Oddly, however, the librarians had overlooked Babe Gordon, one of her racy 1930s novels, with themes of racism, sexism, corruption, addiction and murder. I checked it out and was able to eventually buy my own copy and several other novels she’d authored. Still having never seen her in an old movie on television’s proverbial late, late show, I found her writing style to be pithy, biting, and astutely observant about human nature. The storyline was easy to follow, well-structured, foreshadowing later events deftly. In an Amish Country, Pennsylvania flea market of all places, I later came across some old magazines she’d written articles for, and bought them. What she wrote made her seem to me a downright philosophical genius. addressing the folly of human nature. She wasn’t a hard person, but she had a jaundiced eye.
I eventually saw some of her movies, and liked them but to me she was always first and foremost of interest as a compelling social commentator. She saw aspects of situations others failed to perceive and gave dimension to the type of characters (prize fighters, prostitutes, saloon owners) others ignored. Somehow, I took odd pride in her wisdom. I had even written a school play about her. All systems were go until the Mother Superior principal canned the deal as inappropriate entertainment for a Catholic grammar school.
Not long after this, I had my first full-on experience with that phenomena known as “zeitgeist.” All of a sudden it seemed Mae West was often in the media. Well into her 80s, she was coming back “ta’pitchas,” as she put it, meaning she was making another movie, a fact chronicled in news items and photos tied to the production of what would prove to be her last film, “Sextette.”
Something of an amateur kid sculptor who made clay figures of people I liked and then sent them as gifts, I made one of Mae West, posing her as an advertising logo character stuck in my mind after passing my mother’s food cupboard. It sure looked to me that Chicken of the Sea tuna fish had modeled its blond mermaid on their label after her. So, I sculpted a statue of her as the original Chicken of the Sea mermaid, and sent along a copy of the label. Having read that she was litigious in protecting her Persona, I hoped it wouldn’t tick her off.
To my knowledge, she never sent her lawyer or “friends in Chicago” to scare Chicken of the Sea, but I did receive a thank-you note from her secretary as well as a short, brief note of the sort that can make a kid’s head pop. It was from Stanley Musgrove, her agent. He said if I was ever in Los Angeles, Miss West wanted me to “come up and see her sometime,” so she could show me that she’d put the statue on her piano besides a nude marble statue of her by a distinguished sculptress. Zeitgeist again: I was coming to California in a few months, my parents then planning our family’s first trip to the Golden State. I told them that when we got to Los Angeles, I would be visiting my new friend Miss West. I did not tell them about the nude statue. I wrote Musgrove back, saying I’d be coming to California that summer. He responded with a second note saying I should call him and he’d try to arrange a meeting with her. Good ole Stanley came through for me.
The conversation that transpired that day in August, 1977 when, accompanied by my California cousin Patti, I met Mae West warrants a separate story, which I will someday write. I do remember reminding myself I better remember everything about it. Although she would not let me bring a camera to have us snapped together, I was left with a distinct and strong impression. She stood erect with a certain dignity, her large, clear blue eyes first warily observing me as I asked questions, and then widening in open warmth and engagement as she responded to each with gentle humor. When I first thrust my hand to shake her’s and said, “How do you do?” she even seemed modest until her plump fingers grasped mine and she rolled her eyes, chortling, “How do ya do what?” (Later, sure enough I heard her respond the same way to that rote greeting on a television show. She had that bag of quips always at the ready). There was nothing formidable about her at all. “Reservedly maternal,” is how I’d characterize her vibe. She was, in fact, a dead ringer for Great Aunt Antoinette. After that day, I never thought of the actress as anything but “Great Aunt Mae,” a bit of a double-entendre in homage to this master of double-entendre.
A few months later, she thoughtfully sent me a Christmas card and an autographed picture (retouched to the point where her eyes, nose and lips just float in white space, God bless her!) I speculate that she sent it to perhaps compensate for my obvious disappointment when her partner Paul Novak gently shook his head no at the sight of a camera in my hand when I entered the apartment.
So years later, in 1994, when I heard that Christie’s would be auctioning the contents of her apartment, I was curious. A bit too curious perhaps, because I placed the winning bid on the pair of floor lamps that had been in her living room for decades.
She had moved into the Ravenswood Apartment Building on Rossmore Avenue when she first came to Hollywood in 1932 and she died there in 1980. The gilt-painted white rococco-style furniture never changed. Myth or not, I was told by a movie buff that the lamps were among used Paramount Studio set pieces initially bought from a movie set wholesale outlet and had once appeared in a Rudolph Valentino film. More meaningful to me was that the lamps were in the living room when she and I met.
Mae West’s floor lamps took a journey to four corners of the country.
Inheriting the contents of her Hollywood apartment and San Fernando Valley ranch, her nephew John West shipped them to his home area of Seattle, where they were donated to a charity, intended to be sold at a a fundraiser. It never took place and it all sat in a second-hand store basement. Eventually, Christie’s arranged to auction the estate and transported it all to its New York show rooms. After I won the lamps, my father went to retrieve (“You paid how much for this crap?!”) and send them to my home in Washington, D.C. When I moved to Los Angeles they came with me. Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Washington, and back to Los Angeles. Finally, Mae West’s floor lamps were in my living room, only seven blocks away from the Ravenswood where they stood for almost fifty years. Unsure of where they fit best in a house with oak furniture, I think about keeping one and selling one though I hesitate to break up the old team. Who else would buy Mae West’s floor lamp anyway? I admit that both, about five feet high, are now in the garage.
A more modest item she once owned, however, holds greater personal value. On a trip to San Diego in the early 90s, I was walking along a storefront when I glimpsed an old theatrical poster in a window. It was for the play Mae West wrote and starred in, and with which she’s most associated, Diamond Lil. I went in.
Turns out that tons of her non-furniture items in storage had also been inherited by her nephew which he’d arranged to sell through this consignment shop. I bought the contents of literally two desk drawers, a random grab-bag of items such as pins, a comb and brush set, a religious medal worn on a chain stating, “I am a Catholic. Please call a priest in case of an emergency.” At the bottom of the heap I spotted what looked like a tarnished metal stick. It had a small loop on the top portion which unscrewed.
I had no idea what it was, but the scrollwork on it seemed to mark it as quite old, perhaps from the 30s or 20s. And finally, I unscrewed the top to discover a jagged piece of untarnished metal. It was Mae West’s fountain pen, perhaps used to sign pictures, or perhaps to write or edit one of her novels, play or film scripts, the material vessel which output her irony, wit and astute observations about the way people behave. For me, that fountain pen captures the essence of Mae West. None of these trinkets have much monetary value at all, I’ve discovered. But to me, having the pen which set down such wit is worth a million.