Paul Novak, Mae West's companion of 26 years and the acknowledged love of her life, died Wednesday morning at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, where he was undergoing treatment for advanced prostate cancer. He was 76.
One of the musclemen in the chorus line of West's fabled 1950s nightclub act that played Las Vegas and toured the country over five years, Novak soon fell in love with West, who was nearly 30 years his senior. She died in 1980.
The epitome of the strong, silent type and an intensely private man to the end, Novak tried always to stay in the background, content to let the public believe he was merely West's bodyguard, when in fact he became her husband in everything but name.
The only time Novak found himself in the headlines was when he punched out another member of West's beef trust, Mickey Hargitay, the Hungarian-born Mr. Universe who had become romantically involved with Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield had made some unkind remarks about the 60-plus West, who nevertheless managed to make it seem in the press that the two men were fighting over her.
It was this incident that inspired West to change the name of Charles Krauser--World War II Navy gunner, member of the merchant marine who saw duty in Korea and Vietnam, professional wrestler, circus roustabout and Muscle Beach denizen--to Paul Novak.
Actually, Krauser had been born Chester Ribonsky in Baltimore. His friend of more than half a century, Joe Gold, founder of Gold's Gyms and later World Gyms and another member of West's chorus line, recalled that Ribonsky changed his name legally in New Orleans to Krauser, thinking it was a good moniker for a wrestler.
West, a tiny, voluptuous woman with a beautiful complexion and a dazzling smile, and Novak, with a bodybuilder's wide shoulders and massive chest, made a striking couple. His dark hair and suits contrasted sharply with her blondness and fondness for light colors. His strong, craggy features and her enduring star aura blurred the difference in their ages.
In private, West and Novak were a remarkably compatible, easygoing couple. They liked folksy, small gatherings at which West loved to entertain her friends with songs and outrageous stories. She never tried to dominate the conversation, but was content to sit back and listen to Novak and others hold forth on current events. Novak loved to laugh as much as she did and was a fine, funny storyteller in his own right.
Their mutual devotion grew with the passing years and was touching to behold, yet their initial romance was tempestuous and took years to settle down. They were in a way both strong-willed loners who loved their freedom. Once, when West's brother Jack and sister Beverly, whom she supported, were giving Novak a hard time, he called Gold to drive him to New Orleans so he could sign up for another tour of duty with the merchant marine.
"It happened in 1964," Dolly Dempsey, longtime confidant of the couple, said of Novak's departure from West's Santa Monica beach house. "It was the first time I ever heard Mae really talk like Diamond Lil. As Paul was leaving, she told him, 'Just remember, there ain't no swingin' doors in this place!' "
But Gold said that when Novak was about to board ship in New Orleans, he stopped to make a phone call. Returning, he told Gold, "I've got to catch a plane," and flew home to West, leaving Gold to drive back to Los Angeles alone.
Novak's unstinting devotion provided West an old age of enviable happiness and security. With his constant protection, his concern for her diet and exercise, West was able to live her life pretty much as she always had until she suffered the series of strokes that claimed her life at the age of 87. She died at her often-described white and gold apartment at the Ravenswood building in Hollywood, her principal home of 48 years, with Novak and Dempsey caring for her to the end.
A dignified man of principle and loyalty, Novak was stunned by her death, although it could not have come as a surprise to him. Ever the realist, West in her last years continually asked Novak to line up an attorney so she could change her will in his favor, but he procrastinated.
"I always said to her, 'Now, now, dear, there's plenty of time to do that,' " he once said. "I guess I thought she would live forever."
"How did she ever pick me?" he would wonder aloud. "Me, just a wrestler and a roustabout."
West in turn would say that Novak was "a good guy," adding when she was in her mid-80s: " 'Course, there's 40 guys dyin' for his job!"
Last week, the gaunt but alert Novak told a friend: "I've had such a great, incredible life."
Gold said Novak, who leaves two brothers in Maryland, wanted no services and will be cremated, with his ashes scattered in the sea he loved.