THE trouble with writing a biography of someone like Mae West is that her image is not only larger than life, it’s also big enough to dwarf the portrait you are trying to create. For most of her life, unto the very brink of the grave, she was engaged in imprinting that image of the sexiest of sexy women. Every action, every word, every gesture, off screen and on, seemed to be devoted to making indelible that persona. Not to cast aspersion on the biographical skills of Simon Louvish in this intelligent, analytical study, but everywhere you go in the pages of “Mae West: ‘It Ain’t No Sin,’ ” it is hard to escape the feeling that she got there first.
This is partly due to her 1959 autobiography, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It,” which was, of course, a major instrument in the creation of the industry that was Mae West. Louvish is far too canny to allow her version of her life to take over his book: He subjects that story to the most searching analysis, testing its veracity where his suspicions lead him to do so. At the same time, he uses her pronouncements in the autobiography and elsewhere as touchstones through her life, always making sure to know what is the main highway and what is the yellow brick road to creative fantasy and legend. It is, I suppose, inevitable that at times “Mae West: ‘It Ain’t No Sin’ ” becomes almost a dialectic between Louvish’s version and Mae West’s. I know from personal experience what a simultaneous blessing and curse it is to write a biography of a woman who was a powerful autobiographer, and I think that on the whole Louvish has done a fine job with his balancing act.
Who is going to read a biography of Mae West? My guess is anyone familiar with her in some way. Most will have seen at least one of her films, which are like no other in that they are primarily vehicles for Mae West; certainly, one way or another, they will have encountered that extraordinary image composed of voluptuousness combined with an odd mixture of blatancy and fluffy coziness. Someone who knows nothing about Mae West could hardly be interested in the actual woman behind the image: Why would he possibly care? He needs to go and see one of the movies and experience the phenomenon, not simply read about it. But for those hooked on Mae West, this book will provide huge chunks of insight and information, to say nothing of a lot of fun.
Louvish is a biographer who leaves few stones unturned. Mae West seems to have been born Aug. 17, 1893. He cites the 1910 census to prove where she lived (with her parents) and her profession: “actress, vaudeville.” He takes us through a dizzying succession of boyfriends, explores her fascination with boxers and links her tastes in men with her father, nicknamed “Battlin’ “Jack West. But Louvish is never simplistic: When he makes an obvious point, it is because veracity is important to him, but he is never simply reductive in his chronicle of her life, which ended Nov. 22, 1980.
Whether he finds his quotes in newspaper reports or, here, in Anjelica Huston and Peter Lester’s fascinating 1970s account -- written for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine -- of West on her home territory in the Ravenswood Apartments on Rossmore Avenue in Los Angeles, he manages to strike gold:
“Mae West (Tapping her teeth): See -- they’re mine. I have no face lifts ... it’s all mine. There’s no change in me. I wrote this book about it. It’s called ‘Sex, Health and ESP,’ you know. I eat the right foods, exercise, take care of myself.”
There you see it: the utter matter-of-factness of being Mae West even as she defines it. It’s all there: What you see is what you get.
At the outset of his book, Louvish lays out his quest with admirable succinctness and directness:
“So my brief in this book is to give an all-round picture of a unique twentieth-century performer, an American and feminist icon, no doubt the movies’ most famous female star, one who was universally recognized -- and not only as a floating appendage [the British called a life jacket a ‘Mae West’] to save air-force pilots from a watery grave. She was, like many of her contemporaries -- the juggler W.C. Fields, the four Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Fanny Brice, et al. -- a vaudeville baby.... From these hardy roots, in the first decade of the last century, to her remarkable swansongs in the era of flower-power, gay rights and gender bending fantasies, she remained a once-only phenomenon. Like her sole comedy equal, W.C. Fields, she carved her own identity out of a patchwork of influences, which then faded into an invisible backdrop, leaving the self-made creation to inhabit its own singular world, to challenge and disrupt, by sheer force of personality, our easy assumptions about life and art.”
The movies’ most famous female star? Die-hard fans of Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and many other divas of the silver screen will feel their hackles rise at this claim. But the very real achievement of “Mae West: ‘It Ain’t No Sin’ ” is that Louvish has managed to deconstruct this masterly mythmaker while still leaving her image as radiant and as powerful as it was for so many of us on our first encounter with this phenomenon.
Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”