She Always Knew How: Mae West, a Personal Biography (Hardcover) ... Cover Art

She Always Knew How: Mae West, a Personal Biography (Hardcover)

By: Charlotte Chandler (Author)

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3 out of 5 stars Diamond Lil Without The Sparkle, February 17, 2009
By R. Mark Desjardins
In the opening pages of Charlotte Chandlers new biography of Mae West, She Always Knew How, the author inadvertently tips off readers that they may be getting diluted goods. In regards to granting the interview request West is quoted, "Im saturated, Im not promoting anything or selling anything, so I dont have any reason." When excerpts of the interview were originally published in the February 1984 issue of MS magazine, the short article with snappy editing made for fascinating reading. Presented in this expanded form, the conversation seems to drag (no pun intended). That Chandler in fact conducted this interview is not in question. She has authored many acclaimed biographies of cinematic luminaries, but it is the exceedingly talkative nature of the material presented here that raises the question of what West actually said, and what Chandler interpreted as what she said, interwoven with comments made about West by other subjects Chandler had interviewed over the years. This may account for the large amount of elapsed time since the interview and the publication of this biography, some thirty years later. While it is improbable that Chandler has attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, it appears West succeeded in pulling the wool over her eyes. The fact that Chandler does not state a time frame for how long a duration of time she interviewed West is troubling. Born Lyn Erhard, no personal facts about Chandler are available, and appears to be somewhat of an enigma. Perhaps this is why she can relate to a personage such as West who had no problem rearranging the facts of her life to suit herself, or the listener at the time. West certainly warms up talking about her favorite subject - herself, and it is wonderful to hear her voice throughout this book. However, to the informed Mae West fan, this voice is somewhat muted and self serving rather than being reflective. For example, when the subject of one of Wests lovers is brought up, he is simply referred to a "D." Guido Deiro and West were in fact married and ample proof lies deposited in Envelope 7, Miscellaneous Letters, and Legal Documents in the collection at the Center for the Study of Free-Reed instruments at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Years earlier, In 1911, West married Frank Wallace without obtaining a divorce, therefore in fact making her a bigamist. No mention is ever made of this. Although West scored many successes in vaudeville and on Broadway, her suffered many setbacks as well, but these are conveniently overlooked and glossed over. Any biographer worth their salt having done background sleuthing would be aware of the ups and downs of Wests long and varied career. As a result the uninitiated reader would believe that Wests career was smooth sailing and everything was sunshine and roses. Far from being the truth, West was toughened by the assaults of critics and the tough hide she developed ultimately made her the successful, yet little of that struggle is revealed or acknowledged on either part here. Maes lover and defacto common law husband, Chester Ribonsky, AKA Chuck Krauser AKA Paul Novak is dealt with in a very one dimensional manner. Novak unquestionably loved and adored West but had much more going for him as a well rounded individual with interests of his own than what Chandler presents here. As well, Maes love/hate relationship with her sister Beverly is somewhat glossed over. According to Dolly Dempsey the two sisters bitter sweet relationship harkens back to their early years living in a Brooklyn tenement when young Beverly broke her ankle and there was no money to have it set properly. The guilt over that incident made for a lifelong bitter sweet bond between the two sisters. After reading some of the score of other Mae West biographies that have been published over the years, Chandlers examination of Wests life and career is welcome in that we do hear Mae West in her own voice. However, one can not get over the feeling that what Chandler has offered the reader is a very pale and hazy imitation, paste if you will, of what Diamond Lil stood for and was about.

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Short Desription

In She Always Knew How, her wonderful new biography of legendary actress Mae West, acclaimed biographer Charlotte Chandler draws on a series of interviews she conducted with the star just months before her death in 1980. From their first meeting, where West held out a diamond-covered hand in greeting and lamented her interviewer's lack of jewels, to their farewell, where the star was still gamely offering advice on how to attract men, Mae West and Charlotte Chandler developed a warm rapport that glows on every page of this biography.

Actress, playwright, screenwriter, and iconic sex symbol Mae West was born in New York in 1893. She created a scandal -- and a sensation -- on Broadway with her play Sex in 1926. Convicted of obscenity, she was sentenced to ten days in prison. She went to jail a convict and emerged a star. Her next play, Diamond Lil, was a smash, and she would play the role of Diamond Lil in different variations for virtually her entire film career.

In Hollywood she played opposite George Raft, Cary Grant (in one of his first starring roles), and W. C. Fields, among others. She was the number one box-office attraction during the 1930s and saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy. Her films included some notorious one-liners -- which she wrote herself -- that have become part of Hollywood lore: from "too much of a good thing can be wonderful" to "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better." Her risqué remarks got her banned from radio for a dozen years, but behind the clever quips was Mae's deep desire, decades before the word "feminism" was in the news, to see women treated equally with men. She saw through the double standard of the time that permitted men to do things that women would be ruined for doing.

Her cause was sexual equality, and she was shrewd enough to know that it was perhaps the ultimate battleground, the most difficult cause of all. In addition to her extensive interviews of Mae West, Chandler also spoke with actors and directors who worked with and knew the star, the man with whom she lived for the last twenty-seven years of her life, as well as her closest assistant at the end of her life. Their comments and insights enrich this fascinating book. She Always Knew How captures the voice and spirit of this unique actress as no other biography ever has.

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