Mae West Weakens Legs
Mae West burst onto the Hollywood screen like it was hers the whole time. She was fashionably late— Night After Night (1932) was half-over when she appeared outside a speakeasy surrounded by leering men. Audiences heard her before they saw her; they heard Brooklyn, with a purring lilt all her own: “Aww why don’t you boys be good and go home to ya wives.”
Behind her a peek-hole opened, then a voice. “Who is it?”
“It’s the fairy godmother ya mug!”
West received fourth billing for her film debut but was happy to work alongside George Raft, an old Gotham beau. Raft, an ex-fighter with underworld ties, starred as an ex-fighter with underworld ties. It was he who insisted that she join the cast. “Mae,” he said, “stole everything but the cameras.”
The moment she walked into the club, the white-bread background music switched to raunchy jazz—the music of Harlem. And she didn’t walk in so much as bump-and-grind past the doorman for the benefit of him and the rest of what was, but had yet to be recognized as, the weaker sex. “Don’t let those guys in,” she said with a toss of her head. “They’ll wreck the joint.”
West wrote her own lines and they sizzled like a New York sirloin. Sometimes they sizzled like forbidden love. Spotting someone in the distance, she put the brakes on her strut and a hand on her hip.
“Hey ga-rilla!” she called out. “C’mere—”
Mae West sprang from the loins of a cigar-chomping, bareknuckle brawler from Brooklyn called “Battlin’ Jack.” In her autobiography, she described her father as something of a free spirit with a penchant for “banging physical action” (not unlike how many described her). “My earliest memory,” she told a reporter, “was of dad coming home from making a couple of bucks —with a battered physog— and of mother flying around the kitchen with towels, hot water, and funny-smelling lotions.” Battlin’ Jack taught her how to box and before he knew it his daughter had, pardon me, fully developed. When asked whether his being a prizefighter influenced her career, she said, “Yes. It made me. You see, dad was always shadow boxing in front of the mirror at home. He wanted to be a crowd pleaser. Well, I got to using that mirror myself… I wanted to be a crowd pleaser too.”
When his prizefighting days were behind him, Battlin’ Jack drifted into other rackets. Biographers usually say he became a private detective, but it would be more apt to call him what he was—a leg-breaker in the New York underworld. West recalled his reputation for cruelty and how frequently those he confronted ended up in the hospital. “All his fighting was done doing other people’s fighting for them,” she hinted. At once attracted to and repelled by violence, her taste in men never went far from the familiar. Her second boyfriend was a young boxer with the same penchant for solving social disputes with a punch on the sniffer as her father. When a rival made a pass at her during a date, a gang fight ensued, and Battlin’ Jack appeared, escorted her out of harm’s way, and dove into the melee. “I watched it from a porch,” she said, “politely—not cheering.”
She was still close to the action after she became a Hollywood star. On Friday nights, she was found ringside at Olympic Stadium, sitting politely, not cheering. She was at Madison Square Garden when a teenage Sugar Ray Robinson won the Golden Gloves just before turning professional. She saw Henry Armstrong fighting as an amateur bantamweight in San Francisco. He saw her too. “She was there with her manager in all that beautiful white like she used to wear, stunning as ever,” he recalled. “She was sitting right in my corner.”
Gossip columnists said she was close enough to the action to touch it, and often did.
Her bedroom eyes were looking for “a guy with a nice build,” one of those guys said. “He didn’t have to be too handsome. And this is something very few people know—what excited her was a fellow with a busted nose or a cauliflower ear. She liked to fondle it, nuzzle it, kiss it.”
Mae West has been linked with more fighters than Al Haymon.
“Gentleman Jim” Corbett once left his overcoat and derby hat in her dressing room. She gave Jack Dempsey a lesson or two in the fine art of embracing like you mean it. When she quipped “C’m up an’ see me sometime” in 1933, a Hall of Fame ensemble thought she was talking to them. Jack Johnson came up to see her, she said, “several times.” Max Baer was reportedly invited to her bedroom and, well, afterward, went to the window and waved. He admitted that it was a signal to a friend that he had won their bet. West laughed. The parade continued. Jim Braddock took one look at Cinderella pure-as-New York-snow and moved faster than he ever did in the ring. (She recalled a conversation with him about, pardon me, “uppercuts and grips.”) In his autobiography, Joe Louis told a curious story about “a real good-looking white woman with blonde hair” who bought him a brand new Buick he was admiring in a showroom in Detroit and who would buy him one every Christmas between 1935 and 1940. The generous “lady” was never named, though he let on that she was a movie star with whom he had several one-night stands.
With neither altars nor apple-eyed apron-clingers slowing her momentum, success came early and through unexpected channels. A child-prodigy, ragtime singer, and queen of vaudeville, she was playing the Chicago circuit in 1917 when the first waves of African-American migrants arrived up from the South. They brought jazz and the blues with them and West became a fan enthralled. It was at a café in the South Side that she first saw the shimmy-shawobble. “They got out to the dance floor, and stood in one spot with hardly any movement of the feet,” she recalled, “and just shook their shoulders, torsos, breasts and pelvises.” West introduced the risqué dance to white audiences and had her first swig of infamy.
Much of what she saw and experienced found its way into the plays and novels she wrote. Her first play was called “SEX.” It went to stage in April 1926. She went to jail over it in April 1927, serving ten days at Roosevelt Island for obscenity (minus one or two days for good behavior) and charming the warden into letting her wear silk panties instead of state-rationed burlap. She didn’t learn her lesson. In 1930, she published a steamy novel called Babe Gordon that flaunted her preference for prizefighters and shined a spotlight on taboo topics such as black/white love affairs and nymphomania. “Babe was the type that thrived on men,” West wrote like one who knows. “She needed them. She enjoyed them and she had to have them.”
In the early Thirties, she and her black chauffer were spied climbing out of a limousine and walking arm-in-arm across Central Avenue in Los Angeles. They went to an after-hours joint near the Dunbar Hotel where they were seen all tangled up at a table. A gumshoe took notes. Around the same time pulp writer Raymond Chandler was writing “Nevada Gas,” which featured a rich and “sex-hungry looker” who got a new chauffeur every three months. Chandler was then living on Hartzell Street, a half-hour from West’s Ravenswood apartment on Rossmore Avenue.
The Hollywood social scene knew the score but kept it on the hush; after all, they all had secrets.
—West had more than most.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF FEATHERWEIGHT LEGEND CHALKY WRIGHT IS REVEALED IN “THE RINGSIDE BELLE” …PART 2.
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Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora, 2014, $25).He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org