I shook my head.
She studied me, then said encouragingly, “You could, honey. But you’ve gotta try, and you’ve gotta know how to try. Knowing what you want is the first step toward getting it. There’s nothing better in life than diamonds.”
Mae West had been giving no interviews at all. She already knew all the people she wanted to know, especially in light of the hours she felt compelled to spend on hair, makeup and dress before she could see anyone. I had cost her three hours, but it would have been double that if I had been a man. If she were going to see anyone at all, a man would have been preferable any day, and especially any night.
“They always sent a man,” she told me, not specifying who “they” were. “I considered spending my time with girls a waste of time, so I didn’t mingle with any.” The only exceptions were her beloved mother and her sister.
For Mae West, Hollywood had real unreality, and that was the way she liked it. To the end, she nobly resisted any assault on her fairytale castle. The apartment in Hollywood’s Ravenswood was truly an extension of Mae West. The furniture was upholstered in eggshell-white silk and satin, and appeared virginal, as if it had just been moved in for my visit. Once Mae had achieved perfection by her own standards, she hated any change. The celebrations of herself on display throughout the apartment evinced no false modesty. They also signified that in her mid-80s she was not afraid to be in competition with her younger self.
Whenever Mae interjected one of her celebrated epigrams to make a point, she would change from a serious tone to the sultry flippancy of Diamond Lil. As she spoke, her sculpted platinum hair would swing as in a shampoo commercial.
Perhaps she didn’t like to give interviews to women because she couldn’t act her part. Mae West had to be there herself; she couldn’t just send Diamond Lil. She pointed out that although she was Diamond Lil, Lil was not Mae because there was more to Mae West.
Mae gave me a hard look and said there was something to tell me before we “got into it”.
“If you smoke,” she said, “you’ll have to leave the room. I don’t let anyone smoke in my presence.”
I assured her that this wouldn’t be necessary. Her approving look indicated that I had passed an important test.
“Then you’ll keep your soft skin. That’s how I kept mine. I always use baby oil. But the secret is it has to be warm, and you have to have a man put it on you – all over.”
Her next query had the same tone of entrapment as the smoking suggestion. She asked if I wanted a drink. I declined. She said it was a good thing because she didn’t have any liquor.
“I never understood drinking. It isn’t good for your looks, and it cuts down on what you are. I never wanted to cut down on what I am.
“I was indefatigable. They only just found out that I had a double thyroid. Always had it, but didn’t know it. Maybe that’s the source of my energy, especially my sex energy. Is that scarf because you’re cold, or do you have something to hide?”
I take it off.
“That’s better. Now, unbutton a few buttons. Men like it if you show them a thing or two. I dress for women and undress for men.
“When I was making a film, I would stand during the whole shooting so I wouldn’t wrinkle my dress. I’d say, ‘Do I want to look my best for my public that expects it of me? Or would I rather sit down?’ That ain’t no choice.
“First impressions are what count. It’s like when you arrive at a party. That’s when people take a real look at you, and if they’re impressed, that’s how they think of you. If your makeup fades and you get creases in your dress later, that isn’t what they remember.”
What would you do if you didn’t make the best first impression on a man?
Get a different man. I’d figure there was something wrong with him. I never needed clothes to make me feel sexy. I felt that way all the time. The nearness of an attractive man kept me in a constant state of sensual unrest.
You summed it up at the end of I’m No Angel when Cary Grant asked you, “What are you thinking about?” and you answered, “The same thing you are.”
That’s very exciting for a man. When men sense a woman is ready for sex, they’re ready right away. When men came to see me, I had to try to calm them down a little first. [Sighing] I had a lot of great love affairs. Sex and work have been the only two things in my life.
In reverse order of importance.
Yeah. If I had to choose between sex and work, it was always my work I’d choose. I’m glad I didn’t ever have to choose between them for more than a week, though. Since I was grown up, I’ve never been without either for more than a week.
What’s “grown up”?
Thirteen. Before that, I was finding my way.
Didn’t you ever have any trouble finding a man?
[Puzzled] What do you mean?
I mean one you really liked.
They always found me. I could always find something to like about every man. Well, almost every man. I want to show you my mother’s picture. Isn’t she beautiful?
My mother lost a baby girl just before me, so I was her whole world. I had a sister and a brother, but they came along later. I was never jealous of my sister and brother. In my whole life, I’ve never envied anyone. I was too busy thinking about myself. Some people thought I should see a psychiatrist, but why spoil a good thing? It’s better not to know everything about each other.
My mother wanted to be an actress. She finally got that through me. I took her out on the stage with me for a curtain call before she died. The success I had was worth it for my mother to come and take that bow with me. That meant more than any diamonds.
When I was a little girl, my father built me a stage in the basement of our Brooklyn brownstone. My father wasn’t as sure as my mother about me going on the stage so young. He said, “Let her have a chance, but if she gets stage fright, she’ll have to wait till she’s older.” Stage fright! Can you imagine? I didn’t know the meaning of the word. Still don’t. My mother didn’t listen to my father. She knew I could do anything I wanted.
Very few of us have the opportunity to live out our fantasies. An actress may have that opportunity.
Being an actress and a writer both – that’s the best thing you could be because you can be anyone you want. You just write yourself the part, and then you play it. Say, do you want to know about my first love affair? It was when I was five. I made my debut in Brooklyn at the Royal Theatre. It was my first love affair with my audience, and it’s lasted all my life. That was the only one that ever really counted. No man could equal that. I ached for it, the spotlight, which was like the strongest man’s arms around me, like an ermine coat.
Of what in your career are you proudest?
I saved Paramount Pictures. They were selling out. But my pictures made so much money for them, they were able to stay in business during the 30s. They oughta have a statue of me. At least a bust.
[Indicating a nude statue in her living room] Like that?
No. One of Diamond Lil in a beautiful dress. After Diamond Lil, sex was more out in the open. I’m proud of that because I always believed that sex was nothing to be ashamed of.
Do you think sex is better with love?
Honey, sex with love is the greatest thing in life. But sex without love – that’s not so bad either. Sex is the best exercise for developing everything. It’s very good for the complexion and the circulation. I’ve always had the skin of a little girl. Go ahead touch it. [I touch her skin.] That’s all real. I didn’t ever have to lift anything.
Do you remember when you first thought about sex?
I can’t remember when I didn’t. I always played with boys. They used to gather round me. I liked to see how each one kissed. A man’s kiss is his signature.
I always liked having a lot of men around. On a rainy night it’s like having more than one book to choose from, only better. I never could understand women who would almost die over one man. When you get rid of one, you don’t want to sit around moping. When you mope, your mouth turns down; it puts lines in your face. There isn’t any man in the world worth getting lines over.
Too many women wait around depending on men to bring them happiness. I didn’t depend on men for mine. I knew how to handle men. I have a code though: No drinking, no smoking, and no married men. There are enough men to go around.
My best lover was a Frenchman who would pick me up after Diamond Lil and take me to the other theatre to rehearse Pleasure Man. One Saturday night we were at it till four the next afternoon. Like I always said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.”
What kind of “life” do you look for in a man?
Fire. A man can be short and dumpy, but if he has fire, women will like him.
Who were some of the men who had that fire?
John Barrymore wasn’t so bad. I wouldn’t have minded playing with him. In a movie, that is.
You mean you’d rather have had him as a leading man in a film than as a lover?
If I’d had to make the choice, yeah. Because movies are forever, and sex doesn’t last.
I gather that most of the men with whom you’ve had affairs were not performers.
You weren’t in the bedroom with us, honey. With me, they were all good performers.
Do you think being a lady means something different now from what it did? One thing that’s changed is talking about it as a value. You were a good girl or a bad girl.
I was a bad girl with a good heart. I don’t think things have changed so much. It’s still a man’s world, with men making the rules that suit them best.
Which time was better for women?
I think it was better then. Now a woman’s expected to do it, and the man doesn’t even have to court her. The woman used to be a bigger prize.
You’ve gotta have plenty of self-esteem, nerve, and be bold in life. I’ve been liberated all my life. I always did what I wanted to do. I was an original. I didn’t understand then what films meant, every new generation rediscovering you. When I first came out here, I didn’t understand how important Hollywood was going to be.
Do you find Hollywood greatly changed now?
The star system’s gone. I was a real star.
Are there any ways you feel you’re different from the public image of Mae West?
I’m glad you asked that. When people think you’re funny, they start to laugh at everything you say. There was a lot of serious reflection in what I said. And I was always writing.
I know you’re especially proud of your writing.
The secret of it is to keep everything moving. Don’t let the audience think of the dishes. You need to have some lines they can take away, like songs they go away humming. Do you type or write longhand?
I write longhand.
That’s the only way I could do it. They offered to teach me to type when I was in prison. Did you know I was in prison?
Yes. But you weren’t an ordinary prisoner.
I was never an ordinary anything. I had to stand trial because of my show, Sex. They said I could pay the fine, but I decided it would be more interesting to go to prison. They told me I had to wear prison clothes, but I said I was bringing my own underwear. I wore my silk underwear the whole time.
How do you feel about censorship?
I believe in censorship! If a picture of mine didn’t get an X rating, I’d be insulted. Don’t forget, dear – I invented censorship. Imagine censors that wouldn’t let you sit in a man’s lap. I’ve been in more laps than a napkin! They’d get all bothered by a line like “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
A man’s imagination is a woman’s best friend.
Do you know what question I’m asked most? About the mirrors on my bedroom ceiling. I say, “I like to see how I’m doin’.” You can go look at my bedroom.
[As in the living room, everything in the bedroom was white. The perfectly made bed was covered with a white satin spread.]
Did you like what you saw?
I did. It’s one of the most famous bedrooms in the world.
The most famous. What did you think of my bed?
I thought what an interview it might give!
I wish I could’ve shown you my beach house. But I sold it. I never lost any money in art or real estate. Money is sexy for men, but people don’t find it feminine for a woman to talk about it. So, you don’t have to talk about it, just have it. The real security is yourself.
Do you think money buys happiness?
No, but money is a great love potion for an affair. It buys a good bed with clean linens and time to enjoy it all. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about it, and worrying spoils your looks.
What are you calling your book?
Do you have a suggestion?
[After thinking for a moment] You could call the book “Mae West and others”. That’s “others” with a small “o”, and I want to be first. Being first is important in life.
For you, what’s the most important thing in life?
My career is everything. Always was. I never changed. Inside, I feel like the same little girl I was. But it was the way I grew up outside that men liked.