cover image MAE WEST: An Icon in Black and White

MAE WEST: An Icon in Black and White

Jill Watts, . . Oxford, $35 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-19-510547-6

Part sexy blonde bombshell, part delusional Norma Desmond, West created an invulnerable, tough-talking, sexually assertive persona, partly to mask insecurities and psychological wounds from early sexual assaults, asserts Watts in this remarkably detailed and well-written biography. West played that indelible character on and off stage the rest of her life, often referring to herself in the third person. But West (1893–1980) was not just the actress who singlehandedly saved the financially strapped Paramount Pictures with her back-to-back hits in 1933, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel. She was also a voluminous writer—penning not only her films and plays but also three novels and an autobiography. Although now enshrined as a comedic institution, for virtually her entire career West's writing, singing, personality, acting and looks were blisteringly belittled by critics—and yet the hard shell she'd created kept her marching confidently forward. Watts offers outstanding, clear-eyed analysis of West's career and how censorship affected her work. She's on less stable ground with her contention that West had African-American ancestry, which she attempts to prove not through documentation but by noting how West's personality, musical style, taste and interests stemmed from the African-American community. While it certainly appears that West (and others in her era) appreciated and borrowed from black artists and the Harlem Renaissance, it seems a stretch to claim West was attempting to reveal her roots every time a black character or ethnic slang appeared in her work. Still, West fans will welcome this new, enlightening biography of the enigmatic star, which offers a broader view of her impact on social and cultural history and as a First Amendment champion. (Aug.)