Seeing Mae West is like gaining entrance to a small private art collection. Many seek this particular shrine, but few are chosen and the rules are very strict. Miss West will be available between 3 and 4 p.m., no cameras, no tape recorders, no nonsense, Period.
She lives in the Ravenswood apartment complex, a vestige of old Hollywood that still manages an air of elegance even though old women with curlers tend to wander through the lobby.
Her living room is all white with gold trim. Tiny barbells sit at the foot of a white grand piano that supports a nude Mae West statue as well as a personally autographed "best wishes from an admirer" photo from Jimmy Carter. A nude painting of her is on the wall, and other, full-clothed photographs dot the room. The whiteness is dizzying.
Enter first Paul Novak, the protector, a friendly, bear-like man with the soft handshake of the very strong, a veteran of Mae West's muscle-man show and for 23 years bodyguard and confidant.
His bulky sportscoat, blue shirt buttoned to the tippy-top and yellow ankle socks clash fiercely with room's decor, but his devotion to Mae West is almost a physical presence. Novok knows her stories, her lines, her very history, better than she does herself, and he has a tendency to prompt her when he fears she needs it.
Mae West does not so much enter the room as bounce, almost demure in a white pants suit and matching platform shoes, on her right hand a 22 carat diamond the size of a walnut. The woman who liked more than Will Rogers, who George Jean Nathan called "The Statue of Libido," the world's oldest sex symbol - 85 officially, but some say 87 - has arrived.
Her looks are unsettling, a baffling combination of youth and age. Her face is heavily made up, totally masking its condition, but the skin on her neck and hands is an extraordinarily smooth and wrinkle-free as an infant's. "I have my own teeth, all of them, and they're all good," she says, nimbly running her tongue over them. "I don't drink and I don't smoke, those things tear you down. I'm careful what I eat, and I only drink bottled Poland water." Still, if she does not look 85, she hardly looks 35 either.
What is most surprising about Mae West is what a jolly little person she turns out to be, possessed of a kind of cheery, hang-loose liveliness that is reminiscent in an odd way of TV's Molly Goldberg, of all people.
"I always have a good time, there's no reason not to have a good time," she says, surprised that anyone might think otherwise. "Take crying. A lot of women cry all the time, but you never see me crying. Come to think of it, I never have anything to cry about.
"And in my new picture, I made them take out a song called "Stars Don't Cry." Oh, I almost had a fit. I wouldn't use the word cry, it touches the audience off."
That new film, "Sextette," currently shopping for a distributor, has her playing Marlo Manners, a film queen who ends up in a London hotel with six of her husbands, plus the U.S. track and field team, plus a world peace conference thrown in for good measure. The possibilities, obviously, and endless.
"Sexiette" is Mae West's 12th film and the first since the fisco "Myra Breckinridge" of 1970, which she succinctly summarized to its producers by saying, "You got nothing." Why then did she make "Sextette"? She shrugs. "They kept after me to make another movie", Silence.
One looks in vain, then, for quips from Mae West, for the kind of saucy double-entendre lines like. "It's not the men in my life but the life in my men" and I used to be Snow White but I drifted" that made her the highest paid woman in America in 1935 with a two-year, $300,000 contract. Though she at one point does say knowingly, "I know what I want to do and I do it," the good lines no longer seem to come easily
One topic, however, gives her no trouble, herself. Mae West is crazy about Mae West, but is such an off-handed, easy-going egotistidal way that the total effect is charming rather than otherwise.
"I don't like myself, I'm crazy about myself," she says with a big chuckle. "A person would have to be crazy about themselves to do what I've done and keep doing it. As long as I can remember, I was concentrating on myself. Even when I was a kid, I used to write my name big and visualize it in lights. I worried that 'Mae' looked like 'Mae' I worried about that."
"My bedroom," she goes on, chuckling again, "has mirrors on the ceiling, mirrors on the walls, mirrors all over. I think that's why I don't change, I'm always thinking about myself. It's all those years of having to concentrate on myself, having to look at myself and see what I'm going to do."
Her career, in vaudeville, thester and film, goes back practically to the turn of the century, encompassing everyone from W. C. Fields - "He was like a baby" - to Farrah Fawcett-Majors, who appeared with her in "Myra Breckinridge" and whose name rings a distant bell: "She was in my picture. She's popular on television, but what would happen if she did a picture? Could she carry a picture, will people stop to pay for it.?"
Much clearer and saucier are her memories of Cary Grant, who she hand-picked in 1933 to be her co-star in "She Done Him Wrong."
"I was in an office and I saw him passing outside the window, just going along, and I said, "This is the best lookin' guy in Hollywood, if he can talk I'll take him,'" she says, grinning at her impudence. "I can still see those guys snapping their fingers, saying, "Thats . . . that's . . .' They couldn't even remember his name."
Even closer to her, and the only man whose picture sits in her living room, was Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount, the studio Mae West saved from bankruptcy with her films.
"There's great man, Adolph Zulo," such a gentleman," she says suddenly, pointing to his photograph. "And he appreciated me. Seventeen hundred theaters were going to be turned into office buildings and I came in from Broadway and saved 1,700 thesters with one picture."
And not only that , Mae West says that it's because of her that Zukor, who died last yeat at age 103, lived as long as he did.
"He was in his 90s and he didn't feel too good, he'd start to get weak and shake and I knew he wasn't that weak, he was just thinking about it," she says. "So I used to hound him, I said, "You've got to make it to the 100 mark, no one in the profession done it, you've got to do it for the profession." And then he started to pay attention to it, he'd say, 'I guess I've got to,' and instead of shaking he'd say, 'I'm 96!' and make a muscle."
More durable even than Zukor in Mae West's life have been the fans, the torrents of devotees who seem to thrill her as much as she thrills them.
"Oh, fan mail, oh my god," she says in mock exasperation, obviously enourmously pleased. "Those young kids, they're crazy about me, they write and say, 'My grandmother was crazy about you.' I'm out in my car these kids pull up, they look over, they wave and they scream.
If this enthusiasm, this jocular good humor, makes talking to Mae West not as spooky as it might be, if age does sit lightly on her, it is there nevertheless. At times, she seems to wind down into silence, to drift in and out and she cannot remember things like the names of films she's seen recently. But where the distant past is concerned, the events of her childhood, they come unbidden to her lips with a wonderful clarity.
She remembers fighting for the spotlight on stage when she was no more than 6 or 7, she remembers all the words to songs she sang like "Marie, She Makea the Hoock-Mi-Kooch Down at Coney Isle" - and sings them to prove it - but most of all, she remembers Mama.
"Oh, I loved my mother," she says, smiling. "She always dressed me up, with my hair all curled and short with big satin bows. She'd alway buy good wide ribbon, the kind that made good bows. I'd go with her and pick out what I wanted, pink and blue. And then I'd look at myself in the mirrors. I'd spend maybe five minutes at each mirror, and that's a long time. And I wouldn't carry a bundle unless it was a tiny little bag. 'I can't carry that big bundle,' I say, and she'd say, 'It's not heavy,' but I'd answer, 'But it doesn't look good.'" Another smile.
The link between Mae West then and Mae West now is a simple one an almsot obsessive concern with work. "I'm always doing something, I'm always building, building, building," she says at one point, adding later, "I'm always thinking what to do. I can't afford to sit back and enjoy what I've done, I have to keep doing, keep being keyed up about what I'm going to do next."
So Mae West keeps being Mae West, keeps appearing in films, keeps trying to look 35, basically because she can't stop, because just being Herself is a full-time occupation that has become inseparable from her very life. And let us not forget, after all, that being Mae West has been very good for Mae West. The lady herself has hardly forgotten.
"I've got everything, fame beauty, what could I wish for," she says, puzzled, when asked it then is anything missing in her life. "Gee," she adds, smiling after a little thought, "that sounds very hoggish of me. Well, I hope I keep it all."