Seeing Mae West, who died Saturday, was always like gaining entrance to a small private art collection. Many sought that particular shrine, but few were Chosen, and the rules three years ago were very strict. Miss West would be available between 3 and 4 p.m., no cameras, no tape recorders, no nonsense. Period.
She lived in the Ravenswood apartment complex, a vestige of old Hollywood that managed an air of elegance even though old women with curlers tended to wander through the lobby.
Her living room was all white with gold trim. Tiny bar bells sat at the foot of a white grand piano that supported 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 was on the wall, and other, full-clothed photographs dotted the room. The whiteness was dizzying.
Paul Novak, the protector, a friendly, bearlike man with the soft handshake of the very strong, a veteran of Mae West's muscleman show, and for more than 20 years her bodyguard and confidant, was the first to enter.
His bulky sportscoat, blue shirt buttoned to the tippy top and yellow ankle socks clashed fiercely with the room's decor, but his devotion to Mae West was almost a physical presence. Novak knew her stories, her lines, her very history, better than she did herself, and had a tendency to prompt her when he feared she needed it.
Mae West did not so much enter the room as bounce in, almost demure in a white pantsuit and matching platform shoes, on her right hand a 22-carat diamond the size of a walnut. The woman who liked more men than Will Rogers, whom George Jean Nathan called "The Statue of Libido," the world's oldest sex symbol, arrived.
Her looks were unsettling, a baffling combination of youth and age. Her face was heavily made up, totally masking its condition, but the skin on her neck and hands was extraordinarily smooth, as wrinkle free as an infant's. "I have my own teeth, all of them, and they're all good," she said, 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 did not look 85, (what she was officially claiming at that time) she hardly looked 35 either.
What was most surprising about Mae West was what a jolly little person she turned out to be, possessed of a kind of cherry, hang-loose liveliness, oddly reminiscent 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 said, suprised 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."
One looked 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 did say knowingly, "I know what I want to do and I do it," the good lines no longer seemed to come easily.
One topic, however, gave her no trouble: herself. Mae West was crazy about Mae West, but in such an off-handed, easy-going, egotistical way that the total effect was charming rather than otherwise.
"I don't like myself, I'm crazy about myself," she said 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 'Mac.' I worried about that.
"My bedroom," she went on, chuckling again, "has mirrors on the ceiling, I think that's why I don't change, I'm always thinking about myself. It's all those years of having to look at myself and see what I'm going to do."
Her career in vaudeville, theater and film went back practically to the turn of the century, encompassing everyone from W.C. Fields -- "He was like a baby," to Farrah Fawcett, who appeared with her in "Myra Breckinridge."
Much clearer and saucier were her memories of Cary Grant, whom 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 said, grinning at her impudence. "I can still see those guys snapping their fingers, saying, 'That's . . . that's . . . . ' They couldn't even remember his name."
"Oh, fan mail, oh, my God," she said in mock exasperation, obviously enormously pleased. "Those young kids, they're crazy about me, they write and say, 'My grandmother was crazy about you.' Three or four generations I got. When I'm out in my car these kids pull up, they look over, they wave and they scream."
If that enthusiasm, that jocular good humor, made talking to Mae West not as spooky as it might have been, if age did sit lightly on her, it was there nevertheless. At times, she seemed to wind down into silence, to drift in and out, and she could not remember things like the names of films she'd seen recently. But where the distant past was concerned, the events of her childhood, they came unbidden to her lips with a wonderful clarity.
She remembered fighting for the spotlight on stage when she was no more than 6 or 7, she remembered all the words to songs she sang, like "Marie, She Makea the Hooch-Mi-Kooch Down at Coney Isle" -- and sang them to prove it -- but most of all, she remembered Mama.
"Oh, I loved my mother," she said, smiling. "She always dressed me up with my hair all curled and short with big satin bows. She'd always 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'd 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 of the later years was a simple one: an almost obsessive concern with work. "I'm always doing something, I'm always building, building, building," she said 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 never stopped being Mae West, basically because she couldn't stop, because just being Herself was a full-time occupation that became inseparable from her very life. And let us not forget, after all, that being Mae West was very good for Mae West. The lady herself had never forgotten.
"I've got everything, fame, beauty, what I could wish for," she said, puzzled when asked if there was anything missing in her life. "Gee," she added, smiling after a little thought, "that sounds very hoggish of me. Well, I hope I keep it all."