"IT ISN'T WHAT I do, but how I do it," Mae West once explained -- as if any red-blooded American needed an explanation. "It isn't what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it." And nobody, but nobody, said it or did it like Mae West. The throaty quips, the sinuous moves, the total tease were all so perfect, so naughty, so brilliantly suggestive. And though she died Saturday at her home in Hollywood at the age of 88, it was universally thought that Mae West was ageless; if time had changed anything, it was only the societal propriety of the 1920s and '30s that she flouted so playfully.

Her essential act then was a silky series of show-stopping no-no's, laced with body-bawdy language. While this was not without its shock value at the time, it endures as sophisticated humor; today, when nothing on stage or screen is left to the imagination, there is all the more room to appreciate how wonderfully Mae West mocked and aroused. The innuendo was her own, too, since most if not all of the bestknown lines -- and even an entire play -- were written by Miss West herself.

As the brassy, dazzling "Diamond Lil," Miss West first issued her invitation to "come up 'n' see me sometime . . ." If plays were her thing, movies came naturally, too. Her first, "Night After Night," was also the first starring performance for George Raft (whose life was to end two days after hers -- on Monday, in Los Angeles, where he died at the age of 85). In this movie, Miss West walks into Mr. Raft's fashionable nightclub, where a hatcheck girl, wowed by all the glitter, says, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" The famous reply: "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."

Ah, yes, as W. C. Fields, another of her movie-mates, would say. Those lines will lose none of their humor. The legend lives -- and it would be a sin if it didn't.