LITTLE ADO ABOUT EVEN LESS

By Gary Clarke

“See that!” she said, tapping her teeth with her fingernails. “All my own! Not a false one there.” Pushing back her sleeves, she then held out her arms. “I’ve never had any face lifts either. You can tell by my hands and wrists. They can’t operate on your hands. I’ve never had anything done. I look the way I did when I was 22!” How could I argue—why would I want to argue?—with a woman of eighty-four? Particularly when that woman was Mae West?

I was talking to her in my capacity as Time magazine’s show business writer, a small title with a big franchise—movies, theater, television, and cabaret—that I held for a decade or so in the seventies and eighties. The Star Wars movies, the adventures of Indiana Jones, the ups and downs of the TV networks, a flamenco show on Broadway, a team of spectacular ice dancers. It was a long and varied list, stories usually written on tight deadlines and in collaboration with Time correspondents, who did most of the interviewing.

But the stories I enjoyed most were the ones I did by myself, profiles of those—men, women and occasionally children—who entertain the world. Actors like Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Mickey Rooney. Actresses like Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch. Comedians like George Burns and Joan Rivers. Cabaret singers like Bobby Short, Michael Feinstein and Alberta Hunter. Writers like P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. And, during ten days of interviews in Munich and Berlin, the leading figures in the German film revival of the ‘70s: Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta, and Volker Schlöndorff.

My youngest subject was a ten-year-old Macaulay Culkin, the star of Home Alone, who was staying with his family in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My oldest was George Abbott, who, at a hundred, was directing a revival of The Front Page in Cleveland. Though he walked with a cane, Abbott, his young cast told me, was the most active director they had ever encountered.

My interviews varied in length, from a few hours to a few days. I spent two days, for instance, sparring with Elizabeth Taylor in Fort Lauderdale, where she was starring in a pre-Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. And a long weekend in the Bahamas with that delightful couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, who had a house in Exuma.

I was governed by only one rule: my subjects had to be doing something that made the news. Time was a news magazine, after all. And it was news that brought me, in the spring of 1978, to Mae West’s apartment in Hollywood. She was starring in a new movie, her first major role since 1940, when she and W.C. Fields romped through the Old West in My Little Chickadee.

Sextette was the new movie’s title. The plot: a movie sex goddess has just married her sixth husband, who is eager to get her into bed. But so is every other hot-blooded man in America—a list that includes Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Mr. Universe, Mr. U.S.A. and Mr. California—and a series of comical mishaps prevents No. 6 from pulling back the bed sheets.

Cesar Romero, a smooth and silky star of the thirties and forties, was the producers’ choice for the role. But Mae said no. He was too old—seventy-one. She turned down dozens of other candidates before finally spotting Timothy Dalton. “Him!” she said. Not only tall, dark and handsome, Dalton was just the right age, fifty-two years her junior. “A high-camp movie for everyone,” was how one of the producers described the movie to me, but the time for camp—high, low, or in-between—had come and gone, and the picture went with it.

I talked with Mae in her home since 1932, an apartment she shared with Paul Novak, one of the musclemen who were part of her Las Vegas act in the fifties. A devoted companion—”I never argue with her because she is always right”—Novak still had his muscles and something even more impressive, a .38 revolver he carried whenever they went out. Two of the huge diamond rings on her fingers were fake, but the third, weighing in at 22 carats, was very real.

“All I look for is harmony,” she said. “If I argue, I get nasty, so I don’t have anyone around who argues with me. I also don’t smoke and I don’t drink. I think drinking puts spots on your hands. I always drink bottled water. Water with minerals in it clogs your arteries, and I want to keep my insides clean.” Her health regime also included exercise, a stationery bike in the kitchen and two 10-lb. dumbbells—”Mae West” engraved on either end—in the living room. “Flex your muscles, dear,” Novak said when I expressed surprise, and, lifting her arms, she showed her hefty biceps. “I’ve been lifting weights,” she said, “since I was ten.”

A writer for a Los Angeles magazine suggested that Sextette’s producers had taken advantage of a doddering, perhaps senile old woman. But I didn’t agree. The Mae West I interviewed may have been old, but doddering and senile she was not. From her vantage point, her behavior was perfectly rational. Sometime in the thirties she looked in the mirror and ordered the clock stopped, and ever since she had lived in a time capsule. Her apartment was decorated in the white-on-white style of that era: a vase of fake white calla lilies on a table, a white piano across from a white couch, which rested against a mirror set in an off-white wall. And everywhere I looked there was Mae: two nude statues of on the piano, a nude painting of her on the wall, and photographs of her wherever there was a place to put them. “Hers is an egocentricity so forthright and complete as to be pure,” I wrote in Time, and I’ll stand by that.

Back in the fifties movie columnists asked female stars their measurements—bust, waist and hips—and it was a question Mae herself had been asked many times. Though I didn’t plan to use her measurements in my story—even in the seventies that would have been considered sexist—I asked anyway, curious to see how she would respond. “Oh,” she answered, confused for minutes. Then, pointing to the wall and the nude portrait of the Mae of longago, she said: “Just what they were then.”

I generally tried to turn interviews into conversations, telling a little bit about myself so that the person I was talking to didn’t consider me a robot. I knew that Alec Guinness was a dog lover, for instance. He had King Charles spaniels, I had Yorkshire terriers and a Lhasa Apso, and we spent several minutes talking about our pooches, precious minutes, I believe, that helped loosen the conversation.

I didn’t have such a conversation with Mae West, and I couldn’t have had one with Marlene Dietrich, who didn’t want to be interviewed at all, an attitude that surprised me. Her publicist had approached me, suggesting a story about her frequent one-woman concerts. Sitting in her Park Avenue apartment, and I wanted to ask her about her buddy, Ernest Hemingway. The Kraut, Papa called her. But no. That subject was ganz verboten. She had patriotically entertained American troops in Europe during World War II, and I would have liked to ask if it was true that she went to bed with all the officers above the rank of colonel. “You insult me, sir,” I fantasized her replying. “I only went to bed with all the generals.”

But of course I didn’t ask her that and I was hard pressed to know what, in her unresponsive mood, I could ask her. The interview was not going well until, by a minor miracle, Rainer Maria Rilke came to my aid. I could scratch my head until I’m bald and still not remember how Rilke came into the conversation. I had read and liked his poetry, but I was far from a Rilke scholar. No matter. Talking about him opened her up long enough to give me a decent interview. As I left, she even went so far as to hand me a book of his poetry. “Please take it,” she said.

I had yet to write my story when, a week later I received a phone call from her assistant, who had managed to track me down in California, where I was visiting my mother.

“Do you still have Miss Dietrich’s book of Rilke?”

“Yes. I’ll be glad to send it back as soon as I return to New York.”

“No,” she said. “That won’t be necessary.”

What was that all about? I wondered. I was flattered that she had given me the book, but it was, in truth, neither rare nor valuable, but a college textbook published by the University of California Press.

Two weeks later my story was published, and Miss Dietrich apparently didn’t like it, mostly, I suspect, because I mentioned that, during her last tour, she had fallen off a stage in Australia. This time she phoned me herself: “Please send back my book.” I returned it by messenger that very day.

I had no such problems with Bette Davis, who was turning seventy-two the week I talked to her in April 1980, in the Manhattan apartment in which she was living while she was away from her home in California. Her newest movie, The Watcher in the Woods, was about to be released, which gave me the peg on which I hung my story.

I was a little nervous going in. Has any other actress better personified Hollywood’s Golden Age? I didn’t think so. Oddly enough, she seemed nervous too. But a fortunate accident put us both at ease. I spilled the coffee she offered me, sending her into the kitchen for paper towels. “There, that’s fine,” she said after cleaning up my mess. “Viva towels are so much better than Bounty.” Then, listening to herself, she laughed. “I sound like a television commercial, don’t I?”

Well, no, she didn’t, not then, not ever, and for the next two hours she laughed, hooted and cackled as she told me about her fifty years in the acting business. To many in the outside world Bette was identified with All About Eve’s Margo Channing, the tough and temperamental Margo of “fasten your seat belts because it’s going to be a bumpy night.” But Bette, or so she told me, was nothing like Margo. “When I’m not working, I’m just a dame who came from New England. I’m very domestic, a total hausfrau. I adore keeping house and I love cooking. Always have.”

Only twice during our interview did I have to bite my tongue to keep silent. The first time was when she told me one of her greatest regrets was losing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. “Oh, well,” she said, “my Gone with the Wind was Jezebel.” Released in 1938, a year before Gone with the Wind, Jezebel also featured a spoiled Southern belle and brought Davis her second Oscar. But Gone with the Wind it was not. I myself find it all but unwatchable.

My second tongue-biting moment came when she spoke of “my darling Jack Warner.” Warner was her boss at Warner Brothers, and I had had lunch with him a month or so earlier, when he too reminisced about Hollywood’s glory days. Erroll Flynn was one of his favorites, but Warner had only five words for his biggest star—”that evil bitch, Bette Davis.” I was surprised that he spoke that way about one of his studio’s biggest moneymakers. But during the mid-thirties she had fought fiercely with him, demanding better parts, and Warner never forgot nor forgave. I didn’t repeat his comment and let her go on believing that Jack Warner really was her darling. Why destroy such a pleasant illusion?

We both enjoyed our conversation—I presume to speak for her—but when I turned off my tape recorder, she gave a happy sigh. “Now,” she said, “let’s have a drink.” And so we did, and perhaps another after that. And this time I didn’t spill a drop.

The drama came afterwards, but not from Bette. My editor liked my story and so did the editors above her, and on closing night, I wondered why the copy desk, whose only job was to check grammar and spelling, was taking so long to sign off too. Finally my phone rang with the answer.

“The women on the copy desk are outraged by your story on Bette Davis,” one of the male copy editors informed me.

That caught my attention.

How dare I say that her chief comfort in life was her three children, the women on the desk demanded? Bette Davis a hausfrau? How could I say such a thing about a who had achieved so much in a business dominated by men?

“I didn’t say it,” I responded. “She said it.”

After some delay my story went to press, just as I had written it, and I didn’t hear any more about it until the morning it reached the newsstands when Bette herself made a call.

“I love it! It’s the nuts!”

The following year later I went down to Washington to interview another grand lady of the screen—Claudette Colbert. Playing a wheelchair bound mystery writer, she was starring in a A Talent for Murder, a play headed for Broadway. But she had not had a good week. She was having trouble navigating her electric wheelchair around the stage, and a fire alarm in her hotel had given a bad night, forcing her to grab her valuables and coax her frightened cat, Bijoux, out from under a bed before she could rush from out of the building. But worse, much worse, was to come in the day I was to see her, a review in the Washington Post that panned both her and the play. She was, in short, in a state.

When I appeared at her door, the friend who was staying with her said she had called my hotel to cancel the interview but had missed me by just two minutes. Sorry I had made the trip in vain, said the friend, but Miss Colbert was too upset to talk to me. Standing in the doorway, I must have looked particularly sorrowful because Claudette, who was sitting at the far end of the room, invited me in to offer her own apology. I had seen the play the night before, and though it wasn’t very good, it wasn’t very bad either. Claudette herself was fine—she held it together—and if she had trouble with the wheelchair, I didn’t notice it. The Post critic, I suggested, suffered from an ailment common to his profession: he found pleasure in causing pain. A few words led to a few more, and before I knew it, she was giving me an interview, and a good one at that.

Though she had an apartment on Fifth Avenue, the home of her heart was on a quiet bay in Barbados, an old sugar plantation house she named Bellerive. As she described it, her mood brightened, and I could imagine her floating around in those warm Caribbean waters, waters she seemed to believe had magic, life-giving properties, the waters Ponce de León was looking for but never found.

“You must come stay me!” she said.

And so I did. Once introduced, I returned to Barbados almost every year for the next four decades, all because, one morning in 1981, I left my hotel two minutes early and missed the phone call that would have informed me that Miss Colbert couldn’t see me that day.

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