Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014
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Transits of Venus

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
--Mae West

On assignment for The Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1964, I accepted one of Mae West’s invitations “to come up and see me sometime,” and on the stage set that was her house in Malibu I found her in what both Giacomo Casanova and Cecil B. DeMille would have recognized as a “boudoir”—white fur rug, gilded mirrors, satin hangings on the walls; Miss West arranged on the bed wearing a lace negligee, a feather boa, and a pink silk nightgown. She was seventy-one years old, and if she had drifted a long way from the cottage in the forest with the seven dwarves, she had lost nothing of her power to cue the saxophones and stand to attention the members of a cavalry regiment.

She granted me an audience that lasted maybe an hour, which was time enough to count the ways in which she was a contrivance as finely wrought as one of Emily Dickinson’s love lyrics or her own extravagantly blond wig. The curtains had been drawn against the bright, blue California afternoon, but the dim light softened with the scent of roses couldn’t conceal the lines around her eyes and wrists, the wrinkles at her throat, the strain on the corsets that held her figure as rigidly in place as a pagan idol carved in ivory. After ten minutes the imperfections in her appearance were no longer visible. Whether it was art or biology, her letting slip the sleeve of her negligee or the gene sequence encoded in her elbow, so distinct was the sensual inducement that had she directed me to climb the stairway to paradise, I would have gone as willingly as Tristan to Isolde, or Napoleon to Joséphine. Miss West didn’t entertain questions. She spoke as if from an altar or a throne, revealing what she deemed to be within reach of a masculine—and, therefore, limited—intelligence. One took what one was given and was grateful, and it wasn’t until several hours later, reading through my notes in the bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel, that I understood what it was that Miss West had allowed me to see. If she was a force of nature, she was also a work of the imagination, her own as well as that of the company of the elect admitted to her dressing room or her anatomy. Her face never could have been thought beautiful, even at the age of seven in 1900, when she made her debut on the Brooklyn vaudeville stage. Her voice was as rough as sandpaper, her terms of endearment as blunt as stone. How, then, did she float the veil of seduction, and of what was it composed?

My notes suggested an answer having more to do with the spirit than the flesh, not with the bird in the hand but with the seventeen in the bush. “Sex,” she had said, “is like a small business; you gotta protect it, watch over it,” manage the market in desire as a midsummer night’s dream in the forest of Arden, somewhere just over Dorothy’s rainbow or around the next bend in the Missouri River. Forget that what is afoot is a chasing of butterflies never to be caught and you lose sight of the bluebirds, miss the point of the joke—mistakes, Miss West said, that she had been careful to avoid. Over the course of a life that she construed as a transit of Venus, she hadn’t bothered to count the number of lovers who had come and gone with the leaves of autumn and the flowers of spring. “The score never interested me,” she said, “only the game.” The constellation of Eros as seen in the Hollywood sky after 1950 she thought sadly lacking in glamour. “The women just walk around on a stage lookin’ dirty,” she said. “Where’s the humor? Where’s the laugh in back of it?”

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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