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Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White [Kindle Edition]

Jill Watts
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product Description


A provocative biography. (The New York Times)

An incisive and vivid portrait that focuses on the enormous influence African American music and culture had on West...Watts' spirited and intelligent analysis chronicles West's battles with censorship, celebrates her compassionate artistic vision and discipline, and unveils the enigmas and dualisms that pervade the forever iconic West's work and life. (Booklist)

Watts is shrewd in her discussions of much of West's writing, and she performs a service drawing attention to West's debt to African-American culture. (Robert Gottlieb, The New York Observer)

This book is engagingly written. Watts's research is prodigious and she writes with acuity and verve. (he Times of London)

Watts' biography of Mae West delves deeply into the meaning of the star's essence. She presents an astonishingly complex portrait. (National Post)

Product Description

"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Mae West invited and promptly captured the imagination of generations. Even today, years after her death, the actress and author is still regarded as the pop archetype of sexual wantonness and ribald humor. But who was this saucy starlet, a woman who was controversial enough to be jailed, pursued by film censors and banned from the airwaves for the revolutionary content of her work, and yet would ascend to the status of film legend?
Sifting through previously untapped sources, author Jill Watts unravels the enigmatic life of Mae West, tracing her early years spent in the Brooklyn subculture of boxers and underworld figures, and follows her journey through burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and, finally, Hollywood, where she quickly became one of the big screen's most popular--and colorful--stars. Exploring West's penchant for contradiction and her carefully perpetuated paradoxes, Watts convincingly argues that Mae West borrowed heavily from African American culture, music, dance and humor, creating a subversive voice for herself by which she artfully challenged society and its assumptions regarding race, class and gender. Viewing West as a trickster, Watts demonstrates that by appropriating for her character the black tradition of double-speak and "signifying," West also may have hinted at her own African-American ancestry and the phenomenon of a black woman passing for white.
This absolutely fascinating study is the first comprehensive, interpretive account of Mae West's life and work. It reveals a beloved icon as a radically subversive artist consciously creating her own complex image.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 4901 KB
  • Print Length: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (23 Aug 2001)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001PKT2GW
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #648,909 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An academic analysis of Mae's fabulous life! 9 Aug 2002
I found this book fairly tough reading- Watts has attempted to pin down Mae's influences squarely on black performers witnessed when growing up, and the possibility of some black West heritage. This is very interesting as a sideline, but is the sole purpose of this book, and thus it reads very much like an academic journal than a biography of an outrageous and couragous woman such as Mae West. In short, one is left feeling somewhat cheated that Ms Watts has hidden Mae's raucious personality from view, rather than boldly on display where it belongs.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazon Reviewers Can't Read 5 Jan 2004
By Kathleen Chamberlain - Published on
Amazon customers' reviews of this book are as fascinating as the book itself. I'm amazed at how many people appear unable to understand what they read. Contrary to several reviewers' indignant claims, Jill Watts does *not* argue that Mae West was part black. Her meticulously-researched book carefully separates speculation from fact, and she states early and clearly that there is simply not enough information to settle the question of West's racial background. She then asserts that it doesn't matter whether West did or did not have African-American ancestry. What *does* matter is how West handled issues of racial identity in her writing and in her personal and professional performances. Watts' analysis reveals a woman who was, for her time, a strong champion of African-Americans and who was also deeply ambivalent about racial roles and identities. This book is more than a biography; it is also study of the social constructions of race, class, and gender in general and of the persona of "Mae West" in particular.

I suspect that the readers who are so outraged at the idea that West may have been part-black find issues of race personally disturbing. (As one reviewer asked, why does it matter so intensely to some people that Mae be all-white?) The dismissive readers probably also came to the book expecting a standard Hollywood-style star story rather than an academic analysis. Perhaps because the book took a different approach than they expected, they didn't read very carefully.

In terms of the text itself, it has the strengths I've already noted: it's carefully researched, thoughtful, and does a great deal more than simply detail a star's life. However, in exploring her thesis, Watts is often repetitive and is sometimes guilty of trying far too hard to make her case. Also, because she wants to portray West as a positive force in subverting traditional definitions of gender, race, and class, Watts often downplays or excuses West's sometimes demanding, hurtful, temperamental behavior. It would have been more intellectually honest to acknowledge West's flaws more fully.

Overall, an informative, interesting book.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most indepth and fantastic bio of Mae West ever done 4 Sep 2001
By A Customer - Published on
Finally, finally, finally! A book that looks at the intelligence and craftmanship and brilliant social commentary of Mae West, this is the best biography ever written about her. It is not one of those shmaltzy, glowing photo books without any substance. Instead, it is a cradle to grave overview of her life, considering the elements which influenced her persona and shaped her art. Mae West as a writer, playwright, screenwriter, actor and social critic and commentator is finally permitted to shine. This is not the story of a "star" or "celebrity" but a real human being with fears and uncertainties as well as the confidence and self-esteem that made her. Mae West was a genius artist, a genius mind. Instead of focusing on her clothes or her sex life or her jokes and one-liners, she emerges here as a human being. Also, Watts provides the very best analysis ever of the psychological process wherein the human being merged with the persona.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Research and Good Writing 26 July 2009
By Doctor Joey - Published on
As a veteran professor of English at a major East Coast University, I've read many biographies -- literary and otherwise. I also have been a Mae West fan since I was in my early teens. When I purchased Professor Watts' Mae West bio (and that was as soon as it was available in hardcover), I could not help but be impressed by her scholarship and meticulousness in research. Her writing is accessible to the average well-educated reader, and that's important. It's too easy for us scholars to "preach to the choir" in our writing and end up having no audience except our fellow PhDs! Back when I taught the required Writing Workshop sequence at NYU, I'd begin speaking to my students about the value of keeping journals by writing on the board: "Keep a diary and someday it'll keep you. -- Mae West, American writer, educator, actress and playwright." I think I remembered that quote correctly; it's one of Peaches O'Day's lines in "Every Day's a Holiday." Great way to introduce students to a practice that not only is self-therapeutic, but improves their writing skills with our without teacher participation. As for the strident criticism of Professor Watts' allegedly claiming that her research indicates Mae West might have had a black (or mixed raced) grandfather, I suggest those critics read that section very carefully and critically themselves. The author doesn't make any such claim. There was a comment that this book is "tediously written." While that's not exactly a term we use in Lit Crit, it does suggest that the writer isn't accustomed to reading books written for literate adults. Any high school graduate should be able to read and understand Professor Watt's biography with no difficulty other than needing to slow down for fuller comprehension. I find it particularly gratifying that Mae receives appropriate credit for her accomplishments as a playwright. I have read a collection of her plays (Sex," "Pleasure Man" and "The Drag") and I'm impressed given Mae's erratic grammar school attendance and her having to learn how to read and write to function in the world of vaudeville essentially on her own. Are these great plays? Absolutely not, but they show a playwright trying to find her voice and relying on the improv skills of veteran vaudevillians and drag queens to flesh out their characters.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 22 May 2002
By "abk213" - Published on
Brava! This book is one of the most facsinating biographical works I have read in years. Ms. Watts's discussion on Mae West's life, her times, and heritage is a significant contribution to 20th century historical and cultural analysis. I am a fan of Mae, and appreciated how this book opened up a discussion on how fluid race is in American society.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history and analysis 2 Aug 2008
By earlybird - Published on
First, two responses to several reviews...

1 - The reviewers who suggest that this book is all about proving that West was black have simply not read the book. Watts introduces the book with that rumor (and the rumor that she was a man)...and then MOVES ON. She's off that subject by the middle of the second page.

2 - This is an academic book, written by a history professor. It is not a fan-oriented biography about West. If you want a quick and easy read, this is NOT the book for you. Watts' writing style makes the book accessible to people who aren't scholars, but if you aren't comfortable with footnotes or references to literary and cultural theory, you may want to choose a different book.

On to my own review:

This is an impressive piece of scholarship. The amount of archival research done for this project is impressive. Watts does a fine job of showing how West's work and image were very much shaped by working-class, black, gay, and feminist ideals and cultural forms. What we want to see as wholly her self-creation (including her trademark line "Come up and see me sometime!") was absolutely informed by what she saw around her.

My only criticism (and hence, the 4 stars) is that I think Watts' analysis of West's appropriation of black culture is too generous. Watts does a grand job of talking about white performers who didn't think much about their consumption and those who just plain 'stole.' However, Watts works really hard to show that West was not one of them; I'm not so sure.
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