Afternoon Tea With Mae West
The day Ray Jackson and I went to visit Mae West for afternoon tea was a major event in our lives. It was during our two month stay in Los Angeles sometime in the very early 70s. We were staying at Sunset Tower West, situated on 8358 Sunset Boulevard. We had met up there with Reece Allen, a friend of ours from London. He used to play piano and sing at the Old Rockingham Club in a basement in Archer Street, London W.1. , where he was then known as Maurice Allen. He was now settled in Los Angeles with his partner and ensconced as resident pianist and singer in a very smart lounge bar in the Valley.
He had written one of the songs with another Brit for Mae West’s new record called “Great Balls of Fire.” This was how Reece became friends with her. The time was just post “Myra Breckonbridge.” Mae (as he called her) adored the English as she had very happy memories of when she appeared for six months at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, London in 1948.
The Salvidor Dali painting of Mae West
She was always available for tea on certain days when she was not at her beach house and one could visit her (by appointment only) at #611 The Ravenswood Apartments on 570 North Rossmore Avenue. This was the original apartment that she bought when she first went to Hollywood under contract to Paramount Studios, which apparently owned the apartments. Since then, I was told she had bought the block, but she still lived in her original apartment.
Well! The witching hour arrived and there we were. We checked in with the porter in the lobby and were ushered up, filled with anticipation and excitement! There we were at Mae West’s front door. Reece rang the bell…….we waited…….and waited for what seemed an eternity. I imagined all her flunkies preparing her for our visit and then, wait for it! The door opened. Slowly…slowly…slowly! All that was lacking was the squeaking of hinges.
BUT THERE WAS NO ONE THERE!!!
My God! Salvidor Dali had turned Mae’s face into a drawing room.
I thought maybe she had one of those electric doors that opened at the press of a button. Slowly a little blond lady appeared from behind the door, no more than 5 foot, including her 6 inch wedges.
My God! It was MAE WEST!
She was dressed in a floor–length bluey–pinky negligee and over that she had a peignoir with a fresh egg stain on the front which I just couldn’t take my eyes off. I thought of that line of hers, “Say what you like about long dresses, but they cover up a multitude of shins.” Her hair was hanging down at the sides with her usual swirl on top. The hairdresser had definitely not called that day!
Ray was in awe, he was quietly ecstatic at seeing her. I thought of all the leading roles Ray had played in films, T.V. and on the stage, and all the famous actors he had worked with, but he was still star struck. I, on the other hand, was a little more blasé, having seen her regularly for six months while waiting outside the stage door of the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1948 for Pamela Bevan, my girlfriend who was then playing a whore in “ Diamond Lil.” But, nevertheless, I was thrilled at seeing her up close to.
A programme for “Diamond Lil” at The Prince of Wales Theatre, London
She ushered us to follow her into the lounge. All this time not a word was spoken. Now, the lounge was all white and contained the famous white piano, which was, to my horror, painted in flat white emulsion paint. Although it always looked so large in all the photos I had seen it was a tiny mini baby grand. Reece had been right – she certainly liked white!
I couldn’t believe it; she was living in a really small apartment. We stood there waiting for her to speak. “Well boys, take a seat,” which she made sound so very sexy as only she could. In fact, whatever she said sounded sexy! We sat by a small coffee table, Reece and Ray on a tiny 2–seater, Mae in a small armchair, and I facing her in the other armchair. I was having a very good look at her as she was facing the light. She looked relaxed and quite radiant. In fact she looked really the same as I remembered her when she used to come out the stage door of the Prince of Wales Theatre all those years before, but I couldn’t really take my eyes away from the egg stain.
She asked Reece to make us some tea, English style, and we talked. She wanted to know how long we were in L.A. for and what we did.
I made a funny and told her that Ray and I were in the fresh meat business, which puzzled her. Then I explained that we owned The Casino de Paris Theatre Club in Denman Street, London, W.1., a Striptease Theatre Club, which she understood as Burlesque. She was amused and laughed at the pun. This was way before I started my Illusion act and became Zee around 1978.
Mae in Go West Young Man (Paramount, 1936)
When Reece brought up her record, “Great Balls of Fire,” she couldn’t really recall any of the numbers on it, but when I mentioned that I had seen her in London many, many times in Diamond Lil she went through the whole plot for us word for word.
Here’s Mae arriving at Southampton, England 1948 for the opening of “Diamond Lil” at The Prince of Wales Theatre, London. She was 55yrs. old at the time.
Her recall of her early years was amazing! We sat there for about 1 or 2 hours talking about everything, including her childhood in the Bowery in New York where her father owned a bar. She made it all sound as though it was straight out of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. What with her sexy drawl and her quips, we sat there enthralled.
She told us how she was adopted as a lucky mascot by the guys who were her father’s customers in his bar and they sounded a real tough bunch. She told us how they would take her to the races, how she would hold the bets for all the guys, the way they taught her how to hold the folded bills in her hand. Her life was so interesting and intriguing, all just as she had written about in her many plays.
She kept mentioning her sister Beverley through all the conversations. At first I thought it was her alto ego, but I was certainly wrong on that point. She was real and living in Mae’s beach house.
She also spoke about her belief in Spiritualism and how when she was thinking of having a chemical peal on her face she had a bad feeling within her not to do it. As she said this, her bejewelled hand went to her ample bosom. She made them do a test behind her ear and she showed us a big red mark, which, if she would have had it done, would have covered her whole face. The lady was quite amazing and very spiritual.
Mae West in the living-room of her Ravenswood apartment circa late 1950’s. This is not the same negligee, but it is the same piano, except when I saw it, it had had a matte white emulsion paint overhaul !
Then the telephone rang. Apparently she had made an appointment, which she had completely forgotten, about seeing a reporter for an interview. So we got up to leave and made our excuses. “No boys, don’t go,” she said. “The interview won’t be long. Why don’t you go into the dinette and grab a drink and then we can talk some more?”
We were ushered into the dinette, which was off the lounge, and was also the kitchen. We sat down at another small table with four small chairs. I said goodbye to her egg stain for the moment.
In the dinette everything was painted in flat white matt emulsion paint again. I imagined her going around the apartment painting, painting, painting everything in sight like a crazy woman. I looked around for alcohol, there was none? There was nothing to drink except water, so I poured myself a glass.
Ray looked in the fridge, which contained a bottle of hair bleach, a packet of blueberries past their sell by date, some eggs, and I think some marmalade. There was a small dresser, painted white, of course, on which stood a tiny vase with three very tiny plastic flowers – the type they give away at the gas station when you buy petrol. Ray said that he had to take something because no one would ever believe that he had been to see Mae West. He was thinking of taking one of the plastic flowers. Urgh!!!
Mae West still from “Myra Breckonbridge”
Well, after sitting there for an eternity she finally appeared at the door to tell us that the reporter and photographer had left. Do you mean to tell me they photographed the egg stain? We took our seats again and continued chatting and drinking more cold tea.
She talked again about her sister Beverley and her house at the beach. Somehow it seemed as though she didn’t want us to leave.
But when it finally got time for us to go, she said, “Boys, any time you got nothing to do, and a lot of time to do it, come up and see me again!”
Ray got up and said, “Miss West, thank you so much for seeing us. I can’t wait to tell my friends that I was shut in your dinette for almost an hour.” Mae said, “Say it was the bedroom – it makes a better story!”
On that note we left the apartment. We never did get to see the bedroom!!!!
Note: I have tried to be as accurate as possible, but please understand that since the 70s a lot of water has passed under the bridge. But as far as my memory goes, I think all the dialogue is correct.
If by some chance you happen to become intrigued by the humour and double entendres of Mae West, there is a wonderful book by Charlotte Chandler called “She Always Knew How: Mae West A Personal Biography.” http://www.amazon.com/She-Always-Knew-How-Biography/dp/1416579095