My first job upon arriving to California in 2000 was making a list of all the items in a collection of memorabilia that had been bequeathed to Joe Gold by his close friend Chuck Krauser (AKA Paul Novak), Mae West’s companion of 26 years and the acknowledged love of her life. It was to be auctioned by Butterfields’s, later in the year, and needed to be catalogued. Everything had been thrown disorderedly in boxes, and piled into a closet in Joe’s apartment.
I was very disappointed by the collection. There were no costumes, no sheet music, scripts, 78 recordings, or films among the belongings. It felt like all of “the good stuff” had either been left to her sister Mildred West when Mae died in 1987 (Krauser had not been mention in her will), or pilfered by fans and fetishists who I learned had been given pretty much free reign of her Ravenswood and Santa Monica homes. What I did find were some beautifully preserved Paramount publicity photos, a fascinating album of backstage photos taken of celebrities at the Latin Quarter, theater and movie contracts, some personal correspondence, and other papers. Fortunately, the jewelry that had not been passed on to Mildred had been safely stored away in a bank deposit box and fetched a good amount of money at auction.
The materials presented on this website belonged to Gordon Mitchell: a badly recorded audio cassette tape of some old 78s, and an umpteen generation VHS recording of amateur 8 mm films shot at the Latin Quarter in New York in 1955. Gordon was a long-standing cast member in the muscleman show, and working with Mae West was one of the proudest and happiest memories of his life. I believe that the music will be a revelation to Mae West fans and academics interested in her seminal nightclub act.
I surmise that the 78s were recorded in the early ‘50s to help Miss West learn the music for her muscleman show. The names of the musicians are unknown to me. The audio cassette tape that Gordon owned was recorded over “Quiet Nights: Peter Duchin, His Piano and Orchestra.” The handwriting on the tape is Gordon’s. On this tape, you hear the voices of Miss West and Chuck Krauser fumbling with the record player and cassette recorder.
Before working on Krauser’s estate sale, I had associated Mae West as the star of Sextette and Myra Breckenridge, the world’s all time worst movies: “About as funny as child molester” (Time Magazine). Like all moviegoers, I would rather Miss West was completely forgotten than remembered in those two abhorrent pictures. Little wonder that in our time, she is not even given the dubious distinction of being listed as “gay icon” at Wikipedia.
By the time of the auction at Butterfields, I had come to regard her as one of America’s greatest comic actors. Mae West was the Queen of Gender-Fuck. She was a popular sex symbol in her youth, breaking sexual taboos for women and glorifying her full-figured body. In 1935, she was the second highest paid person in America, behind William Randolph Hurst. When the management of her Ravenswood apartment building barred African-American boxer William Jones from entering the premises, she ended the problem by purchasing the building and lifting the ban.
“Without doubt, one of the most unique fabrications of the twentieth century was the show business phenomenon known as Mae West. She was assertive in an age when women were supposed to be submissive; she was openly bawdy when decorum was the order of the day. With her buxom hour-glass figure and her lascivious frame of reference, she shocked, intrigued, captivated, and amused many generations of fans. For over seven decades, she was an active performer, shrewdly promoting what she knew and understood best–Miss Mae West.” –James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts (“Hollywood Songsters” 1991)
Miss West performed as a male impersonator in Vaudeville, and it is said her trademark walk was inspired by female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, Her play, The Drag, opened in out-of-town tryouts in New Jersey and Connecticut, but was later forced to close for its portrayal of homosexuality and cross-dressing. The play was a great financial success, reportedly earning Miss West thirty thousand dollars on its opening night. It never opened in New York, however, due to efforts of John Sumner who had succeeded Anthony Comstock as the head of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice. He was able to ban any attempt by West to stage it on Broadway.
Author Greg Merritt commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Mae West Muscleman show in the May 2004 issue of FLEX Magazine: How Mae West Was Won: 50 years ago, Mae West discovered muscle-men.
The Mae West Revue would have turned 50 in 2004. Masterful at innuendo and double-entendre, buxom Mae West was a phenomenally successful comedic actress in the 1930s. Her star had faded when, at age 61, she launched a ground-breaking stage show. Instead of the typical costumed showgirls, West selected a bevy of beefcakes to accompany bawdy songs such as “I Want to Do All Day What I Do All Night.” George Eiferman, Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski, Dick DuBois, Dominic Juliano, Joe Gold, Armand Tanny, Gordon Mitchell, Mickey Hargitay, and Charles Krauser were among the star bodybuilders in West’s chorus for all or part of the show’s three-year run.
The Mae West Revue opened at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas in 1954. West vamped through skits, playing off the musclemen. The combination of her ribald humor and the sensation of flexing bodybuilders made the show a runaway smash. It toured the country’s top venues, drawing celebrities, including then-Senator John F. Kennedy, and breaking attendance records at New York’s legendary Latin Quarter.
The revue’s demise was hastened at a press conference in 1956 when Krauser, who loved West, punched out Hargitay, whom West loved. (Krauser changed his name to Paul Novak to escape his newfound notoriety, and he was West’s live-in lover for the final 24 years of her life.) The show closed at the Sahara in 1957. Half a century after its opening, the Mae West Revue is still considered a seminal showcase where popular and physical culture merged and bodybuilders posed on some of the most exalted stages for some very prestigious audiences.