Were she alive today, Mae West would have appreciated Emily Wortis Leider's truncated biography of her, Becoming Mae West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30 hard), but not just because Leider stops the action in 1938 at the end of the sexpot's Paramount career, before her naughty girl act festered and failed to allure. At least initially in the biography, Leider uses language that echoes the vibrant Twenties milieu in which Mae (it's embarrassing referring to her as West) developed her persona: "Diamond Lil was the insouciant, insinuating, sashaying, tough-talking, sultry-voiced, golden-wigged, diamond-encrusted, bone-corseted, wasp-waisted, flaring-hipped and balloon-bosomed 1890s singer [who] transformed Mae West from a mere actress into an enduring icon of American popular culture." Fear not: Leider writes a wealth of simpler, declarative sentences that also drive home the point.
Leider was in Austin for several days last week to read from the biography at Book People, to do research at the HRC on her next biographical subject, Rudolph Valentino (also to be published by Farrar), and to visit her singer-songwriter daughter Jean Caffeine ("We're a family of performers," Leider says). Upon publication of the Valentino biography, Leider will likely be sought out as a Twenties expert, which would settle well with her since much of our conversation before her reading was not about Mae but the Twenties and the cult of youth which began then in America and whose lingering aftereffects Leider still observes today. Fitting for a poet, Leider traced the cult to ancient Greece, though none of this was fodder for her reading to an older and bemused crowd who listened to Leider relate a telling research anecdote: "When I visited the elementary school she [Mae] briefly and infrequently attended, near the Brooklyn-Queens border, a school secretary who proved extraordinarily helpful looked a bit uncomfortable as she asked me why I had chosen to write a book about such a woman. Did I like (read `approve of') Mae West? `She's a lot of fun,' I offered by way of explanation. `And interesting.' `But don't you think...?' Her voice hushed. `Don't you think she was a little bit wild?'" - C.S.