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Mae West and the death of her biggest fan: a tragedy in the twilight of Hollywood’s most subversive star

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The actress Mae West in the seventies, when she was again confirmed by the media and the fans. Among them was one named David Johnson, who met a mysterious end.Getty Images / Pepa Ortiz (Collage) (Getty Images)

In this week The Hollywood Reporter released a report whose caption, “Who Killed Mae West’s #1 Fan? the black dahlia. David Johnson, the fan in question, died in 1972 when he was hit by a hit-and-run van, a death that doesn’t really hold any mystery beyond some paranoid theories from his friends. Johnson’s life opens a window into the last days of Mae West: the actress, producer and writer broke every possible taboo (and impossible one) about female sexual desire in the 1930s, but a campaign against her got her involved in an issue oblivion of years.

West was 39 when she landed in Hollywood in 1932. By then she had revolutionized Broadway with two plays written for herself and in which she starred: gender Y The train, during which she was accompanied by 40 transvestites. The movies i am not an angel (1933) and Lady Lou. born to sin (1933) were the second- and fourth-highest-grossing films of their year in the United States, respectively, but beyond their commercial success, West’s triumph was to transcend his country’s socio-cultural fabric. And she did so both anecdotally (phrases like “peel the grape” or “come up and see me for a while” as euphemisms for sex entered the popular lexicon) and politically: West was the first female film star to speak openly about her sexuality Desires that were also insatiable and expressed in terms then only tolerated by men. When West saw a young Cary Grant walking through the Paramount studio, he exclaimed, “If he can talk, I’ll take him.” He threw him in as the dizzying lead man i am not an angel and made him a star.

“That alter ego Mae West was a working-class woman who understood the system was rigged against her and used her wits, street savvy, and seductive powers to profit,” says film historian Karina Longworth in her podcast You have to remember that. West rewrote all of his lines, making everything he said sound like a sexual innuendo (usually because it was). A century later, some of his phrases are almost popular proverbs: “Between two evils, I always choose the one I haven’t tried yet”, “Do you have a gun in your pocket or are you glad to see me?”, “If I When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better”.

Actress Mae West in an undated picture, probably from her early Hollywood career.
Actress Mae West in an undated picture, probably from her early Hollywood career.Bettmann (Bettmann archive)

Though seen as an advocate of urban waste in rural America during the Depression, West neither drank nor smoked in real life. In a way, his artistic proposal was a parody of the sexual liberation of women after the First World War. A kind of woman who does cross-dressing Woman. But in 1934, the conservative newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and the office of Hollywood’s official censor, William H. Hays, identified West as the most pernicious threat to American values. And in 1936, three years after making Hollywood history with two top-five titles in the annual box office, Paramount bowed to pressure and canceled his contract. West would make three films over the next seven years, but he retired from filmmaking in 1943 and did not return for nearly three decades. Few stars have managed to be so iconic with such a small filmography: twelve films, ten of them with her as the author.

West took refuge in his territory, the vaudeville, and the majority of those who attended his events were gay men. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, the actress experienced the oblivion of the industry. The report of The Hollywood Reporter compares these final years of life to those of Norma Desmond Twilight of the Gods (1950), a drama that managed to capture the poetry and black humor of the fall of stars, but also their stupor: as the first generation of idols in this new invention, cinema, many had believed that their fame would last forever would… forever. But they were the first generation of stars to realize that the audiences who had adored them so much were able to replace them without flinching.

West grew old surrounded by admirers, mostly transvestites and gay men, though she described homosexuality as “a disease.” “Homosexuality is in many ways a threat to the social system of western civilization. These abnormal tendencies cause disasters in life [de los homosexuales]in those of their relatives and in those of their friends,” the artist wrote in her memoirs Kindness had nothing to do with it.

Cary Grant and Mae West in I'm No Angel (1933).
Cary Grant and Mae West in I’m No Angel (1933).George Rinhart (Corbis via Getty Images)

One of those fellows, the number one fan that gives the report its title The Hollywood ReporterIt was David Johnson. He met the actress at age 23 when he was sending her his doctoral thesis, which focused on West’s artistic career, public character construction and cultural impact. She responded by inviting him to stay in her guest room indefinitely. “I can understand why Mae was impressed that a college student wrote a thesis about her,” explains the actress’ biographer, R. Mark Desjardins. “Mae West studied through third quarter. She started acting as a child.

West got Johnson a job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. Everyone who did this job dreamed of making it in Hollywood. In the meantime, they threw parties every day. “It was all worth it back then. It was before AIDS,” a friend of Johnson’s and also tour guide Lesley Mitchell-Clarke recalled the report. “Everyone rejected the morality of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time for experimentation.”

Not for Mae West, of course. In the seventies he could hardly hear and needed help walking, but this did not prevent him from pursuing his favorite hobby: organizing meetings with fortune tellers at his house, which were attended by other stars of old Hollywood. Some asked the seer if their careers would resurface. West didn’t allow anyone to look directly at her without makeup and forbade the blinds to be raised at her home on the Pacific Coast Highway. Designed by architect Richard Neutra and inhabited by West’s many pet monkeys, the home met and exceeded the expectations of all fans who visited the star. “As you walked up the stairs, there was a huge mural of muscular men with boners ejaculating gold. The beds had canopies. Above the TV, which was very old, was a statue of two muscular men holding chains. It was extraordinary,” he says. The Hollywood Reporter Jeff Redford, another of West’s companions in his later years.

Rex Reed, Mae West, Raquel Welch and John Huston in a promotional image for Myra Breckinridge (Michael Sarne, 1970)
Rex Reed, Mae West, Raquel Welch and John Huston in a promotional image for Myra Breckinridge (Michael Sarne, 1970)Silver Screen Collection (GETTY)

Redford describes David Johnson as “a sexual predator” and also states that he never used the crosswalks. One night, as Johnson was leaving the Pink Elephant sex club, he was crossing the street and was hit by a cream-colored pickup truck. His body flew more than ten meters while the driver fled. The case was left unsolved, leading his friends (mainly members of Mae West’s sycophants’ following) to invent all sorts of theories: that the truck didn’t have a license plate, that Johnson had abused someone who wanted revenge on him, and the gossip about the told the wrong people (Universal was controlled by “very sinister” people in the 1970s, according to Johnson’s relatives), or even that West himself ordered the murder to prevent him from writing an unauthorized biography revealing all of their misery . Mae West has paid for all of David Johnson’s funeral expenses.

For his part, West returned to cinema after a 27-year absence Myra Breckinridgethe delusional adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel about a trans woman, in which the critic of the Washington Post Rex Reed played Myra before she made the move, and Raquel Welch played the character post-surgery. In his latest film sextetsAt 85, she seduced a 22-year-old Timothy Dalton.

In the latter part of her life, West saw the counterculture claiming her as one of the most subversive, daring, and politically disruptive figures in mainstream culture of the 20th century. 1968 the magazine life put it on the lid. In 1971, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) students voted her “Woman of the Century” for her status as a pioneer defender of sexual naturalness and for her crusade against censorship. and 1977 time admired that “at 84, Mae West is still Mae West.” In 1999, the American Film Institute named West the 15th greatest female film star of the 20th century, with her 12 films.

The actress died at dawn on April 22, 1980 at the age of 87. Beside her was Paul Novak, a quiet man who had accompanied her everywhere for decades. When the identity of this companion was investigated, the media discovered it was Chester Rybinski (West gave him Paul Novak as his stage name, thinking it hit him more). Rybinski was a professional wrestler who, in 1954 at age 21, worked as an extra on the Las Vegas show for then 60-year-old Mae West. He was one of many muscular men in underwear who strutted around the diva Demonstrate, but already renamed Paul Novak, he rose first to driver and later to bodyguard. “I was brought to Earth to take care of Mae West,” Novak used to say, who lost his head for the star until giving up his life to dedicate it to her. In her final days, the actress said Novak was “a nice guy,” but “of course there are 40 guys who die for his job.” Novak kept his promise to the end, and Mae West died as she had lived: accompanied by a masculine, muscular man several decades her junior who lay at her feet.

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Source elpais.com

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