Revisiting Mae West by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's.

"On her seventy-first birthday Mae West feasted on a rhinestone-studded birthday cake. She is as Mae West as ever. Nourished by her own legend, she has outlasted every lover and initiated a nation of boys into manhood," Diane Arbus said.

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them. A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
— Diane Arbus

The legendary photographer flew to California in 1964 to shoot the aging superstar. West agreed to pose in the white-and-gold bedroom of her Hollywood apartment for Show magazine. 

Arbus arrived early in the afternoon. As the camera clicked West went on and on about the things she did to stay looking young. Beefy-looking, svelte males sat silently nearby. 

"Stay out of the sun," she said. "The sun wrinkles." West admitted she hadn't left her apartment during the day in years. She also spoke about the benefits of health foods, enemas and therapeutic sex.   

Like West, Arbus preferred darkness. Bright lights gave her the jitters and made her squint too much. 

Once the photo session ended West thanked Arbus and handed the photographer $100. Arbus returned the money with a note saying how thrilled she was to meet the movie legend.

When the harsh black-and-white photos appeared in the celebrity magazine West studied them and blew up. Her lawyers threatened magazine publisher Huntington Hartford saying the pictures were "unflattering, cruel, not at all glamorous."

One shot showed West posing distrustfully in a chair, another showed her in bed with a monkey.

"She hated them because they were truthful," said Allan Arbus, Diane's husband.

West didn't come across as realistic on film, more like a caricature from a Hollywood boudoir scene.

Arbus was often surprised when her subjects disliked her work.

She had an eye for vulnerability which often left her subjects feeling uncomfortably exposed on film. She posed them looking directly into the camera, creating an immediacy that was disquieting.

In the magazine article she described West as imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel and girlish, almost simultaneously." She added, "there is even, forgive me, a kind of innocence about her."

Arbus photographed other legendary people like Coretta Scott King, Jayne Mansfield, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Norman Mailer, Tokyo Rose, and Marcello Mastroianni.

Mostly Arbus liked to photograph people society didn't lionize, outcasts like circus performers,  eccentrics, travesties, and dwarves. She humanized her characters by making the audience look closely at them, really see them.

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them," she said.  "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."

Arbus suffered with depression and in 1971 committed suicide. She was 48.

"Nothing about her life, her photographs, or her death was accidental or ordinary," said friend and fellow photographer Richard Avedon.

Her vision, style, and range of subject matter had a huge impact on contemporary photography and her work remains in high demand today.

On Feb. 17-18, Christie's New York, featured a selection of Arbus photos in its Modern Visions sale.

Diane Arbus

Gelatin Silver Print; Albino sword swallower and her sister, Hagerstown, MD., 1970; 20 inches by 16 7/8 inches; $5,250.

Gelatin Silver Print; Lady at a masked ball with two roses on her dress, 1967;  19 7/8 inches by 16 inches; $9,375.

Gelatin Silver Print;  Mae West in a chair at home, Santa Monica, Cal., 1965; 19 7/8 inches by16 inches; $11,875.

Gelatin Silver Print; Two friends in the Park, N.Y.C., 1965; 13 7/8 inches by 10 7/8 inches; $37,500.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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