"She Always Knew How" by Charlotte Chandler
Reviewed By Kevin Thomas
Charlotte Chandler's gift at getting legendary show business figures to open up about themselves is unique. For "She Always Knew How," Chandler not only got the last major interview with Mae West -- not long before her death in 1980 at 87 -- but also what is almost certainly the most extensive interview West ever gave.
It's not that "She Always Knew How" is full of surprises, but that its depth and breadth brings West to life as thoughtful, caring and reflective, a woman of resilient character, self-knowledge and shrewdness in regard to human nature and in sustaining a career over eight decades.
As is well known, West had an extraordinarily close and loving relationship with her Bavarian-born mother Matilda, whose parents forbade her to go on the stage. As a result, she encouraged her daughter. Here, West talks at length about her mother's unstinting confidence in her; Matilda saw her daughter triumph on Broadway with the iconic "Diamond Lil" in 1928, but she died before West went on to conquer Hollywood.
West is candid about how her mother's focus on her exacted a price on both her younger sister, Beverly, who also had theatrical dreams, and, to a lesser extent, on her younger brother, John. Born in 1893, West began performing in lodge halls in her native Brooklyn at the age of 5 and in time became the key support for her entire family, which she remained for the rest of her life.
She made no bones about being less close to her father John West, who acquired some renown as the prizefighter Battlin' Jack. Yet in talking to Chandler, West discovers that she had more feelings for him than she realized, crediting him for being a loving and attentive father. Surely, it's significant that West was always attracted to rugged men like her father -- especially boxers and wrestlers. She emphasizes the comfort in which she and her siblings were raised; apparently, Matilda got some financial assistance from relatives because John West was no great shakes as a breadwinner.