A vacuous biography of the little chickadee.
Asked why she donated her used limousines to nuns, West said, “I just can’t stand seeing a nun waiting for a bus.” The is one of a handful of quotes available in this latest from celebrity biographer Chandler (Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, A Personal Biography, 2008, etc.). Unfortunately, the author offers little perspective on the life of the legendary writer, performer and personality. As in her other “personal biographies,” Chandler offers transcriptions of her long interview sessions with the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock and others. The memories of a deep bond West shared with her mother are touching, and Chandler offers piquant details of time served in a New York City jail when authorities deemed one of West’s plays obscene. But the author should have heeded George Cukor’s observation that West “always had what you might call a selective memory” and challenged some of the actress’s sometimes dubious assertions. The star said, for example, that her films rescued Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy at the onset of the Great Depression. Chandler lets West’s claim go unchecked, without going over the studio’s balance sheets for other films, or considering how the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, to say nothing of their directors and writers, also kept Paramount in the black. Chandler also provides scant insight into West’s appeal to the public—or her lack of appeal after the 1930s. The author’s flat plot summaries of West’s films and plays, wedged between West’s eventually tiresome, narcissistic musings, make no distinction between the comic brilliance of She Done Him Wrong and the grotesque excesses of Myra Breckinridge, arguably one of the worst films ever made. She shared her last years with a bodybuilder who rationed the chocolates she ate after dinner, a moment in a sad demise Chandler lets pass without comment.
However bold, West’s quotes don’t fully define her iconic life, and Chandler does very little to fill in what’s missing.