August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980
Interestingly, Mae made 12 films in her career – and her first one was when she was 39 years old. Her last film, Sextette, well, go there. It was dreadful, but in a good way. Her secret to eternal youth was never smoking or drinking, massaging her breasts, and a daily enema. Originally I reported it was a coffee enema, but my pal Verne Langdon who knew Miss West, clarifies, “Coffee I don’t believe, as she wouldn’t drink it. In its place she drank “Breakfast Cup”, a synthetic (“healthy”) coffee substitute. Now maybe THIS would have been her colonic, but surely not coffee..
Mae lived in a building called The Ravenswood,
on Rossmore, in LA.
Its a beautiful old apartment building with a chandelier in the lobby,
near the probably inauthentic mailboxes.
She moved in upon her arrival in Hollywood and you can too.
She liked it so much that she bought it, and stayed there for 48 years. Her penthouse apartment was decorated in Louis XIV and Mae. There were portraits of Mae, statues of Mae, photographs of Mae, and probably a recording of Mae singing as you walked in. The weird thing is that she covered her couches with stolen towels from hotels. Here is the front entrance where her chauffeur “Chalky” used to drop her off.
Verne clarifies, “Chalky” White, a former price fighter, was Mae’s chauffeur in the Thirties and early Forties. Later Paul Novak took over that duty as well, and he and Mae entered and exited the limousine where it was parked, under the building, in the basement.”
Mae kept her name published in the phone book until the day she died. My pal, Mike, turned me on to the fact, so I went to the library, and here we are.
A few months before she died, she suffered two strokes. She lost use of her tongue, and her speech was at first impeded, then later more so. Still, she retained the ability to speak, if not clearly. Her faithful companion, Paul Novak, stayed with her in the hospital, then home. He ran her films for her to keep her entertained, and was at her side 24-7 until she passed away. He was her rock, and a more loving, faithful Friend no one could ever have. She died on Saturday, November 22, 1980 at the age of 87. Her companion of 26 years, Paul Novak, was at her side. Mae wanted to “sit up”, so Paul carried her into the living room and set her in her favorite chair. She told him she was going, and he told her that her mother was waiting for her. Then Mae closed her eyes, and quietly passed away. Dolly, who had planned to cook and bring Thanksgiving dinner for Mae, received the telephone call from Paul when Mae passed to “forget Thanksgiving, she’s gone.” This is exactly as described to me by her friend and constant companion of 27 years, Paul Novak.”
September 2012 – Here is a recollection that’s a little bit different, from Findadeath friend Ken:
On November 22nd 1980, I was an assignment editor at the Los Angeles office of The CBS Network News. That was the day, I received one of the strangest phones calls of my career. A man on the other end of the line told me he was close to Mae West and wanted us to be the first to know that she had died. He then quickly hung-up. It was a Saturday and there were only two of us in the office (we worked for the network news in New York, not the bustling Channel 2 local newsroom across town). Since things were quiet, I hopped in my car and drove about three miles to The Ravenswood apartment building where I knew West lived.
When I arrived, I was sure I had been fooled. There was zero activity and there was even parking available right in front of the building. If a star of West’s magnitude had really died, there would at be action aplenty. My feelings were reinforced when I asked a man at the front desk if Mae West had died and he scoffed at me. I got back in my car and then had second thoughts. I found a pay phone (remember it was 1980) and asked my colleague back at the office look up her apartment number. Armed with this information, I quietly bypassed the front desk, headed up the back staircase and knocked on the door of Apartment #611.
After several minutes, a middle-aged, muscular man with tears in his eyes opened the door. I started to tell him who I was when he cut me off and told me to come in. He told me his name was Paul, as he led me through a small entryway filled with photos and even a statue of Mae into a side bedroom. There was another room where the door was closed. We sat down and he tearfully talked to me seemingly forever, about what a wonderful person Mae was. There was no mention that she had died. Finally, I had to ask if she was indeed gone. He broke down and said, yes. I tried to be a good listener and even teared up myself, but I also knew that I had to have proof, if I was going to ask CBS to put it out on the network. When I told him that, he motioned for me to follow him and led me into the room with the closed door which I believe was Mae’s bedroom. To my surprise, there was another man seated in the room. He was next to a huge bed where there was a stunning sight. There appeared to be a body covered by blanket or possibly a sleeping bag. At the top, strands of hair could be seen. I can’t swear it was Mae but that was enough for me. Shaking in my boots, I gave my condolences and quickly left.
This time I took the elevator as I tried to compose myself. I knew I had to put my emotions aside and do my job. I found that pay phone again and called New York. A researcher there gave me some quick details of her life and moments later, I was giving a live report on CBS radio breaking the news to the world. I still have a tape of that report.
When I had time to reflect on that day, I had some questions. The man I spoke with was obviously Mae’s longtime companion Paul Novak. Was he also the man who called CBS? Who was the other man in her bedroom? I surmised it was probably her personal doctor. Why all the secrecy and why was CBS called before the coroner or an ambulance to take the body away? Several years later, a friend suggested it could be because Mae was actually a man. He had done some research and allegedly was told by two of her doctors that she always refused to undress during examinations which they thought was odd. He also said that despite all her talk of being promiscuous, he could find no one who would swear they had sex with her. He speculated that Paul and the other man were the only two who knew and they were trying to figure out what to do with the body so her secret wouldn’t be discovered. I don’t have the answers to those questions. I wish now that I gone back and talked with Paul Novak again but now of course, it’s too late. He died in 1999.
Fascinating. The hair and the sleeping bag… I’m (almost) speechless. Thank you, Ken.
Her funeral was invitation only, at the Old North Church in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.
100 mourners attended. Mae was laid out in one of the exquisite gowns designed for her by Edith Head in Sextette. As I recall, it was blue with bugle beads which at one point in the service glistened from sun reflection making it look as if Mae were actually breathing.
UPDATE JANUARY 2015
Here is an extremely rare (Like, I’ve never seen it before and I think I would have) photograph of Mae in the casket.
Generously given to me by The Watson Family Photo Archive.
Those of us in attendance let out a “GASP!” at the effect, then realized the illusion and were relieved! The lower half was covered in white roses. A Presbyterian minister not just ANY one either; he was Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, former pastor of the historic Hollywood Presbyterian Church in California and chaplain of the U.S. senate from 1995 to 2003, characterized her as a “good woman,” and that “goodness had everything to do with it,” a play on her famous line. As mourners left, “Frankie and Johnnie,” the song she sang in Diamond Lil, was being played on the organ. This song, as well as “My Old Flame”, were played at the beginning of the service, before Dr. Ogilvie and Kevin Thomas spoke. As we exited, the organist played hymns, followed by “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone.” (“Easy Rider”)
Mae’s body was shipped back east, and interred in the mausoleum (thank you Barry Patraw) at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY, at 7am, a few days later.
When Mae died, her estate was worth more than 40 million dollars. Not so much from her films, but she invested wisely in real estate and oil wells. The money was divided amongst her sister, Beverly, her nephew, John, and her companion, Paul Novak.
Trivia: In an interview in 1970, Mae said, “I never meant ‘Come up and see me sometime’ to be sexy.”
More: Mae was offered the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but turned it down.
Even More: Legend has it, that Mae hated the color of the building across the street from the Ravenswood, so she bought it and painted it. Not true. She bought the Ravenswood after the management criticized her choice of companions. A black athlete brought his pet ocelot along on his visits. The front desk called Mae and said the owner of the building requested she be more selective in her choice of guests. Mae asked how much he wanted for the building. He named a price, she snatched it up, and continued to entertain anyone she pleased. Mae had no problem making decisions, ever.
Still More: Mae cut an album of 60’s hits, and called it Mae “Way Out” West. It is fantastic. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Mae belt When a Man Loves a Woman and Twist and Shout. Amazing.
Mae was psychic, and taught Celebrity Psychic Kenny Kingston to read tea leaves.
June 2000 this from Findadeath.com friend Sandy: “I just read over your entry on Mae and here’s a bit of trivia for you. The man who currently lives in Mae’s apartment at Ravenswood says that her spirit has been appearing to him in the mirror (I’ve seen a picture of this somewhere, if I can find it I’ll pass it along). He believes that she wants
her place decorated in the style she had it in while she was alive. So to make her happy that’s exactly what he’s doing and it seems to be working.” Thanks Sandy!
And from Mike Pare: “Well ol Mae was a character! She lived totally in Mae Westland. She spent the better part of the last 12 years of her life in the following manner, getting out of bed, having a very small brekkie, answering fan mail, in the afternoon she spent her time trying on hats and attending to any business. One day a week she ate only the juice of steaks. She occasionally went out to her beach house, tho she avoided the sun like the plague, I have pix of her from the Sextette and Myra Breckenridge period and she looks like a paper bird. She was totally into herself, her topic of conversation was herself, and she didn’t like to drift from it. Paul Novak just died this week, he was left only a few thousand in her will. Verne: Paul was left $10,000.00 in her will, but he was also an officer of her corporation, and as such was well-taken care of there. He tried to transfer $95,000.00 posthumously from her bank account to the corporation, but was prevented from doing so and so he instigated legal action in order to settle the estate. The decision was later reversed, I was told. Paul’s friend Joe Gold (Gold’s Gym founder and body building entrepreneur) was named Executor of her estate … sued and tried to get $1,000,000 he was denied. Her alcoholic sister was taken care of, tho she has since kicked off. Beverly passed away within a year of Mae’s passing if I recall correctly. She also left bequests to more distant relatives and lots to charity. Specifically her favorite charity, the Salvation Army.
She liked to brag that she wrote all her plays and screenplays, and she DID write them, with an assist from several ghost writers she called upon frequently. Her butler, Grayson, acted as her secretary for several of the plays, as Mae hated typing or drawn out longhand. Her penmanship was beautiful, however. but as she was virtually illiterate Mae West was FAR from “illiterate”. She could read and write as well as you or I. In my case, probably better. it must have been quite a feat!! She dictated the sketchy plots to people and had others fill it out and make it workable, tho of course she never gave them credit. Being uneducated it was a source of pride to be a published playwright. She was married for 33 years, tho she was with him only a matter of weeks. Frank Wallace, who billed himself as “Mr. Mae West” in vaudeville and night clubs. He tried to sue her for support when his career waned. No parasite, Frank! There are some evil people that think she was really a he. Not true.
While Mae had many many gay fans/servants she was homophobic, she was not homophoebic. She loved “the boys”, and even wrote a play about homosexuality early in her career. I think it was called “The Drag”, and she took a lot of heat for writing it. particularly being disdainful of lesbians. She always felt gay men were either women born in a mans body, SHE BELIEVED THIS VEHEMENTLY or someone with a psychological problem that could be cured if he weren’t a pervert. I never heard her refer to gays as “perverts”.
There was a Canadian drag queen Craig Russell, who did Mae better than Mae! who starred in a movie “Outrageous” and “Outrageous 2” who had been a fan he was president of her fan club – ask me about his brief stay at her beach house! and worked for her for a while, there was a docu about him (he’s since died of AIDS) and he tells the story of being at her apartment and how the chauffer or butler, I don’t remember which raped him, and he found out later that there was a 2 way mirror in the room and Mae watched the whole thing. Kinda makes you sick if true. This is not true. No 2 way mirror in the room (or anywhere in her apartment – #611), no rape. Paul Novak was Mae’s only companion by this time; he drove the limo, and butled and cooked. And he was not attracted to Craig.
Interesting! Thank you so much, Mike.
Findadeath.com friend mc123 sends me this: We saw your recent addition to Mae West, but we beg to differ. The writer states that Mae could not have been a man since she was homophobic. Some reason! I could not even begin to name all the queens I know (myself included) who are ‘homophobic’. The most logical story (about which a novel appeared about 20 years ago with a Mae West-like character named Babe) is that the real Mae West died somewhere around 1950, give or take a couple years, and rather than let the show stop, it was announced that not Mae, but her brother, died. Of course, the brother then became Mae West and carried on until November 1980. If you look carefully at photos from around 1950 on it definitely looks like a different person not to mention the big hands and masculine features, bone structure, etc. I may not have all the details 100% correct but I would almost put money on the fact that the ‘Mae West’ ‘who died in 1980 had a weenie!!
Verne: this is ludicrous. Mae is the same one I met in 1951. She was my friend; I knew her well. She did not have “big hands”, nor did she have “masculine features”. The writer indeed does not have 100% of the details. The writer, in fact, has no details whatsoever. He or she would lose his or her money if she put it on a bet regarding this tale.
I say we exhume.
Thanks to Bob Siler for contributing information to this story.
From Findadeath.com friend Sue:
I was reading the new info Ken sent you, really interesting.
I don’t know if Mae was a man but, I worked for a modeling agency in KC Mo back in the 80’s and I was told by the owner that in the 70’s they were ask to provide models to wear gowns worn by 7 big name stars Mae West being one of them, from movies they were featured in for a show being done in KC. Anyway when the dress came in the “Tall and busty model” could not wear Mae West gown it had so much padding in the chest and hips and her shoes were about 5″ platforms. Needless to say the gown didn’t make the show! Just thought that was interesting!
Trivia from Jon C. Darby, October 2000: It’s no secret that Mae was a notorious fag hag, but she had an odd relationship with one minor celebrity pooftah (gay person). The Amazing (ly Inept) Criswell, Ed Wood’s perennial star, was her “psychic advisor” until he finally admitted he was as full of shit as Elvis after a nine week barbecue and cheese binge. They remained friends and in a DRIVING MISS DAISY twist whenever Mae bought a new limousine she sold her old one to buddy Criswell for $1.
Verne: Whenever Mae bought a new limo, like 4 times in her life, she donated the old one to the Catholic Sisters. What they did with those limos I have no idea, but that is how Mae disposed of her limousines. According to Mae.
Trivia from Findadeath.com friend Lou Corradi: This was reported in the NY Daily News by Mitchell Fink, their people page editor on Feb. 16th. As a young actor trying to make it in Hollywood, Jerry Orbach (Law & Order, Dirty Dancing, F/X) was Mae’s chauffer !
Interesting fact, Lou. Thanks.
Fantastic Commentary dept: March 2002 – from findadeath.com friend Jon: You don’t have a section in your Mae West story, about the awfulness of Sextette. there is a section in Joan Collins ‘Second Act’ where she talks about going to visit Mae in the 70’s, and she was admitted to a room of grubby white couches. Mae’s couch (singular) and her love seat were not grubby. They were clean, and had several dolls and pillows on each. Mae was waiting, and she eventually extended a red tipped claw to her [to Joan]. Mae didn’t speak to her, but kept watching her with a side long fish eye stare. While Joan noticed that Mae had a hump, which she covered with the elaborate blond wig, and she had a rubber band under her chin to give her a chin line, this is not true and gooey kabuki makeup this is not true. Tons of black mascara this is not true – Mae wore heavy false eyelashes, but not “tons” of mascara. Very little mascara, actually. which Joan said looked 2 crows had crashed into a whitewashed wall. Did Joan Collins really say that? I doubt it.
UPDATE February 2006, from Findadeath friend Rosamaria:
Hi Scott: i have figured out i am truly a death hag. heheh don’t know if this is of any importance, but the catholic church at which i worked in azusa california, has in its vaults a chalice that was given to them by mae west. the monsignor who was there was cousin to spencer tracy. its glorious and encrusted with mega jewels. the priest who showed it to me has since been in exile for altar boy tampering. he was the only one who remembered the code for the vault, so now who knows when that chalice will be taken out again. Thanks, Rosamaria!
PAUL NOVAK died Wednesday (7/14) at the age of 76, according to a spokesman for St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. where Novak was suffering from advanced prostate cancer.
Born Chester Ribonsky, Novak served in the US Navy and Merchant Marines, operated a gymnasium in New Orleans, and wrestled the circuit professionally under the name of “Chuck Krauser” before joining the cast of actress Mae West’s beefy musclemen in the buxom blonde’s famous nightclub act. Novak legally changed his name to “Paul Novak” in the 50’s with an eye to greater accomplishment as an actor, but contented himself with being the companion and lover for the celebrated actress for 27 years. Miss West died in 1980 at age 87. (VL)
MAE WEST’S COMPANION PAUL NOVAK
The man who was Mae West’s companion for the last 26 years of her life has died at the age of 76. Paul Novak was one of the musclemen in the legendary actress’s nightclub chorus line in the 1950s. She was 30 years older than he…but they fell in love and stayed together until she died in 1980 at the age of 87.
Novak mostly stayed out of the spotlight. But he made news once… when he assaulted Mickey Hargitay for saying some unkind things about West. Hargitay – who had a romatic relationship with platinum blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield – had also been one of West’s bodybuilders. Novak had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer when he died Wednesday in Santa Monica, California. (Thanks to UPI’s Pat Nason in Los Angeles).
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Paul Novak, who the public knew as one of actress Mae West’s beefy bodyguards but who was in fact her lover for 26 years, has died at the age of 76, a hospital spokesman said Thursday. The spokesman for St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California said Novak, who died Wednesday, was suffering from advanced prostate cancer. West died in 1980 at age 76.