Babe Gordon leaned against the crumbling red brick wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem, at 135th Street off Fifth Avenue, and pulled at a cigarette. The Saturday night fight crowd picked its way under the glaring arc lamp in front of the main entrance like a slow-moving blackbeetle. Babe scanned the humans with an eye to business. Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard-earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers. Two well-modelled bare legs were crossed at the ankles; her waist pressed to the wall rose to voluptuous breasts that almost protruded from the negligible neck of her black dress. Babe waited for Cokey Jenny.
The opening paragraph of Mae West’s The Constant Sinner sets the tone for the whole book, and the blurb on the back (where, by the way, Virago spell her name wrong, calling her Babes) fills out the picture a little more, describing it as a ‘spirited lowlife novel’ and telling us, in the author’s own words, that Babe is a broad who ‘would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her’.
You may deduce from this that Babe is not a good girl – good time girl is nearer the mark.. This is the 1920s I think, Prohibition is at its height, and the novel is peopled with dope pedlars, racketeers and prostitutes. When they have money (generally ill-gotten) they blow it all on having a good time; when the cash is gone they move on to something or someone new. Occasionally they even try their hand at a proper job – Babe briefly works as a model and a shop assistant. But there other ways of making money, all of them quicker, easier, and far more rewarding! Instant gratification is the order of the day, and the characters, especially Babe, live for the moment, moving from one experience to another, without any thought for the future or regret for the past.
Babe hooks up with the Bearcat, a prize-winning boxer who has the makings of a champion. She also attracts the obsessive attention of Wayne Baldwin, son of a chain store owner. And let’s not forget Money Johnson, a mobster with a flamboyant lifestyle. As long as they have money and are willing to spend it on Babe she can’t keep away from any of them: she shuffles her men like a pack of playing cards. But they’re not enthusiastic about sharing her favours, and tragedy is inevitable…
Set on the mean streets of Harlem, featuring murder, drugs, drink, and prostitution, it could be a grim read, but this is Mae West and it’s a racy story told in a racy way, packed with the wise-cracking, witty quips you would expect from this legendary star. She portrays the glamour and excitement of rackety lives played out on the wrong side of the law and makes it seem almost like fun – but it’s not something you’d ever want to experience for yourself, and were you to meet any of these characters you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.
Racism and poverty are barely touched on and black and white live, work and party together, but there are moments when West gives a clear picture of the social mores of her day, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as when Wayne’s horrified family are told his young mistress is a common street-walker whose former lover was a black man who is now in jail. In fact, Wayne’s desire for Babe is fuelled by her association with Money Johnson – while the black mobster flaunts the white woman as a symbol of his power and wealth.
In some ways the book, first published in America as Babe Gordon in 1930 (it changed its name the following year), is very much of its time – these days you wouldn’t be able to use the word nigger, or reproduce the speech of Harlem’s black residents the way Mae West does. But The Constant Sinner isn’t patronising, and her people are just people, irrespective of colour. Indeed, when the novel was published it must have been controversia, for not only does Babe break the rigid moral code of the day, but one of her lovers is black – at a time when stringent segregation laws were enforced in many states, and inter-racial relationships were not acceptable, even in New York.
I bought the book partly out out of curiosity, and partly because it’s a Virago edition, and didn’t expect it to be all that good, which just shows how wrong you can be. It romps along at the most tremendous pace and is great fun. I guess you’d have to call it pulp fiction, but it’s really not that bad: I’ve read far worse. West has a good ear for dialogue and creates great characters, even if they are one-dimensional, and our lusty heroine seizes life (and love) with zest and enthusiasm. As Babe hurtles from one situation to another it reminded me of those picaresque novels of the 18th century, built up from a series of loosely connected incidents, or a fast-paced Hollywood B movie.
The pace, and the light-hearted touch, are maintained until the very end, when the feel of the novel suddenly alters, like a piece of music changing from major to minor, and you realise that mo matter what happening now, there can be no happy-ever-after because Babe will never be happy with one man, in one place for very long.
PS: For those who’ve not heard of Mae West (1893-1980), she was a famous American vaudeville artist, comedienne and film star who sang, danced and acted. A busty, blonde sex symbol, she had a reputation as a bit of a bad girl – she was known for her bawdy double entendres and her many lovers, and was immortalised by WW2 fighter crews who named their life jackets after her! But there was more to her than that, because she also wrote plays, novels and film scripts, and in doing so fell foul of the censors – at one stage she was jailed for a short term for obscenity.
She insisted on creative control in all her films, and refused to sign contracts unless they contained a clause stating that the completed movie must, in every way, be to her satisfaction. Just think what an achievement that was when male actors had little or no control over the films they appeared in, and women had still less say, and even today stars would have trouble getting that kind of agreement.
Famous lines attributed to her include ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ and ‘It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’.