The last of my pulp trio, ‘The Constant Sinner’ is an odd beast of a book. The Blonde has a couple of Mae West’s on her shelf and I’ve been coveting them for a long time so was very pleased when I found this (and slightly smug when we realised she didn’t have it already – less smug on finding her copy of ‘Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It’ is hard to find under £30, the Blonde wines this round).
All I really know about Mae West are the famous quotes (which reminds me that I really want a new dictionary of quotations) so I learned something from the introduction. Born in 1893 Mae made a career as a writer and actress, was arrested under obscenity laws for her play ‘Sex’, and I’m guessing was a stranger to inhibitions. I’m not unshockable, but I’ve reached an age and level of experience (thankfully some of its anecdotal) when it’s not so easy to do but ‘The Constant Sinner’ provoked the kind of response normally reserved for the price of good gin (outrageous I tell you).
The constant sinner in question is Babe Gordon, the first time we meet her she’s leaning against the crumbling wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem and West introduces her thus:
"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."
The poor sap is soon chewed up and spat out. He marries Babe in a haze of infatuation but when the hard pace she sets ruins him as a fighter she moves on, initially to dealing coke, morphine and heroine in a five and ten store, and then onto life as the mistress of Harlem gangster Money Johnson for whom a white woman is the last status symbol. When Money goes down for three months Babe moves on again this time to a social register millionaire which is where her past starts to catch up with her. Babe who “would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her” has had no compunction in lying and cheating her way up, the men she can handle but the women want blood and are set to get it.
It’s an exciting read but it’s troubling too. At 18 Babe has far too much experience, there’s no back story, no suggestion that the reader should feel any sympathy for her, and very little in her actions that allow for empathy. Babe loves sex, loves men, loves high living and indeed any sensual experience but beneath that there’s nothing. Not just a lack of morals but a lack of affection or loyalty or foresight, Babe lives entirely in the moment and has to be the archetypal tart without a heart in search of sensation. Seventy or more years after it was written there’s still something deeply shocking about her attitudes – maybe it’s how contemporary they sound.