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This cover image released by St. Martin's Press shows "Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood's Hidden Genius" by Carrie Courogen. (St. Martin's Press via AP)

“Miss May Does Not Exist” reviewed

Nichols and May, the comedy team, were together from 1957 until 1961. They were so charming and sophisticated and acerbic, selling out Broadway theatres with their crossfire talk, that the critic Edmund Wilson saw them perform four times. He confided to his diary about Elaine May that he was “sorry not to be young enough to fall in love with her and ruin my life.”

She and Mike Nichols, who only briefly were lovers, split amicably. We know what happened to Nichols. By 1967 he had directed the movies “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate,” as well as hit plays on Broadway. May’s arc was not so well-defined. In 1967, Life magazine profiled her under the headline, “Whatever Happened to Elaine May?”

Whatever did? The story is told in Carrie Courogen’s casual, sympathetic and compulsively readable new biography, “Miss May Does Not Exist.” The title comes from short biographies Nichols and May wrote for the back of one of their comedy albums. Nichols’s bio began: “Mike Nichols is not a member of the Actors Studio, which has produced such stars as Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Carroll Baker, and others too numerous to mention.” May’s read simply: “Miss May does not exist.”

It’s an awkward title that, as the book goes on, begins to seem apt. Throughout her life, May, 92, has had a knack for disappearing, for being there but not there. She has had a knack, too, for being — for lack of a better word — difficult. It’s one of this biography’s salient contentions that while American culture makes room for its tortured and demanding male talents, it freezes similar women out. “Big movie directors are the modern mad kings,” Pauline Kael wrote in 1973. There has been little room for mad queens.

What happened to Elaine May in the 1960s is that she became attached to a lot of projects, including her own plays, that flopped. She tripped into a messy scandal. She fell in love with her psychiatrist, a man named David Rubinfine, a well-known shrink to the stars. Rubinfine was married. His wife of 20 years killed herself. He had three young daughters who May suddenly needed to raise, in addition to her own daughter from a previous marriage.

May directed two hit movies in the early 1970s, “A New Leaf,” in which she starred with Walter Matthau, and “The Heartbreak Kid,” with Charles Grodin. She became known as a perfectionist — brilliant but also dithering, at least to those who wearied of her. She required take after take of scenes. She liked to say “action” but loathed to say “cut.” She wore her crews down. Matthau, no easy personality himself, commented that May “makes Hitler look like a little librarian.”

She was by then a major director, only the third woman to be a member the Directors Guild of America. She spent years making an over-budget flop, “Mikey and Nicky,” a dark buddy film with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes that was released in 1976. When the studio tried to take the film over, two reels mysteriously went missing. It was a wild caper, and May was a prime suspect. It would be 11 years before she directed again, and the result was “Ishtar” (1987).

In between, she became known as perhaps the best script doctor in Hollywood. She worked with Warren Beatty on “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds.” She and Beatty, obsessives, chimed with each other. He’d fly her into luxury hotels for weeks at a time. She’d bar housekeeping from her rooms because they were so chaotic, with drafts and room-service dishes and cigar ash everywhere.

People paid attention to her smoking. On the set of “Mikey and Nicky,” one observer recalled that you could read her mood by what was between her fingers: “She chain-smoked cigarettes when things were running smoothly. You’d know things were getting dicey once she pulled out her skinny Schimmelpenninck cigars.” And when disaster was imminent, “she would puff away on oversize cigars that were fit for Orson Welles but looked downright comedic hanging from Elaine’s mouth.”

May did script work on “Tootsie,” “What About Bob?” and many of Nichols’s films. She mostly refused to take credit for this work, preferring to remain behind the scenes. The novelist Jim Harrison, who worked with her on the movie “Wolf,” commented: “It’s like some Taoist thing with her. Very mysterious. Come in, do the work, take the money, leave no tracks.” People cut her very large checks.

The story of the filming of “Ishtar” in the Moroccan desert has been told many times before. I won’t reprise the gory details here. The movie was intended to be a kind of homage to the old “Road to …” movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Courogen notes that the film is better than it’s been given credit for, and she coolly dissects the way May’s studio thwarted, antagonized and all but sabotaged her.

May was born in Philadelphia in 1932 and had a nomadic childhood. Her father, who died at 47, was in the Yiddish theater. May didn’t graduate from high school but was an autodidact. After an early failed marriage, she made her way to the University of Chicago, where she never formally enrolled but took classes.

Her intensity, her beauty and her wit made her a formidable character. Onstage, Courogen writes, she was “too threatening to heckle.” She met Nichols, her soul mate, at one of his shows. They did a great deal of improv until Nichols left for New York and she eventually followed. Until the end of his life Nichols would call on her to help with his movies. They frequently got back together to perform their classic routines for good causes.