Star of stage, screen and rock ‘n’ roll, the ‘blonde bombshell’ Mae West was praised by George Bernard Shaw, painted by Salvador Dali, photographed by Richard Avedon and bad-mouthed by every church lady in America
“I climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”—Mae West
Mae West (1893-1980) was the first woman to pose a sexual threat to America. Her sultry appeal may have been summed up best in 1927 by a grand jury investigating her hit Broadway play Sex (which she wrote and in which she starred) when it concluded the production was an “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” that might “corrupt the morals of youth.” And, of course, this is precisely why Sex was a hit during the Jazz Age and why West’s appeal as a legend extended well into the Punk Age. Indeed, by the time she was through laying waste to America’s moral fiber in stage productions, films and even on rock ‘n’ roll albums, the American Film Institute placed her at number 15 on their list of 50 greatest legends.Perhaps the key to Mae West’s “legend” is that she played the sex game the same way men did—on stage, screen and in real life. She used her partners for pleasure and discarded them when she got bored. She also realized that – in a nation drowning in puritanical hogwash – sex sells, and she sold it with tremendous wit. Her stock in trade was the double-entendre, a word or phrase that may be understood in two different ways, one of which is often sexual (e.g. “Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”)
West not only defied the constraints of society but the social norms of glamour, sophistication, and comedy. Her intuitive sense of the ridiculous when coupled with a cheerful vulgarity made her the ultimate sex parodist.
Mae West no overnight sensation. She had been honing her act since the early days of the 20th century, when she sang bawdy songs on the vaudeville circuit, creating a persona copied from the female impersonators and nightclub acts she played in New York City. Long before she became Hollywood’s first “blonde bombshell,” she’d also carved out a career as a risqué Broadway playwright whose morals charges and obscenity controversies brought her an endless stream of publicity. Through all of these early travails, she knew how to exploit the press, whether it was good or bad. In 1932, after more than thirty years of vaudeville and Broadway, Paramount Pictures took a gamble and signed up the “mature” Broadway star. She was 39 years old but her youthful glow endured throughout the rest of her life and gave Hollywood’s newest unlikely sex symbol an edge over her colleagues.
On screen, she became known for her wise-cracking “Diamond Lil” persona with raunchy double-entendres designed for men. Her bawdy one-liners in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933) were notoriously frank (i.e., “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? I’m home every evening”). Unlike her contemporaries—Dietrich, Harlow, Garbo et al—West wrote, produced, directed and starred in most of her plays and films.
In her first film, Night After Night (1932), co-starring George Raft, she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. And though she had only a small part, she stole the show in an early scene at a restaurant, when the hatcheck girl compliments her jewelry, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds!” Without missing a beat, West purrs, in a slow, sotto voce, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
The Beginnings of the Legend
“I created myself.” –Mae West
The eldest of three siblings, Mary Jane “Mae” West was born in Brooklyn on April 17, 1893, at the close of the Gilded Age and the beginning of the Progressive Era. Her father was a prizefighter known as “Battlin’ Jack West” who later became a private investigator and her mother was a former corset and fashion model. West was five when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and her mother encouraged her to appear in amateur shows and talent contests.
She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at age 14 under the stage name “Baby Mae.” She tried out various personas and her trademark was said to have been inspired by female impersonators of the so-called “pansy craze,” a period in the late 1920s and early 1930s in which gay clubs and performers (known as pansy performers) became popular in the United States. West’s first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 revue, A La Broadway, put on by her former dancing teacher, Ned Rayburn. And in 1913, the young, raven-haired girl performed a salacious “shimmy” dance for a song sheet, “Everybody Shimmies Now.” West’s mother approved all of her daughter’s performances. The Shimmy required little to no movement of the feet but continuous movement of the pelvis, torso, and shoulders. And Mae West did a Shimmy that caught the attention of the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote that a “girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
In case you were wondering, here is the proper way to do the Shimmy:
By most accounts, West had been a rebellious spirit since childhood. According to Carol Ward’s Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography, West’s mother realized early on that her daughter was “different” and encouraged her to be herself, even when she was willful, disobedient, and brazen with boys. Her father worked at various jobs, including bridle maker, night watchman, and bartender; a fighter and boxer, he spent his spare time in gyms and underworld hangouts. Though she was much closer to her mother, she realized that her personality was more like his, and she came to value the “buccaneering spirit and the refusal to conform” that he had passed on to her. Time she spent with him as a child shaped her in a number of important ways.
The Broadway Years
After her early successes on the stage, West started writing, producing and starring in her own ‘risque’ plays. Her first starring role on Broadway was the lead in Sex, written, produced and directed by herself under the pen name Jane Mast. In Sex, her performance as a prostitute created a huge sensation. Although critics hated the show, ticket sales were good and, that same year, while West was starring in Sex, her next play, The Drag made its debut in Connecticut. The Drag subtitled A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts was also written under the pseudonym, Jane Mast. It is a story about the cost of living a secret (i.e. closeted) life. West herself had been a male impersonator early in her career, and the play ends with an elaborate drag ball, with largely improvised dialogue and a jazz band.
But, alas, the grand jury deemed her work “immoral” and she was arrested and brought to trial on obscenity charges. This created a media frenzy, an opportunity Mae exploited to its full potential. She gave countless interviews, wearing her most glamorous and revealing outfits and wasn’t afraid to scandalize herself and the court to the absolute maximum.
She was eventually sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity, and she traveled to the hoosegow in a limousine. When the arresting officer said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me,” Mae droned, “What’s there to be afraid of, honey?” She befriended the prison warden, who allowed her to wear her silk underwear against the regulations. Her name was in the headlines every single day of her imprisonment. Mae West understood intuitively that sex, controversy and a juicy tabloid trial can be great for a woman’s career.
“Pleasure Man,” West’s third play, was a forerunner to “La Cage aux Folles,” a revenge fantasy in which a man is castrated after seducing and impregnating an innocent girl. “Pleasure Man” had two and a half performances in the city before it was closed by the police. While West won the legal right to have her play performed, ticket sales waned and the run came to an end.
Her next play, Diamond Lil, was about a racy woman in the 1890s—the so-called “Naughty Nineties”—and was the origin for West’s later film persona as Lady Lou in her 1933 movie, She Done Him Wrong. Diamond Lil was the “Queen of the Bowery, a diamond-draped prostitute, singer in a gin joint, and live-in lover of the boss of the Bowery, Gus Jordan, who showered her with jewels and furs. A candidate for sheriff, Jordan was also a sex trafficker who operated from his saloon on Chatham Square. Mae set the play in the wild and wooly 1890s, correctly figuring that theatergoers, tired of living under the dry restrictions of Prohibition, would welcome a melodrama of the underworld that took place during a friskier era when a nickel bought a glass of beer. “Frankie and Johnny,” which she sings in the play, would go on to become her signature song.
A Movie Star Is Born at 39
In 1932, Paramount Pictures offered West—then age 39—a studio contract. She went on to become one of the best-known and best-paid stars of the era: legend has it that, by 1935, she was the second-highest paid person in the U.S. behind the publisher, William Randolph Hearst. And what was truly incredible was not the huge salary but that West had negotiated complete control over her career. The bawdy characters she played were of her own design, thanks to a deal she made with Paramount allowing her to write her own lines.
By the time she first stepped in front of a camera, her act was perfected, with no room for tinkering and reshaping. As far as most of her audience might be concerned, she was born at 39, with ungodly confidence and a dirty joke on her lips
Watch a clip from Night After Night(1932):
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
In the 1933 Paramount film She Done Him Wrong, West was able to bring her “Diamond Lil” character to the silver screen in her first starring film role. The “Lil” character was renamed “Lady Lou,” and contained the famous Mae West line, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and also starred newcomer Cary Grant (though West got top billing). The film did so well at the box office that it’s credited with rescuing Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy.
“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
She appeared in ten films from 1933-1943 but puritanism had another resurgence and this limited her work in film. The blunt sexuality and steamy settings of West’s films aroused the wrath and moral indignation of several groups. One of these was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, which had the power to pre-approve film productions and demand changes and prohibitions in scripts. On July 1, 1934, the organization began to seriously and meticulously enforce the code on West’s screenplays, heavily editing them. West responded in her typical fashion by increasing the number of double-entendres, fully expecting to confuse the censors, which she did for the most part, at least for a while.
Klondike Annie (1936)
“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before”—Mae West, Klondike Annie
In this film, West played a wanted criminal (“Frisco Doll”) who travels far from the scene of her crime and goes in disguise as a Bible thumper (“Sister Annie Alden”). The film suffered from heavy censorship — it’s best ten minutes are presumably destroyed forever. Still, it marks her last really happy experience as a film auteur and the beginning of the end at Paramount. There were two more films to follow on her original contract, Go West, Young Man (1936) and Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), and then the studio let her go (this after her box office success had essentially saved the studio five years earlier)
MAE WEST FUN FACT: In 1938, the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, designed a sofa using the lips of Mae West as his model.
My Little Chickadee (1940)
“Are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West: “No, I’m trying to hide it.
West met her match in W.C. Fields, like her a veteran stage performer turned unlikely movie star. She wrote the original screenplay, with Fields contributing one extended scene set in a bar, but Universal Studios gave them co-writing credit, which incensed West. Both of these stars spoofed themselves and the Western genre throughout the comedy, with West providing a series of her trademark double entendres.
Watch the trailer of My Little Chickadee:
Mae West-Recording Artist
West’s recording career started in the early 1930s with releases of her film songs on 78 rpm records and sheet music. However, in 1955, she released her first official LP, The Fabulous Mae West (Decca). It featured songs she popularized in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, with no attempt to capitalize on the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll craze.
In 1966, West turned to rock ‘n’ roll, with the release of Way Out West (Tower Records). At age 72, she covered songs by The Beatles (“Day Tripper”) and Bob Dylan (“If You Gotta Go Go Now”). The Beatles returned the favor in 1967, including Mae West in the cover montage on their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (along with W.C. Fields). The album was a surprise success, peaking at #116 on Billboard’s Hot 200 LP chart, although there were no original hit singles from the collection. West was the oldest woman to ever have a solo album on the Hot 200 chart, a record was broken in 2011 by Wanda Jackson, then 73, with her The Party Ain’t Over release.
West returned to rock ‘n’ roll in 1972, with the album Great Balls of Fire (MGM), consisting of rock classics “Great Balls of Fire”, “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On”) and some new material. She was almost 80 years old!
MAE WEST SINGING GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!
Mae West, Woman of Letters
In 1959, West released her best-selling autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. West guest-starred on television, including The Deal Martin Show 1959 and The Red Skelton Show in 1960, to promote her autobiography, and a lengthy interview on Person to Person with Charles Collingwood, which was censored by CBS in 1959, and never aired. CBS executives felt members of the television audience were not ready to see a nude marble statue of West, which rested on her piano. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on the sitcom Mister Ed. In 1976, she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang two songs on his Back Lot U.S.A. special on CBS.
In the 1970s she appeared in her two last films, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge (1970) and her own Sextette (1978). Though Myra Breckenridge was a box office and critical bomb, it eventually found an audience on the cult film circuit and introduced her film legacy to a new generation. In 1976, West began work on her final film, Sextette. The picture was adapted from a script she wrote for the stage, but the production suffered from several problems including daily script revisions, creative disagreements, and the 85-year-old West’s difficulty remembering her lines. Yet, she persevered and the film was completed, though critics lambasted it.
“Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”—Mae West, Sextette
Here is the trailer for Sextette:
An excerpt from Myra Breckinridge:
On November 22, 1980, Mae West died at the age of 87. She was buried back where she began: Brooklyn. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
West had no regrets about her life: “I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society.”