Goodness Had Nothing to do with it: The Scandalous Life of Mae West

“Come up and see sometime!”

“I used to be Snow White… but I drifted.”

“Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

These are just a few of the gems that Mae West, sex goddess and comedienne, was responsible for during her long career in vaudeville, theater, movies and Las Vegas. A playwright as well as an actress, Mae West scandalized theater goers with her 1926 play simply entitled Sex, starting off a long battle against censorship that lasted her whole career. She was a feminist icon who showed the world that sex was a natural thing and not something dirty to be hidden. Her costumes and look have been duplicated by drag queens the world over.

Mae West entered the world as Mary Ann West on August 17th 1893 in Brooklyn, New York when it was still a separate city. Her father had been a prizefighter known as ‘Battlin’ Jack West’ before settling down to various careers including owning a detective agency and a hansom cab. Her mother Tillie had been a corset model. Young Mae began entertaining audiences early, entering amateur shows at the age of seven. Before long she began performing professionally on the vaudeville circuit, encouraged by her mother, who had wanted to be an actress in her youth.

Mae West’s signature walk was said to have been influenced by the female impersonators of the era. She wore special eight-inch platform shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence. Soon she was appearing on Broadway high profile revues such as Sometime, where she danced the shimmy. Not content to just rely on producers for work, Mae West picked up a pen and began writing her own plays. Sex premiered on Broadway in 1926. Mae wrote, directed, produced as well as starred in the play. She once told a reporter that she got the idea one night when she saw a prostitute on the waterfront with two johns, her stockings had runs in them, and she was drunk. Mae wanted to give this woman a different ending to her story.

Sex told the story of Margie, a prostitute working in a brothel in Montreal who wanted better things in life, but who didn’t apologize for the life she had led. Margie falls in love with the son of a rich Connecticut family. Like a true Victorian melodrama, Margie gives up her lover when she realizes that marrying her will ruin his life. The moral of the story, for Mae at least, was the sheer fact that she had been accepted by her lover, Jimmy Stanton despite her past. As far as Margie was concerned she had triumphed.

While critics hated it, audiences loved it. Sex wasn't the first play to feature a prostitute as the main character, Somerset Maugham's Rain and Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie had also featured prostitutes, but Sex was different because Mae West didn't pass moral judgement on her Margie's career choice. However city officials were even less enamored of the play and arrested the entire cast. Mae was prosecuted on morals charges and was sentenced to ten days on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). She served eight with time off for good behavior. It wasn’t the last time that Mae would have to battle the censors. She wrote a play about homo-sexuality called Drag. Her other plays with such titillating titles such as The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner were also plagued by controversy, which ensured that Mae would constantly be in the newspapers, and her plays would have packed houses. Her last play, Diamond Lil was a bonafide Broadway hit.

Mae West hit the movies in 1932 at the age of thirty-eight, which was unusual for the times when most stars were under contract in their early twenties. From the beginning she was a smash. There was no one like her on the screen with her frank sexuality and way with a line of dialogue. Within a year, Mae West was a huge box office draw and one of the highest paid people in the United States. Soon however Mae ran into problems with the Production Code which had been charged with cleaning up the movies. Mae just increased the number of double entendres in her films. Mae West was so popular that during World War II, life preserver jackets were referred to as “Mae Wests,” because they resembled her curvaceous upper torso (ironically Mae in her younger years, was quite slim, during an era when voluptuousness was prized. Her curves appeared during the flapper years when slim was in!).

When the movie roles dried up for her, Mae just took her act back on stage. She revived Diamond Lil and later took her act to Las Vegas where she surrounded herself with young, handsome muscle bound men, including Mickey Hargitay (future father of actress Mariska Hargitay). She added recording artist to her name when she recorded two rock and roll albums. The movies came calling again when Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but Mae turned him down. She couldn't relate to Norma Desmond, down on her luck, living in the past. In Mae West's world, everything was coming up roses.

Mae West shunned the life of a wife and mother. Her career was everything to her, which her mother encouraged. Matilda West didn't want Mae to end up like her, in a bad marriage having given up her dreams. From her teenage years, Mae soon had lots of boyfriends. She indulged in necking and petting freely, not worrying about whether or not her actions damaged her reputation. The one time she did get married, she was barely eighteen and it was more out of fear of pregnancy than any great love affair. Her husband Frank Wallace was her partner in a vaudeville act. They never lived together as husband and wife and Mae forgot the marriage existed. She never told her family what she had done, and if it hadn't been for an intrepid reporter, the marriage probably would have stayed hidden. Mae was an equal opportunity lover, race or religion didn't matter one whit to her. Among her many paramours were the actor George Raft, and gangster Owney Madden.

But Mae was not just about her career or men. When the building she lived in refused to rent an apartment to one of her boyfriends, an African-American former boxer, She solved the problem by buying the building (the Ravenswood which still stands in Hollywood. Mae lived in the penthouse apartment.). In the early 70's, Mae made a movie after nearly thirty years called Myra Breckenridge based on a novel by Gore Vidal. It was not a success nor was another feature Mae made just two years before she died called Sextette in 1978. Ironically for someone who had made her living being a sex symbol, Mae deplored the open sexualityand profanity in movies and television in the 60's and 70's. She made have implied sex on film and in her stage plays, but in real life, Mae was a much more private person.
Mae West died at the age of 87 on November 22, 1980. She’s buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in her home town of Brooklyn. She leaves behind an enduring legacy of a woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, who took control of her image, and who was an early advocate of gay and transgender rights.

Sources include:
Becoming Mae West - Emily Wortis Leider
Mae West: It Ain't No Sin - Simon Louvis


Anonymous said…
Thanks.. quite interesting
Lucy said…
Her outrageous ways revolutionized Hollywood, that's for sure- and people's thinking; making her an icon. She really does look gorgeous.
dave hambidge said…
"Her mother Tillie had been a corset model"

How, where, I'm intrigued?

"“Mae Wests,” because they resembled her curvaceous torso." They were still called this in Royal Air Force of 1980's, and they recalled her UPPER torso, let's be blunt!

Another informative article, many thanks

Dave, her mother was a corset model briefly in the years before her marriage. She was used in the illustrations that advertised corsets.
Mae West NYC said…
This is a nice post, however, her birth-name was Mary Jane West (not Mary Ann West).
My next Mae West event is on Wednesday, August 13, 2014.
It's free and all are welcome.

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