Forgotten Hollywood: Mae West
April 26, 1926 was the opening night of “SEX”, a play written, produced by and starring Mae West. It played at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre in Manhattan, got scathing reviews (the New York Times called it “a crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted”), packed houses through that year and into the next, was seen by 325,000 people, and landed West in jail.
The play was about prostitutes and pimps, police corruption and bribery. West was charged with obscenity after a group called the Society for the Suppression of Vice prevailed on the police to arrest her. She was sentenced to ten days in Welfare Island (later known as Roosevelt Island, where Typhoid Mary was incarcerated) and a $500 fine. In the book “She Always Knew How,” West told author Charlotte Chandler: “I was told I could pay the fine and get out of going to jail, but I made up my own mind. I decided it would be more interesting to go to prison … I got a million dollars worth of publicity … I never imagined the kind of promotion and press I’d get.”
In her 1959 autobiography “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It,” West wrote about the trial:
- “I enjoyed the courtroom as just another stage … the Assistant DA, who was prosecuting me could not find one line or one word in the play that was profane, lewd, lascivious or obscene. So, he shifted gears and contended that “Miss West’s personality, looks, walk, mannerisms and gestures made the lines and situations suggestive … Miss West did a danse du ventre, frankly described as a belly dance …
- What I did on stage was nothing more than an exercise involving control of my abdominal muscles … I perform the dance fully clothed, wearing a tight metallic evening gown. Of course, I did it with feeling – I really enjoyed it.
- The prosecutor questioned one of the arresting officers in detail about this dance. The officer blushed and testified, “Miss West moved her navel up and down, and from right to left.”
- “Did you actually see her navel?” my lawyer asked him.
- “No, but I saw something in her middle that moved from east to west.” “The courtroom roared. Yet it was on this moron stutter alone, that a conviction was secured.”
Apparently, West was allowed to keep her silk underwear and dined with the warden and his wife every night. She was released after eight days.
Her next play was equally controversial. The Drag was about homosexuality and cross-dressing and was cast exclusively with young gay actors. She was an early advocate for gay rights but thought that “a gay man was actually a female soul housed in a male body.” The play opened out of New York for try-outs, but never opened on Broadway, targeted again by the Society for the Prevention of Vice. West is said to have made $30,000 on opening night.
Mae West continued her Broadway career, writing plays she performed in, like The Wicked Age in 1927 and Pleasure Man in 1928. In 1928, Diamond Lil, a period piece about the mistress of a gangster, was her biggest hit but The Constant Sinner which followed it was not. So, at age 38, West set her sights on Hollywood.
Mary Jane West was born on Aug. 17, 1893, in Brooklyn to John Patrick West, a boxer, and Matilda Delker, a corset model. She started her career in amateur shows from age 5, segueing to vaudeville shows under the name Baby Mae at age 12. Her first Broadway show was the 1911 revue A La Broadway, but she gained a measure of fame for Sometime in which she first performed the ‘shimmy dance.’ It was 1918 and there was an influenza epidemic that had swept the world. Other shows were closing for lack of audiences but Sometime was successful. West had seen the Shimmy-Shawoble in Chicago performed by Black dancers and tried it out to great success in the show.
The stage persona that Mae had crafted for herself never varied much, and her larger-than-life personality and sheer charisma vaulted her over the footlights of every stage. She was sexual, swaggering, bold, lewdly comic with the innuendos and jokes she carefully crafted for herself, singing bawdy songs, winking at the audience who was always in on the joke. Paramount Pictures decided she could make money for them, and in 1932, West went West. She moved into the Ravenswood Apartments at 570 N. Rossmore in Los Angeles, a mile from Paramount, where she lived until her death.
She was given a bit role in Night After Night, her first picture. True to form, she rewrote her lines. In her first scene when the hatcheck girl complimented her jewelry by saying “Goodness, what lovely diamonds,” West came back with “Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie” in the Brooklyn accent she kept all her life. A screen star was born. Co-star George Raft quipped, “She stole everything but the cameras.” She refused to wear the costume department’s diamonds and wore her own real ones. “They only had fakes and I couldn’t have them next to my skin. They’d have given me a rash.”
West was given script approval, co-star approval, director approval, and she micromanaged the staging and the lighting. (It’s telling that she never worked with a director twice.) When she saw a young Cary Grant walking across the Paramount lot, she demanded he be put in her next picture as her leading man. When the studio protested that he’d only ever done a few tests, she said, “Call him over. If he can talk, I’ll take him.’”
She Done Him Wrong was a hit and Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. She co-starred again with Grant in 1932 in I’m No Angel based on her own play. The film was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and contained the famous line she delivered to Grant: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
Her next few films Belle of the Nineties (1934; “a triumph of Mae over matter,” said Photoplay), Klondike Annie (1936), and Go West, Young Man the same year pulled Paramount out of bankruptcy and made her the highest-paid woman in the country. In the PBS documentary “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” West’s friend Tim Malachosky tells the story of how she told Paramount studio head Adolph Zucker exactly what she wanted in order to sign a contract with him. According to Malachosky, she said she wanted to write her own scripts, approve all her costumes, and she wanted money. Zukor wanted to know how much money. “Well, how much do you make?” she asked Zukor. When he told her, she answered, “I want a dollar more.” He gave it to her.
But West’s overtly sexual characters sashaying across screens hand on hip in their skintight gowns, dripping diamonds, in the six-inch platforms always attached to her shoes, drew the attention of the censors. Lines and scenes from her films were cut under the Hayes Code that was established in 1934. “I believe in censorship,” she told Chandler. “If a picture of mine didn’t get an ‘X’ rating, I’d be insulted. I invented censorship … I had my tricks for handling the censors. I’d write some lines I knew they would take out so the others could stay in. You had to let them earn their money.” But her films stopped delivering what the audiences came for. Her last film for Paramount was Every Day’s a Holiday in 1938, whose budget was a million dollars. It underperformed, and West was put on the film distributors’ ‘box-office poison’ list along with Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, among others.
The boycott didn’t last long. She made the sanitized My Little Chickadee in 1940 for Universal with a man she loathed, actor W.C. Fields that did very well, and The Heat’s On in 1943 for Columbia, which tanked.
In 1942, West made headlines for divorcing Frank Wallace, a man she was pressured to marry when she was 17. The two split after a few months but didn’t divorce, and kept the marriage a secret, even from her family. West decided that she couldn’t sell her sexy persona as a married woman, and Wallace had gone along with it for a while, intermittently dragging her into court several times for money. Then he was broke and sold the story to a newspaper, alleging that West’s manager-lover had threatened to kill him. West finally sued him for divorce, when it was discovered that he had already entered into another marriage. The divorce was finalized in 1943.
By this time, West had had enough of Hollywood. She returned to Broadway in a spoof of Catherine the Great which ran for 191 performances, then revived Diamond Lil by taking it on tour in England, ending with a Broadway run and US tour. In the 1950s she was offered a contract by the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. She did her act surrounded by bodybuilders. She explains why in “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It: “All through the years, night clubs have aimed at something for the men – girl floor shows. The wives and sweethearts have had to sit bored, while their men applauded female semi-nudity. I was going to give the women something to look at.”
It was in Vegas that she met war veteran and muscleman Paul Novak, 30 years younger than her, who would be her companion for the next 26 years.
There were sporadic television appearances, one on the 1958 Academy Awards where she sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Rock Hudson, and even a recording career for West, until she was lured back on screen for Myra Breckinridge in 1970 after an absence of 26 years. In 1978, at age 85, she appeared in Sextette, alongside Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, George Hamilton and Ringo Starr, all of whom play her husbands. In 1980, she died after a series of strokes. She is buried in the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn.
West was No. 15 on AFI’s list of the 50 Greatest Screen Legends. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 1560 Vine St.
Memorable Mae West lines:
Goin’ to Town (1935)
“For a long time, I was ashamed of the way I lived.”
“You mean to say you’ve reformed?”
“No,” West responds, “I got over being ashamed.”
I’m No Angel (1933)
“What do you do for work?”
“Sort of a politician.”
“I don’t like work either.”
“Tonight, you were especially good.”
“Well, when I’m good, I’m very good. But, when I’m bad… I’m better!”
Klondike Annie (1936)
“When caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I never tried.”
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
“I wasn’t always rich.”
“No, there was a time when I didn’t know where my next husband is coming from.”
“He’d be the kind a woman would have to marry to get rid of.”
“Well, surely you don’t mind my holding your hand.”
Lady Lou: “It ain’t heavy – I can hold it myself.”
My Little Chickadee (1940)
“I generally avoid temptation … unless I can’t resist it.”