Mae West 1893-1980
Mary Jane ‘Mae’ West was an American actress, singer, playwright, writer, comedienne, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seventy years.
Known for her light-hearted, bawdy, double entendres and breezy sexual independence, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York City, writing and producing her own plays , before moving to Hollywood to become a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion pictures , later appearing on radio and television.
One of the most controversial show and movie stars of her day, Mae West encountered many problems, especially censorship. She determinedly challenged the current social mores, making comedy out of prudish conventions and the Depression-era audience admired her for it. When her cinema career ended, she wrote books and plays and continued to perform in Las Vegas, all over USA and in the United Kingdom, as well as appearing on radio and television and even recording rock and roll albums. Asked about the effects of relentless moral censure on her career and style, Mae West said “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Mae West was born in Bushwick, Brooklyn on August 17, 1893. She was the eldest
surviving child of John and Matilda “Tillie” West. Her parents reared their children
as Protestants, although John West was of mixed Catholic-Protestant descent and
Matilda “Tillie” Delker was of German Jewish descent.
Her surviving siblings were Mildred, later known as Beverly, born 1898 and John West, II born 1900.
West’s father was a prizefighter known as ‘Battlin’ Jack West’ who later worked as a ‘special policeman’ and later had his own private investigation agency.
During her childhood, West’s family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, as well
as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighbourhoods of Brooklyn.
West was five when she first entertained the local audience at a church social, and
she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at
local talent contests. She began performing professionally in Vaudeville in 1907 at
the age of 14 , under the stage name “Baby Mae’’. She was encouraged as a
performer by her mother, who according to West, always thought that anything Mae
did was fantastic.
West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Szatkus a
fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17; he was 21 and as they
did not live together West kept the marriage a secret for many years. The final
divorce decree was granted in 1943. She had various love affairs over many years though never married again.
Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 ‘Revue a La Broadway’ put
on by her former dancing teacher. The show folded after eight performances, but at
age 18, West was singled out and ‘discovered’ by ‘The New York Times’.
In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in
a revue ‘Sometime’. Her character ‘Mayme’ danced the ‘Shimmy’ for which she became famous and which went to be a dance craze of the time.
Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name ‘Jane
Mast’. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play she entitled ‘Sex’, whichshe wrote, produced, and directed. Although conservative critics panned the show, ticket sales were in great demand . Then City officials, who had received complaints from some religious groups, raided the theatre and arrested Mae West along with the cast. She was sentenced to 10 days for ‘corrupting the morals of youth’. Though West could have paid a fine, and been let off, she chose the jail sentence for the publicity it would get her. She told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the “burlap” the other girls had to wear.
Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career and named her the
darling “bad girl” who “had climbed the ladder of success ‘wrong by wrong’.
Her next play, ‘The Drag’, dealt with homosexuality and was what West called one
of her ‘comedy-dramas of life’. It only ran as one day shows and was prohibited
from opening in New York, adding to the risqué publicity she was achieving.
West continued to write plays, including ‘The Wicked Age’, ‘Pleasure Man’ and ‘The
Constant Sinner’. Her productions always aroused controversy, which ensured that
she stayed in the news and also often resulted in packed houses at her
performances. Her 1928 play, ‘Diamond Lill’, about a racy, easy-going, and
ultimately very smart lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit, and cemented
West’s radical, sexy image in the public’s eye.
West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother’s death in 1930. After she began her movie career, her sister, brother, and father followed her to Hollywood. West provided them with nearby homes, jobs, and sometimes financial support.
In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the new Ravenswood apartment building, where she lived until her death in 1980
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures despite
being close to 40. This was an unusually late age to begin a movie career, especially
for women, but she was not playing an ingénue, and her characterization of a
freewheeling, sexually secure, and liberated woman was timeless and ageless. She
made her film debut in 1932’s ‘Night After Night’ starring George Raft.
She brought her ‘Diamond Lil’ character, now renamed “Lady Lou”, to the screen
in ‘She Done Him Wrong’ in 1933 and the film is also notable as one of Cary Grant’s
first major roles.
Her next release, ‘I’m no angel ’in 1933, again with Grant , made her a
household name as a femme fatale . By then, West was one of the largest box office
draws in the United States and, by 1935, she was also the highest paid woman and
the second-highest paid person in the United States after William Randolph Hearst.
However in 1934, the censorship application of the Production Code began to be
seriously and meticulously enforced and her screenplays were heavily edited. Her
next film was ‘Belle of the Nineties’ in 1934. It had been re-named and heavily edited as was ‘Klondike Annie’ in 1936, which dealt with religion and hypocrisy, as best it could, given the heavy hand of the censor. After a hypocritical condemnation in the powerful Hearst newspapers, Paramount studio executives felt they had to
tone down the Mae West brazen characterization or face further public recrimination.
Though raised in an era when women held second-place roles in society, West
always portrayed confident women who were not afraid to use their sexual wiles to
get what they wanted. “I was the first liberated woman, you know. No guy was going
to get the best of me. That’s what I wrote all my scripts about’’, she said.
Further films did not perform well at the box office, largely due to censor cuts. Prudish censorship had made West’s sexually suggestive brand of humour impossible for the studios to incorporate in film scripts.
As on Broadway a decade before, by the mid 1930s, her risqué and ribald dialogue was no longer allowed. Her last picture of the period ,’The Heat’s On ‘, opened to poor reviews and poor performance at the box office. West was so upset after the experience and by her years of struggling with the strict Hays censorship office, that she would not attempt another film role for the next twenty five years. So instead, she pursued a successful and record-breaking career in top nightclubs, in Las Vegas shows , in theatre, on Broadway and on tour nationally, where she was allowed to be herself and welcomed by the adoring audiences.
In 1937, West appeared on national radio in two separate sketches
with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and later in a sketch entitled ‘Adam and Eve in
the Garden of Eden’ on NBC, both of which allowed her to use her risqué and
sexually suggestive humour. . Conservative religious groups took umbrage far more
swiftly than the mainstream audience , but as a result of the outcry, NBC Radio
scapegoated West for the incident and banned her and even the mention of her
name from their stations. Of course, this all added to her publicity and she continued
with a record-breaking success in Las Vegas, smart nightclubs such as The Latin
Quarter and on stage in Broadway and in London.
Among her popular new stage performances was the title role in ‘Catherine Was
Great’ (1944) on Broadway which she wrote . When Mae West revived her 1928
play ‘Diamond Lil’, bringing it back to Broadway in 1949, The New York
Times labelled her an “American Institution’’.
In the 1950s, West starred in her own Las Vegas stage show at the newly
opened Sahara Hotel, singing while surrounded by male bodybuilders and setting a ‘
shocking ’ precedent for her future appearances.
In 1958, West appeared at the live televised Academy Awards and performed the
song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with Rock Hudson, which brought a standing ovation.
She then guest starred in several personality TV shows. In 1959, she released her
autobiography,’ Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It’, which became a best seller
and was reprinted with a new chapter in 1970.
West’s recording career started in the early 1930s with releases of her film songs
on 78 rpm records. as well as sheet music. In 1955, she recorded her
first album, ‘The Fabulous Mae West’. In 1965, she recorded several tongue-in-cheek songs, including “Santa, Come Up to See Me” on the album ‘Wild Christmas’ which was released in 1966 and reissued as ‘Mae in December’ in 1980. Demonstrating her willingness to keep in touch with the contemporary scene, in 1966 she recorded ‘Way Out West’, the first of her two rock-and-roll albums. The second,
released in 1972 titled ‘Great Balls of Fire’, covered some well known songs and
some originals written for her .
After a 27-year absence from motion pictures, in 1970 West appeared as Leticia Van
Allen in Gore Vidal’s ‘Myra Breckinridge’ , which was a public and critical flop.
However Mae West’s counterculture appeal included the young and hip and by
1971, the student body of UCLA voted Mae West ‘Woman of the Century’ in honour
of her relevance as a pioneering advocate of sexual frankness and courageous
crusader against censorship.
Mae West was a shrewd investor, produced her own stage acts and invested her
money in large tracts of land in Van Nuys, a thriving suburb of Los Angeles. With her
considerable fortune, she could afford to do as she liked.
In 1976 she began work on her final film, ‘Sextette’. Adapted from her 1959 script , it
was dogged by production problems and endless script revisions . At 86, her now-
failing eyesight made navigating around the set difficult, but she made it through the
filming, a tribute to her self-confidence and remarkable endurance.
The film was not a critical or commercial success, but it was a last hurrah and a
tribute from Mae West to her fans.
In August 1980, Mae West tripped while getting out of bed. After the fall, West was
unable to speak and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where
tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke. She died on November 22, 1980, at
the age of 87.
Such was her international fame, that during World War II, Allied aircrews called
their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets “Mae Wests” partly
from rhyming slang for “breasts” and “life vest” and partly because of the
resemblance to her torso.
One of the most popular objects of the surrealist movement was the painting
by Salvador Dalí entitled “Face Of Mae West Which May Be Used As An
Apartment,” and the Mae West Lips Sofa.