Mae West (1893-1980) played the sultry, provocative woman in numerous popular films and plays. Her sexuality and off-color comments made her films and plays the frequent target of censors. West also wrote and produced several plays and recorded albums.
Mae West was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, John, held various jobs as a livery stableman, a detective, a salesman, and a prizefighter. Her mother, Matilda, was a model and dressmaker. By the age of seven, West was singing and dancing in amateur performances and winning local talent shows. She soon left behind formal education and joined a professional stock company headed by Hal Clarendon, where she played the character of "Little Nell" in a long-running melodrama.
In her early teens, West joined a vaudeville company, where she met Frank Wallace, who soon became her song-and-dance partner. Unknown to the public for more than 30 years, she and Wallace married in 1911 when West was only 16. Both the relationship and the stage partnership soon ended, but West and Wallace did not divorce until 1942.
Became Vaudeville and Stage Star
While still a teen-ager, West became a star on the vaudeville stage. Her first Broadway appearances were in 1911, in the revues A la Broadway and Hello Paris. The following year she appeared in A Winsome Widow, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. In 1918, West took a role in the musical comedy Sometime, in which she introduced a dance known as the "Shining Shawabble." She soon became a hit on the New York vaudeville stage, becoming known for her flashy and tight-fitting clothing as well as her provocative comments, delivered in dialects or a throaty voice. Her costumes would typically include an assortment of rhinestones, leopard skins, and huge plumed hats, all worn on her five-foot-tall body. West was unique in being one of the few women who performed solo in vaudeville, and even at her young age, she commanded a salary of several hundred dollars per week.
Plays Caught Censors' Attention
In 1926, West wrote a play that was co-produced on Broadway by Jim Timony, a lawyer who was reportedly also her lover. The aptly named Sex became both a popular success and the target of censorship groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. As described in Becoming Mae West, the play included "prostitutes caught in arousing embraces, guns, knockout drinks, a jewelry heist, cops, an offstage suicide, bribery, and the threat of a shootout." In the 41st week of its run, police arrested the cast and West was found guilty of corrupting the morals of youth. She was sentenced to ten days in a New York City prison but was released two days early for good behavior.
West's second play, The Drag in 1926, sympathetically tackled a subject that was not discussed on stage at the time--homosexuality. After a two-week run in New Jersey, West was persuaded not to bring it to Broadway. Her third play, Adamant Lil in 1928, was a great success. West played the title role of an 1890s saloon singer with underworld connections. In this play, she uttered her famous line to a Salvation Army captain: "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Two other plays, Pleasure Man in 1928 and The Constant Sinner in 1931, were also targeted by the censors; Pleasure Man was closed by the police after its first performance and never reopened; The Constant Sinner closed after two performances when the district attorney threatened to bring charges.
Launched Hollywood Film Career
In the early 1930s, after the constant struggles with censorship of her plays, West decided to move to Hollywood and embark on a film career, hoping that she would enjoy more freedom there. Her popularity with the public was already so great that even though the Great Depression had begun, she won a $5,000-per-week contract with Paramount Pictures. In her first film, Night After Night in 1932, West portrayed the girlfriend of a gangster played by George Raft. When a woman comments, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds," West gives her famous response: "Goodness had nothing to do with it."
West's next film, She Done Him Wrong in 1933, was a film adaptation of her play, Adamant Lil. It was a huge public success, and was also noteworthy for introducing a young actor, Cary Grant, who was found by West and chosen for the male lead. Later that year, Grant also co-starred with West in I'm No Angel, an even bigger box office smash. In this film, West (playing a circus performer) got to act out a lifelong fantasy of being a lion tamer. Refusing a double, she went into the cage herself carrying a whip.
During the mid-1930s West became one of the most popular and highly paid actors in Hollywood. She also became a shrewd real estate investor, once making a profit of almost $5 million on a $16,000 investment. Her film career reached its peak, with two more successes in Go West, Young Man in 1936 and Every Day's a Holiday in 1938, in which she played a character named Peaches O'Day who used her wiles to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to a naive man.
Then came one of her best-known films, My Little Chickadee in 1940, in which West and her co-star, W.C. Fields, gave one of the all-time great film comedy performances; she also wrote the screenplay. West's character, Flower Belle Lee, was a woman of dubious reputation who decided to enter into a sham marriage to become respectable. As her husband, she chose the con man and card shark Cuthbert J. Twillie, played by Fields. Perhaps as a joke on the censors, on their "wedding" night, Fields discovered that West has vanished, and in her place in their bed is a tied-up goat. They agree to go their separate ways, and his parting line to her is, "Come up and see me sometime."
Career Declined in the 1940s
In the 1940s, West's popularity declined. She also finally acknowledged the marriage she had walked away from while a teen-ager. In the mid-1930s, her husband Frank Wallace had begun to tour the country with a nightclub act in which he called himself "Mae West's husband." Then, in 1942, Wallace filed for divorce and sought alimony from West. She eventually settled the case with an undisclosed private financial agreement.
West starred in the 1943 film musical The Heat's On, but reviews were not particularly favorable. She decided to return to the stage where her career had begun, and wrote and starred in Catherine Was Great, a risque play about the Russian empress that played on Broadway in 1944, and then went on a national tour. In 1948, West starred in Ring Twice Tonight (later retitled Come On Up), in which she played the unlikely role of an FBI agent masquerading as a nightclub singer. The play never reached Broadway after initial performances in Los Angeles. This project was followed by a stage revival of Adamant Lil, in which West travelled between New York and London from 1948 to 1951.
An Elderly Siren
In the early 1950s, when West was over 60, she tried to revive her career by creating a nightclub act, "Mae West and Her Adonises," that still portrayed her as a sultry siren. A group of young, handsome bodybuilders dressed in loincloths assisted her in the act. Paul Novak, one of the bodybuilders, became her companion for the last 26 years of her life.
West's autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was published in 1959, and contains humorous stories about her career and her love life. In the 1960s, she recorded an album of Bob Dylan and Beatles songs, Way Out West, plus a holiday album, Wild Christmas. West's film career was briefly reborn when she appeared in two films that have been ranked among the worst ever made. Myra Breckinridge (1970), based on the Gore Vidal novel, was notable chiefly for being the film in which future stars Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck were introduced to the public. In Sextette (1977), made when West was 84, her husband was played by the young Timothy Dalton.
Despite her "loose" professional image, West did not drink or smoke, and made her home in the same modest Los Angeles apartment for half a century. West began to decline in her later years, and was rumored to have slept in makeup in case she had to leave her home in an emergency. She became increasingly interested in paranormal events, and insisted she was in contact with a pet monkey who had died. It has also been reported that West feared being reincarnated. After suffering a stroke, she died on November 22, 1980 in Los Angeles. As she said in her autobiography, 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."
Further Reading on Mae West
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins, 1991.
Dictionary of American Biography, Scribner's, 1995.
Leider, Emily Wortis, Becoming Mae West, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997.
West, Mae, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, Prentice-Hall, 1959.
Interview, May 1997.
"Mae West," Biography Life File, http://mmnewsstand.com/static/products/4002/west.html (February 10, 1999).