"To Err Is Human, But It Feels Divine"
She was one of the original actresses on film and one of my personal favourites. “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”, “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” “When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” We may not have known who said the quote, but we certainly ‘know’ the quote. Mae West was born when Queen Victoria was still alive and reigning England, and she was one of the most controversial stars of the day, especially when ‘censorship’ was involved. I believe that it was Mae’s husky voice that made her famous, along with her personality.
Mary Jane West was born in 1893, in Brooklyn, her aunt (who was a midwife) delivered Mae at home. Her father was “Battlin’ Jack West” --- a prizefighter --- and he also became a special policeman and then had his own private investigations agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model. Mae’s grandfather was of Scottish descent, her grandmother was of Irish descent. Mae was raised as a Protestant. She had two sisters and one brother. The family moved around Brooklyn when the children were young.
At the young age of five, Mae entertained at a church social. From the age of seven, she started to appear in amateur shows, often winning prizes at local talent contests. Mae began to perform professionally, in Vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company, at the tender age of fourteen, in 1907. Her stage name was “Baby Mae”.
Another name Mae used for the stage was “Jane Mast”. Her ‘trademark’ walk was inspired by the female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge (these were famous during the Pansy Craze). 1911 saw Mae’s first appearance in a Broadway Show, “A La Broadway.” Although the show folded after only 8 performances, Mae had been singled out by The Times: “a girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.” Mae was eighteen years of age.
Mae appeared in a show featuring Al Jolson, “Vera Violette”, and in 1912 she appeared as La Petite Daffy, a baby vamp, in “A Winsome Window.” Her mother always encouraged Mae but the rest of the family were not so positive, disapproving of Mae’s choice of career.
In 1918, Mae got her break in “Sometime” opposite Ed Wynn. Mae’s ‘character’ “Mayme” danced the shimmy, with her picture appearing on an edition of the sheet music “Ev’rybody Shimmies Now.”
It was at this time that Mae began writing her own plays --- risque plays --- under the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role (on Broadway) was in the 1926 play Mae entitled “Sex”, which she wrote, produced and directed. The theatre was raided and Mae and the cast were arrested. Prosecuted on moral charges for: “corrupting the morals of youth”, Mae courted publicity by serving 10 days in jail (instead of paying the fine). It worked and Mae was the darling “bad girl” who “had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong!”
Mae’s next play, “The Drag”, dealt with homosexuality, and she called it one of her “comedy-dramas of life.” The “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice” made sure that it was banned and it never opened on Broadway. Now, even though Mae was an early supporter of the “Women’s Liberation Movement”, she was never a “burn your bra” feminist! In her 1975 book “Mae West: Sex, Health and ESP”, Mae writes: “I believe that the world owes male and female homosexuals more understanding than we’ve given them. Live and let live is my philosophy on the subject, and I believe everybody has the right to do his or her own thing or somebody else’s --- as long as they do it all in private.”
Mae West also wrote the plays “The Wicked Age”, “Pleasure Man” and “The Constant Sinner”, all of which were predictably controversial. This meant that Mae stayed in the news which resulted in packed performances. Her play “Diamond Lil” (1928) placed Mae’s image firmly in the public eye --- it was extremely popular!
In June, 1932, Mae signed a two-month contract with Paramount Pictures which provided her with a weekly salary of $5,000. Mae made her film debut in “Night after Night”, and although it was a small, supporting role, Mae was allowed to rewrite some of her character’s dialogue.
Her next film was “She Done Him Wrong” with Cary Grant cast as the male lead. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and grossed $2 million ($140 million in today’s money). Mae’s next film “I’m No Angel”, again with Cary Grant, was another hit, the most successful of Mae’s entire screen career. By 1933, Mae West was one of the largest box-office draws in the United States, and in 1935 she was the highest paid woman. In 1934, the censorship guidelines for the film industry began to be enforced and Mae had to “tone down” a lot of her work.
After several more films, Mae’s last film with Paramount was “Every Day’s a Holiday” (1937). “Censorship had Mae West’s sexually suggestive brand of humour impossible for the studios to distribute” and Mae was put on a list called “Box Office Poison.”
Next, Mae was offered the role of Belle Watling in “Gone With The Wind” but she refused the part, thinking that it was too small a part for her. I wonder if Mae regretted this, knowing the success the film has had!
Mae went from film to film, studio to studio, the “Censors” catching her every time. Her career in films was nearly over so Mae started to perform in top Nightclubs (Las Vegas) and her career went through the roof. It seemed that there was no censorship in these Nightclubs.
Censorship was becoming ever “stronger” now and Mae was on the verge of being banned on radio. To be herself, Mae had to be “risque” but the censors did not like it. Many “Groups” who fought for decency made Mae their target: “they took exception to her outspoken use of sexuality and sexual imagery.” NBC Radio banned Mae, and even the mention of her name, front heir stations. This, however, did not hurt Mae’s career in the Las Vegas Nightclubs, where she was going from strength to strength.
Later on, in the 1940’s, Mae revived some of her plays. The New York Times labeled Mae as an “American Institution --- as beloved and indestructible as Donald Duck. Like Chinatown and Grant’s Tomb, Mae West should be seen at least once.”
Appearing at the televised Academy Awards (1958), Mae sang opposite Rock Hudson “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” They received a standing ovation. The following year, Mae released her autobiography “Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It,” and it became a bestseller. She starred in such television shows as “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Red Skelton Show” to promote her book.
Mae’s recording career started in the1930’s, being released on “shellac 78 rpm records,” and went on to 1972. Some of her songs include: “He’s Good For Me”, “Santa, Come Up To See Me” and “Way Out West.”
“At 84, Mae West IS Still Mae West” (Time Magazine). She first married in 1911, to Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian. They divorced in 1943 and she had several ‘affairs’ during her life. It has been said that Mae had an abortion, which nearly killed her, and which left her infertile. Mae remained close to her family and was devastated when her mother died in 1930. When Mae died in1980, she was living with Paul Novak, a man 30 years younger. Mae West suffered a stroke and died on November 22nd, 1980. She was 87 years of age.
She has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and had been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. I admire Mae West because, at a time when men ruled the world, Mae did her best to rule men through her sexualized “Work” (Plays). As the old saying goes: “Sex Sells!”