Mae West

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Mae West
Mae West LAT.jpg
Publicity photo for Night After Night (1932)
Mary Jane West

(1893-08-17)August 17, 1893
Kings County, New York, U.S.
DiedNovember 22, 1980(1980-11-22) (aged 87)
Los Angeles, California
  • Actress
  • singer
  • playwright
Years active1907–1980
Frank Wallace
(m. 1911; div. 1943)
Partner(s)Paul Novak (1954–1980; her death)
Mae West signature.svg

Mae West (born Mary Jane West; August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980) was an American stage and film actress, playwright, screenwriter, singer, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned over seven decades.[1] She was known for her breezy sexual independence, and her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, often delivered in a husky contralto voice.[2] She was active in vaudeville and on stage in New York City before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.

West was one of the most controversial movie stars of her day; she encountered problems especially with censorship. She once quipped, "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it."[3][4] She bucked the system by making comedy out of conventional mores, and the Depression-era audience admired her for it. When her film career ended, she wrote books and plays, and continued to perform in Las Vegas and the United Kingdom, on radio and television, and recorded rock 'n roll albums. In 1999, the American Film Institute posthumously voted West the 15th greatest female screen legend of classic American cinema.

Early life[]

Mary Jane West was born on August 17, 1893,[5][6] in Brooklyn (either Greenpoint or Bushwick, before New York City was consolidated in 1898). She was delivered at home by an aunt who was a midwife.[7] She was the eldest surviving child of[8][9][10] John Patrick West and Mathilde "Tillie" (later Matilda) Delker (originally Doelger; later Americanized to "Delker" or "Dilker"). Tillie and her five siblings emigrated with their parents, Jakob and Christiana (née Brüning) Doelger from Bavaria in 1886.[11] West's parents married on January 18, 1889, in Brooklyn, to the pleasure of the groom's parents and the displeasure of the bride's, and raised their children as Protestants.[12][13][14]

West's father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a "special policeman" and later had his own private investigations agency.[15] Her mother was a former corset and fashion model.[16] Her paternal grandmother, Mary Jane (née Copley), for whom she was named, was a Catholic of Irish descent[17] and West's paternal grandfather, John Edwin West, was of English–Scots descent and a ship's rigger.[18][19]

Her eldest sibling, Katie, died in infancy. Her other siblings were Mildred Katherine West, later known as Beverly, and John Edwin West II (sometimes inaccurately called "John Edwin West, Jr.").[20] During her childhood, West's family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, as well as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In Woodhaven, at Neir's Social Hall (which opened in 1829 and is still extant), West supposedly first performed professionally.[21][22]

Beginning of stage career[]

Newspaper ad for burlesque show with West, "The Girl With a Personality", Detroit, Michigan, 1915

West was five when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at local talent contests.[23] She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14.[24] West first performed under the stage name "Baby Mae",[25] and tried various personas, including a male impersonator.[26]

She used the alias "Jane Mast" early in her career. Her trademark walk was said to have been inspired or influenced by female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, who were famous during the Pansy Craze.[27][28] Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 revue A La Broadway put on by her former dancing teacher, Ned Wayburn. The show folded after eight performances,[29] but at age 18, West was singled out and discovered by The New York Times.[30] The Times reviewer wrote that a "girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing". West next appeared in a show called Vera Violetta, whose cast featured Al Jolson. In 1912, she appeared in the opening performance of A Winsome Widow as a "baby vamp" named La Petite Daffy.[31]

"Ev'rybody Shimmies Now" sheet music cover with portrait, 1918

She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that anything Mae did was fantastic.[32] Other family members were less encouraging, including an aunt and her paternal grandmother. They are all reported as having disapproved of her career and her choices.[17] In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn.[33] Her character Mayme danced the shimmy[34] and her photograph appeared on an edition of the sheet music for the popular number "Ev'rybody Shimmies Now".

Broadway star and jail[]

Eventually, West began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast.[35] Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Although conservative critics panned the show, ticket sales were strong. The production did not go over well with city officials, who had received complaints from some religious groups, and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast.[36] She was taken to the Jefferson Market Court House, (now Jefferson Market Library), where she was prosecuted on morals charges, and on April 19, 1927, 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 garner.[37] While incarcerated on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she dined with the warden and his wife; she told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the "burlap" the other girls had to wear. West got great mileage from this jail stint.[38] She served eight days with two days off for "good behavior". Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career, by crowning her the darling "bad girl" who "had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong".[37]

Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality, and was what West called one of her "comedy-dramas of life".[39] After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York.[40] However, The Drag never opened on Broadway, owing to efforts by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban any attempt by West to stage it. West explained, "The city fathers begged me not to bring the show to New York because they were not equipped to handle the commotion it would cause."[41] West was an early supporter of the women's liberation movement, but said she was not a "burn your bra" type of feminist. Since the 1920s, she was also an early supporter of gay rights, and publicly declared against police brutality that gay men experienced. She adopted a then "modern" psychological explanation that gay men were women's souls in men's bodies, and hitting a gay man was akin to hitting a woman.[42] In her 1959 autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, a memoir compiled by ghostwriter Stephen Longstreet, West strongly objects to hypocrisy while, for surprising and unexplained reasons, also disparaging homosexuality:

I have always hated the two-faced, the smoother-over folk—the people who preach loudly one way of life, and then do something in private that they’re against in public. In many ways homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system of western civilization. Certainly a nation should be made aware of its presence—without moral mottoes—and its effects on children recruited to it in their innocence. I had no objections to it as a cult of jaded inverts, or special groups of craftsmen, shrill and involved only with themselves. It was its secret anti-social aspects I wanted to bring into the sun.[43]

This perspective, never elaborated upon by West in other books or interviews, seems inconsistent with the Mae West persona, for in her 1975 book Mae West: Sex, Health, and ESP, she 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!"[44]

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, West continued to write plays, including , Pleasure Man, and . Her productions predictably aroused controversy, which ensured that she stayed in the news and often resulted in packed houses at her performances.[45] Her 1928 play Diamond Lil, a story about a racy, easygoing, and ultimately very smart lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit and cemented West's image in the public's eye.[46] This show had an enduring popularity and West successfully revived it many times throughout the course of her career.[47]

Three years after the initial success of Diamond Lil, West portrayed another sexually charged character, Babe Gordon, in The Constant Sinner, which opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on September 14, 1931.[48] The influential drama critic for The New York Times, J. Brooks Atkinson, was among many reviewers at the time who bashed the play's storyline as well as West's performance.[49] Atkinson's "scathing"[50] assessment of her three-act production was published in The Times the day after the dramedy's premiere:

..."The Constant Sinner" commits one of the major sins in the theatre; it is dull. This is a sin which is common to all of Miss West's wonderworks except "Diamond Lil," but because of the luridness of the hokum plot and the highly colored melodramatic backgrounds of the new piece, it has seldom been more in evidence..."The Constant Sinner" is also, as might be expected, vile as to speech.... Seldom, come to think about it, has fouler talk been heard on the Broadway stage, even in these frank and forward times...
However creditable an impersonator of scarlet roles Miss West may be, variety of attack is not among her qualifications as an actress.... Her peculiar slouching about the stage, which seems to provide firsthand evidence that, as the program says, she originated the shimmy dance, her vocal stunts, her exploitation of blond buxomness—all these grow pretty tiresome through repetition....[49]

Other prominent reviewers in 1931, like Atkinson, roundly criticized the stage production, calling it a "'clumsy drama'", "'deliberately outlandish'", and labeling West herself as an "'atrocious playwright'".[51] Ultimately, the elaborate play closed on Broadway after just eight weeks and 64 performances.[48] When compared to Diamond Lil, which had run for nine months with 323 performances, The Constant Sinner was critically, financially, and personally a disappointment for West.[52][53] Nevertheless, its notoriety and even its negative reviews further enhanced her public image as a daring, sensational performer and brought her additional widespread media attention. During that time, in the months after the play closed, West decided to put her stage career on hold and to accept a short-term but lucrative contract offer from Paramount Pictures to perform in a feature film in Hollywood.[54]

Motion pictures and censorship[]

"Diamond Lil" returning to New York from California, 1933

In June 1932, after signing a two-month contract with Paramount that provided her a weekly salary of $5,000 ($94,800 today), West left New York by train for California.[55] The veteran stage performer was by then nearly 40 years old, an unusually late age to begin a film career, especially for women, although Paramount certainly never had the slightest intention of casting her as an ingénue. She nonetheless managed to keep her age ambiguous for some time. She made her film debut in the role of Maudie Triplett in Night After Night (1932) starring George Raft, who had suggested West for the part.[55] At first she did not like her small supporting role in the drama, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite portions of her character's dialogue.[56] One of several revisions she made is in her first scene in Night After Night, when a hat-check girl exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds", and West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."[57] Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is reported to have said, "She stole everything but the cameras."[57]

For her next role for Paramount, West brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed "Lady Lou", to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933).[58] The film was one of Cary Grant's early major roles, which boosted his career. West claimed she spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead.[59] She claimed to have told a Paramount director, "If he can talk, I'll take him!" The film was a box office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.[58][60] The success of the film saved Paramount from bankruptcy, grossing over $2 million, the equivalent of $140 million today. Paramount recognizes that debt of gratitude today, with a building on the lot named after West.[61]

West's second film with Cary Grant, I'm No Angel (1933)

Her next release, I'm No Angel (1933), teamed her again with Grant. The film was also a box-office hit and was the most successful of her entire screen career. In the months after its release, references to West could be found almost everywhere, from the song lyrics of Cole Porter, to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural of San Francisco's newly built Coit Tower, to She Done Him Right, a Betty Boop cartoon, to "My Dress Hangs There", a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, paid his own tribute: "West is the most wonderful machine for living I have ever known—unfortunately on the screen only." To F. Scott Fitzgerald, West was especially unique: "The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark." As Variety put it, "Mae West's films have made her the biggest conversation-provoker, free-space grabber, and all-around box office bet in the country. She's as hot an issue as Hitler."[62]

Publicity photo, 1936

By 1933, West was one of the largest box-office draws in the United States[63] and, by 1935, she was also the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst).[64] Hearst invited West to San Simeon, his massive estate in California, where Hollywood celebrities and prominent political and business figures frequently gathered to socialize. "I could'a married him," West later commented, "but I got no time for parties. I don't like those big crowds." On July 1, 1934, the censorship guidelines of the film industry's Production Code began to be meticulously enforced. As a result, West's scripts were subjected to more editing. She, in turn, would often intentionally place extremely risqué lines in her scripts, knowing they would be cut by the censors. She hoped they would then not object as much to her other less suggestive lines. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). The original title, It Ain't No Sin, was changed because of censors' objections.[65] Despite Paramount's early objections regarding costs, West insisted the studio hire Duke Ellington and his orchestra to accompany her in the film's musical numbers. Their collaboration was a success; the classic "My Old Flame" (recorded by Duke Ellington) was introduced in this film. Her next film, Goin' to Town (1935), received mixed reviews, as censorship continued to take its toll by preventing West from including her best lines.[66]

Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1936) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy.[67] Some critics called the film her magnum opus, but not everyone agreed. Press baron and film mogul William Randolph Hearst, ostensibly offended by an off-handed remark West made about his mistress, Marion Davies, sent a private memo to all his editors stating, "That Mae West picture Klondike Annie is a filthy picture... We should have editorials roasting that picture, Mae West, and Paramount... DO NOT ACCEPT ANY ADVERTISING OF THIS PICTURE." At one point, Hearst asked aloud, "Isn't it time Congress did something about the Mae West menace?" Paramount executives felt they had to tone down the West characterization or face further recrimination. "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."[68]

Publicity photo with W. C. Fields for My Little Chickadee (1940)

Around the same time, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man (1936). In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay.[9][69] Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era, because of the censor's cuts.[70]

West next starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. The film performed below its goal. Censorship had made West's sexually suggestive brand of humor impossible for the studios to distribute. West, along with other stellar performers, was put on a list of actors called "Box Office Poison" by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners Association. Others on the list were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn and Kay Francis. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter, and was taken seriously by the fearful studio executives. The association argued that these stars' high salaries and extreme public popularity did not affect their ticket sales, thus hurt the exhibitors. This did not stop producer David O. Selznick, who next offered West the role of the sage madam Belle Watling, the only woman ever to truly understand Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind, after Tallulah Bankhead rejected the role. West also turned down the part, claiming it was too small for an established star and that she would need to rewrite her lines to suit her own persona. The role eventually went to Ona Munson.[71]

A pair of "trick" platform shoes worn by West in films to make her look taller, which also contributed to her unique walk

In 1939, Universal Studios approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. The studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, with a comic vehicle starring West and Fields.[72] Having left Paramount 18 months earlier and looking for a new film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940).[72][73] Despite the stars' intense mutual dislike, Fields's very real drinking problems[74] and fights over the screenplay,[72] My Little Chickadee was a box office hit, outgrossing Fields's previous film, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and the later The Bank Dick (1940). Despite this, religious leaders condemned West as a negative role model, taking offense at lines such as "When I'm caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I never tried".[75]

West's next film was Columbia Pictures' The Heat's On (1943). Initially, she did not want to do the film, but after actor, director and friend Gregory Ratoff (producer Max Fabian in All About Eve) pleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she could not help, West relented as a personal favor.[76] Censors curtailed the sexual burlesque of the West characterization. The studio had orders to raise the neck lines and clean up the double entendres. This was the only film for which West was virtually not allowed to write her own dialogue and, as a result, the film suffered.

Perhaps the most critical, ongoing challenge facing West in her career was censorship of her dialogue. As on Broadway a decade before, by the mid-1930s her risqué and ribald dialogue could no longer be allowed to pass. The Heat's On opened to poor reviews and weak performance at the box office. West was so distraught after the experience and by her years of struggling with the strict Hays Code censorship office, that she would not attempt another film role for the next quarter-century.[77] Instead, West pursued a successful and record-breaking career in top nightclubs, Las Vegas, nationally in theater and on Broadway, where she was allowed, even welcomed, to be herself.

Radio and censorship[]

On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour.[78] By the second half of the 1930s, West's popularity was affected by her dialogue being severely censored. She went on the show eager to promote Every Day's a Holiday.[79] Appearing as herself, West flirted with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's dummy, using her usual brand of wit and risqué sexual references. West referred to Charlie as "all wood and a yard long" and commented, "Charles, I remember our last date, and have the splinters to prove it!"[80] West was on the verge of being banned from radio.

More outrageous still was an NBC sketch written by Arch Oboler, starring Don Ameche and West as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. She tells Ameche to "get me a big one... I feel like doin' a big apple!"[80] This ostensible reference to the then-current dance craze was one of the many double entendres in the dialogue. Days after the broadcast, the studio received letters calling the show "immoral" and "obscene".[81] Several conservative women's clubs and religious groups admonished the show's sponsor, Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company, for "prostituting" their services for allowing "impurity [to] invade the air".[78]

Under pressure, the Federal Communications Commission later deemed the broadcast "vulgar and indecent" and "far below even the minimum standard which should control in the selection and production of broadcast programs".[82] Some debate existed regarding the reaction to the skit. Conservative religious groups took umbrage far more swiftly than the mainstream. These groups found it easy to make West their target. They took exception to her outspoken use of sexuality and sexual imagery, which she had employed in her career since at least the pre-Code films of the early 1930s and for decades before on Broadway, but which was now being broadcast into American living rooms on a popular family-friendly radio program. The groups reportedly warned the sponsor of the program they would protest her appearance.[83]

NBC Radio scapegoated West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations.[84] They claimed it was not the content of the skit, but West's tonal inflections that gave it the controversial context, acting as though they had hired West knowing nothing of her previous work, nor had any idea of how she would deliver the lines written for her by Oboler.[79] West would not perform in radio for a dozen years, until January 1950, in an episode of The Chesterfield Supper Club, which was hosted by Perry Como.[85] Ameche's career did not suffer any serious repercussions, however, as he was playing the "straight" guy. Nonetheless, Mae West went on to enjoy a record-breaking success in Las Vegas, swank nightclubs such as Lou Walters's The Latin Quarter, Broadway, and London.

Middle years[]

Featured in the Los Angeles Times, 1953

After appearing in The Heat's On in 1943, West returned to a very active career on stage and in clubs. Among her popular new stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great (1944) on Broadway, in which she penned a spoof on the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, surrounding herself with an "imperial guard" of tall, muscular young actors.[86] The play was produced by theater and film impresario Mike Todd (Around The World in 80 Days) and ran for 191 performances and then went on tour.[87]

When Mae West revived her 1928 play Diamond Lil, bringing it back to Broadway in 1949, The New York Times labeled her an "American Institution—as beloved and indestructible as Donald Duck. Like Chinatown, and Grant's Tomb, Mae West should be seen at least once." In the 1950s, West starred in her own Las Vegas stage show at the newly opened Sahara Hotel, singing while surrounded by bodybuilders. The show stood Las Vegas on its head. "Men come to see me, but I also give the women something to see: wall to wall men!" West explained.[88] Jayne Mansfield met and later married one of West's muscle men, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay.[89]

When casting about for the role of Norma Desmond for the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder offered West the role. Still smarting from the censorship debacle of The Heat's On, and the constraints placed on her characterization, she declined. The theme of the Wilder film, she noted, was pure pathos, while her brand of comedy was always "about uplifting the audience". Mae West had a unique comic character that was timeless, in the same way Charlie Chaplin did.[90] After Mary Pickford also declined the role, Gloria Swanson was cast.[91]

In subsequent years, West was offered the role of Vera Simpson, opposite Frank Sinatra, in the 1957 film adaptation of Pal Joey, which she turned down, with the role going to Rita Hayworth. In 1964, West was offered a leading role in Roustabout, starring Elvis Presley. She turned the role down, and Barbara Stanwyck was cast in her place. West was also approached for roles in Frederico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon, but rejected both offers.

Television, and the next generations[]

On March 26, 1958, West appeared at the live televised Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson, which received a standing ovation.[92] In 1959, she released an autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, which became a best seller and was reprinted with a new chapter in 1970.[93][self-published source?] West guest-starred on television, including The Dean Martin Show in 1959 and The Red Skelton Show in 1960, to promote her autobiography, and a lengthy interview on Person to Person with Charles Collingwood in 1959, which never aired. CBS executives felt members of the television audience were not ready to see a nude marble statue of West, which rested on her piano. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on the sitcom Mister Ed.[94] Much later, in 1976, she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang two songs on his "Back Lot U.S.A." special on CBS.

Recording career[]

West's recording career started in the early 1930s with releases of her film songs on shellac 78 rpm records. Most of her film songs were released as 78s, as well as sheet music. In 1955, she recorded her first album, The Fabulous Mae West. In 1965, she recorded two songs, "Am I Too Young" and "He's Good For Me", for a 45 rpm record released by Plaza Records. She recorded several tongue-in-cheek songs, including "Santa, Come Up to See Me",[95] on the album Wild Christmas,[96] which was released in 1966 and reissued as Mae in December in 1980.[97][self-published source?] 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 on MGM Records and titled Great Balls of Fire, covered songs by The Doors, among others, and had songs written for West by English songwriter-producer Ian Whitcomb.

Later years[]

After a 27-year absence from motion pictures, West appeared as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. The movie was intended to be deliberately campy sex change comedy, but had serious production problems, resulting in a botched film that was both a box-office and critical failure. Author Vidal, at great odds with inexperienced and self-styled "art film" director Michael Sarne, later called the film "an awful joke".[98] Though Mae West was given star billing to attract ticket buyers, her scenes were truncated by the inexperienced film editor, and her songs were filmed as though they were merely side acts. Mae West's counterculture appeal (she was dubbed "the queen of camp"), included the young and hip, and by 1971, the student body of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) voted Mae West "Woman of the Century" in honor of her relevance as a pioneering advocate of sexual frankness and courageous crusader against censorship.[99]

In 1975, West released her book Sex, Health, and ESP (William Allen & Sons, publisher), and Pleasure Man (Dell publishers) based on her 1928 play of the same name.[100] Her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, was also updated and republished in the 1970s.[101]

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 appeared on Back Lot U.S.A. on CBS, where she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang "Frankie and Johnny" along with "After You've Gone."[102][self-published source?] That same year, she began work on her final film, Sextette (1978). Adapted from a 1959 script written by West, the film's daily revisions and production disagreements hampered production from the beginning.[103] Because of the near-endless last-minute script changes and tiring production schedule, West agreed to have her lines signaled to her through a speaker concealed in her hair piece.[104] Despite the daily problems, West was, according to Sextette director Ken Hughes, determined to see the film through. At 84, her now-failing eyesight made navigating around the set difficult, but she made it through the filming, a tribute to her self-confidence, remarkable endurance, and stature as a self-created star 67 years after her Broadway debut in 1911 at the age of 18. Time magazine wrote an article on the indomitable star entitled "At 84, Mae West Is Still Mae West".[104][105]

Upon its release, Sextette was not a critical or commercial success, but has a diverse cast. The cast included some of West's first co-stars such as George Raft (Night After Night, 1932), silver screen stars such as Walter Pidgeon and Tony Curtis, and more contemporary pop stars such as The Beatles' Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper, and television favorites such as Dom DeLuise and gossip queen Rona Barrett. It also included cameos of some of her musclemen from her 1950s Las Vegas show, such as the still remarkably fit Reg Lewis. Sextette also reunited Mae West with Edith Head, her costume designer from 1933 in She Done Him Wrong.[106]

For her contribution to the film industry, Mae West has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood. For her contributions as a stage actor in the theater world, she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[107][108] West's was among that of hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[109]

Personal life[]

Photographed in her Los Angeles apartment by Allan Warren, 1973

West was married on April 11, 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Frank Szatkus (1892–1966),[110] whose stage name was Frank Wallace,[111] a fellow vaudevillian whom she met in 1909. She was 17.[112] She kept the marriage a secret,[113] but a filing clerk discovered the marriage certificate in 1935 and alerted the press.[114] The clerk also uncovered an affidavit in which she had declared herself married, made during the Sex trial in 1927.[115] At first, West denied ever marrying Wallace, but she finally admitted it in July 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory.[116] The couple never lived together as husband and wife. She insisted that they had separate bedrooms, and she soon sent him away in a show of his own to get rid of him. She obtained a legal divorce on July 21, 1942, during which Wallace withdrew his request for separate maintenance, and West testified that Wallace and she had lived together for only "several weeks".[117] The final divorce decree was granted on May 7, 1943.[118]

In August 1913, she met Guido Deiro (1886–1950), an Italian-born vaudeville headliner and piano-accordion star. Her affair, and possible 1914 marriage to him, as alleged by Deiro's son Guido Roberto Deiro in his 2019 book Mae West and The Count, went "very deep, hittin' on all the emotions". According to the American Masters documentary Mae West: Dirty Blonde, West aborted Deiro's child on the advice of her mother, the procedure nearly killing her and leaving her infertile. The younger Deiro said that his father was devastated when he learned about the abortion and ended the relationship.[119] West later said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution."[120]

In 1916, when she was a vaudeville actress, West had a relationship with James Timony (1884–1954), an attorney nine years her senior. Timony was also her manager. By the time that she was an established movie actress in the mid-1930s, they were no longer a couple. West and Timony remained extremely close, living in the same building, working together, and providing support for each other until Timony's death in 1954.[121]

West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930.[122] In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at The Ravenswood apartment building where she lived until her death in 1980.[123] Her sister, brother, and father followed her to Hollywood where she provided them with nearby homes, jobs, and sometimes financial support.[124] Among her boyfriends was boxing champion William Jones, nicknamed Gorilla Jones (1906–1982). The management at her Ravenswood apartment building barred the African American boxer from entering the premises; West solved the problem by buying the building and lifting the ban.[125]

She became romantically involved at age 61 with Chester Rybinski (1923–1999), one of the muscle men in her Las Vegas stage show—a wrestler, former Mr. California, and former merchant sailor.[126][127] He was 30 years younger than she, and later changed his name to Paul Novak. He moved in with her, and their romance continued until her death in 1980 at age 87.[126][128] Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West."[129] West was a Presbyterian.[130][131]

West would sometimes speak of "Mae West" as the entertainment character she had created.[132]


West family crypt at Cypress Hills Cemetery, with Mae at top

In August 1980, West tripped while getting out of bed. After the fall she was unable to speak and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke.[132] She died on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87.[133][134]

A private service was held at the church in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, on November 25, 1980.[135][136] Bishop Andre Penachio, a friend, officiated at the entombment in the family mausoleum at Cypress Hills Abbey, Brooklyn, purchased in 1930 when her mother died. Her father and brother were also entombed there before her, and her younger sister, Beverly, was laid to rest in the last of the five crypts less than 18 months after West's death.[106][137][138]

In popular culture[]

  • In the 1937 film Stand-In, the stage mother (Anne O'Neal) who has her young daughter (Marianne Edwards) auditioning for Dodd (Leslie Howard) tells her: "Now, do the Mae West number".[139]
  • Within New York State, an electrical conduit hanger strap is commonly referred to as a "Mae West".
  • During World War II, Allied aircrews called their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" partly from rhyming slang for "breasts"[140] and "life vests" and partly because of the resemblance to her torso. A "Mae West" is also a type of round parachute malfunction (partial inversion) which contorts the shape of the canopy into the appearance of an extraordinarily large brassiere.[141]
  • West has been the subject of songs, including the title song of Cole Porter's Broadway musical Anything Goes and in "You're the Top".[142]
  • Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí painted works entitled "Face of Mae West which may be Used as an Apartment", and the Mae West Lips Sofa, which was also by Salvador Dalí and completed in 1938 for Edward James.[143]
  • When approached for permission to allow her likeness on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, West initially refused, asking "What would I be doing in a Lonely Heart's Club?" The Beatles wrote her a personal letter declaring themselves great admirers of the star and persuaded her to change her mind.[144]
  • Throughout Wild Side Story (1973–2004) a large amount of Mae West comedy lines intersperse the action to spice up the parody.[145][146][147][148]
  • In 2000 Dirty Blonde, written by Claudia Shear, opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater.[149]
  • MAE-West – "Metropolitan Area Exchange, West", a former Internet exchange point on the west coast of the United States, with a corresponding MAE-East exchange point.[150]
  • In 2016, Mae West was portrayed by drag star Alaska in the second episode of the second season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars.[151]
  • In 2017, Mae West was the subject of an episode of the TV comedy series Over My Dead Body on Amazon Prime.[152]
  • West was the subject of the 2020 PBS documentary Mae West: Dirty Blonde as part of their American Masters series. The documentary was produced by Bette Midler.[153]
  • A May West is a Canadian dessert cake named after West. In the 1980s the spelling was changed from Mae West to May West. The snack is still very popular in Quebec, Eastern and Southern Ontario.[154]

Broadway stage[]

Broadway stage
Date Production Role Notes Ref.
September 22, 1911 – September 30, 1911 A La Broadway Maggie O'Hara [155]
November 20, 1911 – February 24, 1912 Vera Violetta West left the show during previews [155]
April 11, 1912 – September 7, 1912 A Winsome Widow Le Petite Daffy West left show after opening night [155]
October 4, 1918 – June 1919 Sometime Mayme Dean [155]
August 17, 1921 – September 10, 1921 The Mimic World of 1921 [155]
April 26, 1926 – March 1927 Sex Margie LaMont Written by Jane Mast (West), West was jailed for 8 days because of the play's content. [155]
January 1927 The Drag Closed during out-of-town tryouts (Bridgeport, Connecticut)
credited only as writer
November 1927 The Wicked Age Evelyn ("Babe") Carson [155]
April 9, 1928 – September 1928 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil [155]
October 1, 1928 – October 2, 1928 The Pleasure Man Credited only as writer [155]
September 14, 1931 – November 1931 The Constant Sinner Babe Gordon [155]
August 2, 1944 – January 13, 1945 Catherine Was Great Catherine II [155]
1945–46 Come on Up Tour [157]
September 1947 – May 1948 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Revival) United Kingdom [155]
February 5, 1949 – February 26, 1949 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Second revival) until West broke her ankle on the latter date
The play resumed as a "return engagement"
September 7, 1949 – January 21, 1950 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Second revival) as "return engagement" [155]
September 14, 1951 – November 10, 1951 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Third Revival) [155]
July 7, 1961 – closing date unknown Sextette Edgewater Beach Playhouse [158]
Other plays as writer
Year Title Notes Ref.
1921 The Ruby Ring Vaudeville playlet [159]
1922 The Hussy Unproduced [160]
1930 Frisco Kate Unproduced, later produced as the 1936 film Klondike Annie [161]
1933 Loose Women Performed in 1935 under title Ladies By Request [162]
1936 Clean Beds Sold treatment to George S. George, who produced
an unsuccessful Broadway play of West's treatment


Year Film Role Writer(s) Co-stars Director Studio
1932 Night After Night Maudie Triplett Story: Louis Bromfield
Screenplay: Vincent Lawrence
Continuity: Kathryn Scola
Additional dialogue (uncredited): Mae West
George Raft
Constance Cummings
Wynne Gibson
Archie Mayo Paramount Pictures
1933 She Done Him Wrong Lady Lou Screenplay: Harvey F. Thew and John Bright
Based on the play Diamond Lil by Mae West
Cary Grant
Owen Moore
Gilbert Roland
Lowell Sherman
I'm No Angel Tira Story, Screenplay and All Dialogue: Mae West
Suggestions: Lowell Brentano
Continuity: Harlan Thompson
Cary Grant
Gregory Ratoff
Edward Arnold
Wesley Ruggles
1934 Belle of the Nineties Ruby Carter Mae West Roger Pryor
Johnny Mack Brown
Katherine DeMille
Leo McCarey
1935 Goin' to Town Cleo Borden Screenplay: Mae West
Story: Marion Morgan and George B. Dowell
Paul Cavanagh
Gilbert Emery
Marjorie Gateson
Alexander Hall
1936 Klondike Annie The Frisco Doll
Rose Carlton
Sister Annie Alden
Screenplay: Mae West
Story: Marion Morgan and George B. Dowell
And material suggested by Frank Mitchell Dazey
Victor McLaglen
Phillip Reed
Helen Jerome Eddy
Raoul Walsh
Go West, Young Man Mavis Arden Screenplay: Mae West
Based on the play Personal Appearance by Lawrence Riley
Warren William
Randolph Scott
Alice Brady
Henry Hathaway
1937 Every Day's a Holiday Peaches O'Day Mae West Edmund Lowe
Charles Butterworth
Charles Winninger
A. Edward Sutherland
1940 My Little Chickadee Flower Belle Lee Mae West and W. C. Fields W. C. Fields
Joseph Calleia
Dick Foran
Edward F. Cline Universal Pictures
1943 The Heat's On Fay Lawrence Fitzroy Davis & George S. George and Fred Schiller Victor Moore
William Gaxton
Lester Allen
Gregory Ratoff Columbia Pictures
1970 Myra Breckinridge Leticia Van Allen Screenplay: Michael Sarne and David Giler
Based on the novel by Gore Vidal
Raquel Welch
John Huston
Farrah Fawcett
Michael Sarne 20th Century Fox
1978 Sextette Marlo Manners
Lady Barrington
Screenplay: Herbert Baker
Based on the play by Mae West
Timothy Dalton
Dom DeLuise
Tony Curtis
Ken Hughes Crown International Pictures



  • 1956: The Fabulous Mae West; Decca D/DL-79016 (several reissues up to 2006)
  • 1960: W.C. Fields His Only Recording Plus 8 Songs by Mae West; Proscenium PR 22
  • 1966: Way Out West; Tower T/ST-5028
  • 1966: Wild Christmas; Dragonet LPDG-48
  • 1970: The Original Voice Tracks from Her Greatest Movies; Decca D/DL-791/76
  • 1970: Mae West & W.C. Fields Side by Side; Harmony HS 11374/HS 11405
  • 1972: Great Balls of Fire; MGM SE 4869
  • 1974: Original Radio Broadcasts; Mark 56 Records 643
  • 1987/1995: Sixteen Sultry Songs Sung by Mae West Queen of Sex; Rosetta RR 1315
  • 1996: I'm No Angel; Jasmine CD 04980 102
  • 2006: The Fabulous: Rev-Ola CR Rev 181

At least 21 singles (78 rpm and 45 rpm) were released from 1933 to 1973.

Written works[]

  • West, Mae (1930). Babe Gordon. The Macaulay Company. (the novel on which The Constant Sinner was based)
  • West, Mae (1932). Diamond Lil Man. Caxton House. (novelization of play)
  • West, Mae; Weintraub, Joseph (1967). The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West. G.P. Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-50549-2.
  • West, Mae (1970) [1959]. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-1-86049-034-7.
  • West, Mae (1975). Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP. W.H. Allen. ISBN 978-0-491-01613-1.
  • West, Mae (1975). Pleasure Man. Dell Pub. Co. ISBN 978-0-440-07074-0.
  • West, Mae; Schlissel, Lillian (1997). Three Plays: Sex/The Drag/The Pleasure Man. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-90933-4.

See also[]

  • P vip.svg Biography portal


  1. ^ "Mae West Biography, Plays, Movies, & Facts". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 1, 2021.
  2. ^ Doherty, Thomas (2009). Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. ISBN 978-0-231-14359-2.
  3. ^ "Actress Mae West Sentenced for 'Sex'". History Channel. Retrieved October 19, 2016.
  4. ^ Weekes, Karen (2011). Women Know Everything!. Quirk Books. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-59474-545-4.
  5. ^ "Mae West Biographical Timeline". PBS. May 28, 2020. Retrieved July 8, 2020.
  6. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. [1]. ISBN 978-0-688-00816-1. p 20 re: 1900 U.S. census
  7. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 5.
  8. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-306-80951-4.
  9. ^ Jump up to: a b Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  10. ^ West, Mae (1959). Goodness Had Nothing to Do With it. Prentice-Hall. p. 1.
  11. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-306-80951-4.
  12. ^ "The religion of Mae West, actress". Archived from the original on June 17, 2019. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  13. ^ Gross, Max (February 6, 2004). "Playwright Examines Mae West's Legal Dramas". Retrieved November 22, 2008.
  14. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-0-306-80951-4.
  15. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  16. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-306-80951-4.
  17. ^ Jump up to: a b Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West. William Morrow & Co. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-688-00816-1.
  18. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 6.
  19. ^ 1870, 1880, 1900 US censuses.
  20. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 12, 289. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  21. ^ amNew York, Thursday, September 5, 2013, p. 23.
  22. ^ Colangelo, Lisa L. (June 22, 2010). "Woodhaven bar Neir's Tavern gets a time-machine fix up". Daily News. New York. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  23. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 16, 18. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  24. ^ Louvish 2006, pp. 9–10.
  25. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 23, 170. ISBN 978-0-688-00816-1.
  26. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 38, 170. ISBN 978-0-688-00816-1.
  27. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. pp. 122–23. ISBN 978-0-306-80951-4.
  28. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 18.
  29. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  30. ^ Maurice Leonard. Mae West Empress of Sex. ISBN 0-00-637471-9; pp. 33–34
  31. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 50.
  32. ^ Biery, Ruth, "The Private Life of Mae West: Part One", Movie Classic, January 1934, pp. 106–08
  33. ^ Tuska, Jon (1992). The Complete Films of Mae West. Citadel Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0-8065-1359-1.
  34. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 78.
  35. ^ Stenham, Polly (July 5, 2017). "Brutal! Vulgar! Dirty! Mae West and the gay comedy that shocked 1920s America". The Guardian. Retrieved March 1, 2020.
  36. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 88–89. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  37. ^ Jump up to: a b Bunyan, Patrick (1999). All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities. Fordham University Press. p. 317. ISBN 978-0-8232-1941-4.
  38. ^ Schlissel, Lillian; West, Mae (1997). Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-415-90933-4.
  39. ^ Hamilton, Marybeth (1997). When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. University of California Press. pp. 57, 67. ISBN 978-0-520-21094-3.
  40. ^ Chauncey, George (1995). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. Basic Books. p. 312. ISBN 978-0-465-02621-0.
  41. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 66–68. ISBN 978-0-688-00816-1.
  42. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 299. ISBN 978-0-19-516112-0.
  43. ^ West, Mae. "Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It". Internet Archive. p. 94.
  44. ^ West, Mae. Mae West on Sex, Health, and ESP. London and New York: W. H. Allen, 1975, p. 43.[ISBN missing]
  45. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. p. 1187. ISBN 978-0-415-93853-2.
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  47. ^ Eells and Musgrove, pp. 223, 228-229.
  48. ^ Jump up to: a b "The Constant Sinner", Internet Broadway Database (IMDB), The Broadway League, Manhattan, New York. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  49. ^ Jump up to: a b "J. B" (J. Brooks Atkinson). "THE PLAY/Mae West in New Scarlet Role/The Constant Sinner", The New York Times (Manhattan), 15 September 1931, p. 30. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Ann Arbor, Michigan; subscription access through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
  50. ^ Louvish, p. 187.
  51. ^ Eells and Musgrove, pp. 97–98. IA. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  52. ^ "Diamond Lil", IMDb. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  53. ^ Leonard.pp. 98–104.
  54. ^ Leonard, pp. 102–03.
  55. ^ Jump up to: a b Leonard, p. 103.
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  65. ^ Doherty, Thomas Patrick (1999). Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American cinema, 1930–1934. Columbia University Press. p. 338. ISBN 978-0-231-11095-2.
  66. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 279.
  67. ^ Black, Gregory D. (1996). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 228, 229. ISBN 978-0-521-56592-9.
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  74. ^ Curtis, James (2003). W.C. Fields: A Biography. A.A. Knopf. p. 399. ISBN 978-0-375-40217-3.
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  76. ^ Tuska, Jon (1992). The Complete Films of Mae West. Citadel Press. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-8065-1359-1.
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  85. ^ Curry, Ramona (1996). Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. U of Minnesota Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-8166-2791-2.
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  95. ^ album cover
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  100. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 463.
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  111. ^ Article by Frank Boyett in The Gleaner November 26, 2016
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  114. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press. pp. 201–02.
  115. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 283.
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  117. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 350.
  118. ^ Louvish 2006, p. 351.
  119. ^ "Mae West: Dirty Blonde" American Masters (requires PBS Passport membership to view)
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