She was a tiny lady, barely five foot tall. It was more than her trademark Gay ‘90’s plumed hats that made her seem much bigger. It was a bold, brassy, and irreverent persona that challenged everything puritanical America valued in submissive, sexless, and dependent womanhood.
It took decades, but by the time she died the culture had caught up with her. Yet the feminists of those latter days were hardly grateful. They could only see a woman who marketed herself as a sex object. Those feminists had more in common with the puritans than they would ever like to admit.
Mary Jane West was born on August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Irish Catholic and Scotch Irish Presbyterian on the other had been a prize fighter and was then a “special policeman” and detective with his own small agency. In the language of the time, that meant that he spent most of his time as a strike breaker. Her mother was an immigrant from Bavaria and may have been part Jewish. She was a striking woman who among other occupations had been a corset and fashion model. It was a close, supportive family raising three surviving children, who were raised, if not entirely seriously, as Protestants.
Mary Jane showed early promise as a singer and mimic who entertained her family and was competing—and winning—talent contests by the time she was 7. She may have gotten in some high school education—records at Erasmus Hall are missing. At any rate, she dropped out by the age of 14 and was appearing in vaudeville as Baby May with the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907.
In vaudeville over the next few years she tried out various acts, including as a male impersonator and in a blackface “coon show.” Already comfortable with the free sexual atmosphere of the theater and tolerance for what would today be called alternative life styles, Mae West, now filling out as a buxom young woman, copied her famous swaying-hips walk from female impersonator pals.
In 1911 she appeared in a small roll in a short lived Broadway revue, but caught the notice of critics before the show folded after only 11 performances. For the next few years she would alternate between Broadway revues, none of them notable, and the vaudeville circuit where she was becoming a star.
West began writing her own material for her vaudeville act and crafting a recognizable wise cracking, world weary character of questionable conventional morality. She found the harder she pushed, the greater the gasps and laughs. By 1921 she had written an extended skit—more like a one act play—The Ruby Ring and taken on the circuit.
But West wanted more, much more. With a devoted audience cultivated in vaudeville—today we would call it a cult following—she was finally able to break on to Broadway as the star of her own show in 1926 at the age of 34. Written under the nom de plume Jane Mast, she also produced and directed the boldly titled Sex. Despite bad reviews and hand wringing by newspaper editorial moralists, the play ran to packed houses for 375 performances before the theater was raided and West was arrested with her entire cast for public indecency. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail and fined $500. But the case made her instantly famous far beyond New York.
Her next play in 1927, The Drag, which as the title suggests dealt with cross-dressing and homosexual themes, only made it to out of town try-outs after New York officials made it clear that they would close any theater in which it opened and prosecute cast and patrons alike.
During her long climb to “sudden” fame, West had a colorful, if secretive, personal life. In 19ll she married fellow vaudevillian Frank Szatkus, known by the stage name of Frank Wallace while on tour in Milwaukee. The marriage was kept secret and not acknowledged until investigative reporting turned up the marriage certificate in 1934. West claimed that the two were “friends” who had never shared a bed and lived together for convenience only for a few weeks. After the marriage came to light, Szatkus, who she had not seen or heard from in years, resurfaced and tried to claim his share of the “marital assets.” Some kind of pay-off was privately arranged and a divorce was finalized in 1943.
It may not have been West’s only marriage, however. Although no firm documentation has been found some family members claim that she married Italian accordionist Guido Deiro in 1913 or 14. In her autobiography she acknowledged an affair, “…deep, hittin’ on all the emotions. You can’t get too hot over anybody unless there’s somethin’ that goes along with the sex act, can you?” The two managed to synchronize their booking and traveled together until they broke up in 1916.
That was about the time West took up with lawyer James Timony, who was fifteen years her senior. Timony became her business manager and the two remained close all of their lives, long after the romance had ended. When he died in 1953 Timony was still living in the same building as West.
Sexually voracious, West took many lovers including Black middleweight boxing champion William “Gorilla” Jones who continued his association with her as her friend and chauffeur until her death. Many of her former lovers like Timony and Jones maintained long lasting personal relationships with the star.
West returned to Broadway with another original play, The Wicked Age which was greeted by more controversy, threats of arrest and packed houses.
Then in 1928 West opened the play that truly defined her image as a Gay ‘90’s temptress—Diamond Lil. It was a play she would revive frequently in her long career, last playing it on Broadway in 1951 at the age of 58. She followed it up with two more hit shows, The Pleasure Man and Constant Sinner.
By this time Hollywood converting to talking pictures and bringing plays to the screen and the Broadway stars who knew how to speak. But West was considered too controversial to touch even in the any-thing-goes days before the Hayes Office imposed its vanilla sensibilities on films.
West never got the call to go to California until a former hoofer in her shows, and likely also a lover, George Raft, convinced his bosses at Paramount to offer her a two week contract to appear in a supporting role in his film Night After Night. She re-wrote her lines as the Texas Guinan inspired night club hostess. The most famous exchanged occurred when a star struck hat check girl exclaimed, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” and West replied, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
Raft later admiringly said of her performance, “She stole everything but the cameras.”
The film was a huge hit for the shaky studio which decided it was worth taking a chance on the now 38 year old sex goddess.
In 1933 West’s first film under a star contract to Paramount was She Done Him Wrong, based on her own screenplay. She played Lady Lou, a thinly disguised version of Diamond Lil. She personally picked and extraordinarily handsome young British actor to play opposite her as a Salvation Army officer/secret agent. The film helped launch Cary Grant’s career. It also made more the $2 million at the box office with a production cost of only $200,000 saving the studio from looming bankruptcy. Despite often harsh reviews, it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Outstanding Production—the award now known as Best Picture.
Both West and Paramount were eager to follow up on the success. She was paired with Grant again in another of her original screenplays, I’m No Angel. The dialogue with an avalanche of sexual double entendres thrilled audiences which made it the biggest box office hit of 1933. It also made West the best paid actress in Hollywood, and reputably the second highest paid person in the United States behind only publishing tycoon William Randolph Hurst.
But the two films also brought down a torrent of protest, particularly from the Catholic Legion of Decency which had been instrumental in getting the film industry to adopt a new Production Code. But the new Code had not been rigorously enforced. Now the head of the office designated to enforce the Code, Will Hayes, used West’s films to vigorously impose his standards over the entire industry. Overnight a new prudery reigned.
West’s new films came in for particular attention. Hayes poured over scripts and reviewed footage stripping most of the punch from West’s dialogues and even demanding changes to situations and character names. And sometimes when he was done a New York City censorship panel would make even more changes.
The predictable result was disappointment for fans and waning box office receipts for Belle of the Nineties, and Goin’ to Tow. In 1936’s Klondike Annie West tried to take on themes of religious hypocrisy, sure to draw Hayes office scrutiny. Despite heavy bowdlerization, enough tang remained to convince critics that it was West’s best performance.
But it didn’t stop the box office slide that continued through Go West Young Man opposite Randolph Scott, her first film not based on her own story and script, although she did, as always, contribute dialogue. In 1938 Paramount ended her contract after the luke warm reception of Every Day is a Holiday and her inclusion on an infamous list of stars thought to be box office poison by an association of theater owners.
It was 18 months before West would go before the cameras again. She was lured to another struggling studio, Columbia, to be paired with one if it's biggest stars, W.C. Fields. The two stars detested each other from the beginning, in no small part because each was used to writing their own material. West wrote the first draft of the screenplay featuring her familiar persona recast as Flower Bell Lee. Fields wrote one extended bar room scene in which she did not appear and some other gag lines. But the studio credited them equally with the screen play. The film was the biggest hit either star had in years, but West flatly refused to team up with Fields again.
West made one last film, the box office dud The Heat is On, released in 1943. She did not return to the screen again until 1977.
Even though she had been one of the highest paid stars in town, and often was as showered by jewelry and gifts by admirers as the characters she played, West spent lavishly and was in need of a steady income as her film career wound to a close. An obvious possibility was radio where many stars were working and pulling down big salaries. Earlier in the ‘30’s she had been a popular guest on comedy variety shows.
But on a 1937 broadcast of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s top rated program, West said dummy Charlie McCarthy was “all wood and a yard long.” She followed that with an Adam and Eve sketch with Don Ameche liberally scattered with her double entendres including the line, “get me a big one... I feel like doin’ a big apple!” West’s old nemeses, Catholic purity groups flooded NBC with complaints and threatened to boycott Bergen’s sponsor, Chase and Sandborn Coffee. The recently formed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched its first ever indecency investigation against the network.
NBC deflected all of the blame to West and announced that they were banning her for life from all of their programs and even forbidding references to her name. Other networks quietly fell into line and West was effectively black balled from radio. She did not return to the airways again until Perry Como gave her a guest shot in 1950. Even after that as the nation entered the highly repressed ‘50’s West seldom was tapped for either radio or the infant medium of television.
West, however, was as plucky and resilient as her characters. Frozen out of two media, she simply returned to the waiting, willing, and welcoming arms of Broadway. More than twenty years after her last performance she starred in another hit show, Catherine Was Great in 1944 surrounding herself with muscular young actors playing dashing Russian courtiers and soldiers. She would make handsome, husky, shirtless men a permanent feature of her act.
Through the late ‘40’s to 1950 she followed up with no less than three and a half revivals of her most famous play, Diamond Lil. The first was in London in 1947. Back on Broadway the half came after she broke her ankle in early 1949 and had to close down production. When the show re-opened a few months later it was advertised as “return engagement.” That production closed in February 1950, but an entirely new production opened again in September of the same years. Apparently audiences could not get enough of the nearly 60 year old sex symbol.
In 1950 writer/director Billy Wilder briefly considered West as his first choice to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. He declined to offer her the part when he realized that “…she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she had ever been.
Instead West turned in a different direction. She became one of the first big name stars to mount a long running show in Las Vegas. The show featured elaborate sets and costumes and a chorus of body builders in loincloths.
New generations of blond bombshells viewed Mae West as an inspiration. Marilyn Monroe studied her. So did Jayne Mansfield, who became something of a protégé—one of the few women West ever became close too. Mansfield even married on of West’s muscle men, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitey.
West herself began a relationship with another one, Chester Rybonski who took the stage name Paul Novak. She was 61, he was 30. The relationship lasted the rest of West’s life. Novak became yet another of her life-long servant/admirers. He later told reporters, “I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West.”
In 1958 the Motion Picture Academy, almost in defiance of the prevailing bluenose atmosphere, let Mae sing Baby It’s Cold Outside with the top heart throb of the year, Rock Hudson on the Oscar broadcast.
West published her bestselling autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It the next year. Every word of it may not have been gospel truth—Cary Grant, for instance bristled at her assertion that she had discovered him on the lot when he had already appeared in one hit film with Marlene Dietrich—but every paragraph crackled with wit and charm.
She tried to introduce herself to new, younger audiences, releasing two rock and roll albums in the late ‘60’s Way Out West and a holiday offering Wild Christmas. The records may have been little more than a curiosity, but cultural developments were conspiring to bring her back into the lime light.
With the introduction birth control pills in the early ‘60’s, the sexual revolution was on. Suddenly West’s once brazen open sexuality, refusal to be tied down by marriage or children, and gleeful embrace of multiple partners, were being advanced in Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan as the liberating edge of the culture. Mae West could have been the original Cosmo Girl.
Second was the sudden discovery of irony, which had apparently been buried in the American psyche for centuries. Irony led to a re-assessment of cultural icons. This development was called camp. And suddenly Mae West was the Queen of Camp. Her old films were being shown in big city art house cinemas and on college campuses. Her expanded autobiography was re-issued and was once again a best seller. She regaled talk show hosts like Dick Cavet with her stories and the same saucy jokes she had been telling for more than 50 years.
In 1970 West returned to the screen in perhaps the highest of high camp films, Gore Vidal’s gender bending Myra Breckenridge with Raquel Welsh and Rex Reed. West played Letitia Van Allen, an ancient Hollywood talent scout who runs an acting agency for leading men only. The film was panned by critics and a failure at the box office. Famous stars whose old film clips were used to punctuate bawdy jokes were horrified and litigious. The highly religious Loretta Young sued to have her image erased from the X-rated film. The Nixon White House pressured 20th Century Fox to remove clips of Shirley Temple who was then serving as Ambassador to Ghana. Even Gore Vidal himself disowned he film. It still shows up on lists of the worst pictures of all time. Yet it was also embraced by a cult audience who loved all things camp.
Unfazed by the reception of the film and likely glorying at being once again the center of outrage and controversy, West just rolled on. Mid decade she released yet another rock and roll album, Great Balls of Fire featuring cover of rock classics from Jerry Lee Lewis to the Doors. She published a tongue-in-cheek self help book—cashing in on another cultural phenomena—Mae West On Sex, Health and ESP.
She had one more ambitious film project, Sextette based on her own 1961 play. Her leading man was dashing Timothy Dalton, soon to be James Bond and Tony Curtis was a former lover. West played the same sexual object of desire as she always had, perhaps in middle age, not as an octogenarian. But during filming her health failed. She had trouble with her lines, which had to be fed to her through an ear piece hidden under her wig. She often seemed confused and could not even navigate around the set with ease. Eventually the director shot her from the waste up and an assistant on hands and knees maneuvered her across the set. Predictably, the film was a failure.
West had probably been experiencing mini-strokes all through the 1978 shooting. Afterwards, her health began to fail and she was confined to her lavish apartment and the kind ministrations of Paul Novak and other devoted friends.
In August of 1980 she suffered a stroke and fell while getting out of bed. She was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital where she suffered a second stroke a few days later and was paralyzed on the right side. She made a recovery, but her days were numbered. She was released to her home and died there on November 22, 1980 at age 87.
After a private Hollywood funeral, west was returned to New York where she was entombed with her parents and siblings at Cyprus Hills Abbey in Brooklyn.