Mae West

This article is about the actress. For the WWII life preserver see Mae West (life preserver).

Mae West (August 17, 1893November 22, 1980) was an American actress and playwright.

She was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John Patrick West and Matilda Delker Doelger. Her younger sister and brother were Mildred West, called Beverly, and John Edwin West.

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Mae West

Mae West started performing in vaudeville at the age of five. By the time she was twelve she was doing burlesque under the name "The Baby Vamp." Though she had not yet grown into her generous curves, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was already raising eyebrows with a lascivious "shimmy" dance.

Eventually, she started writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play she titled Sex, which was written, produced and directed by West. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials, however. The theatre was raided and West was arrested along with everyone else in the cast.

She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated on Welfare Island, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue. She served eight days, with two days off for good behavior.

West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue. She was also an early advocate of gay rights, pleading against police brutality against homosexuals by saying, "A homosexual is a woman's soul in a man's body. You're hitting a woman."

After being released from jail, she set to work on her next creative effort. Her second play was about homosexuality and was titled The Drag. It was a success, but audiences had to go to New Jersey to see it because it was banned from Broadway. She continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and other problems, however. If they did not get shut down for indecency, they closed because of slow ticket sales.

For her next adventure into theatre she had a Broadway hit, Diamond Lil (1928), about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s. The show struck box-office gold and heralded the brazen, wisecracking blonde to new heights of fame. It enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would successfully revive it many times through the course of her career.

In 1932, she was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount. She signed and went to Hollywood to appear in Night After Night starring George Raft. Upon her arrival, she moved into an apartment in the Ravenswood at 570 North Rossmore Avenue, not far from the studio on Melrose Avenue. She maintained a residence there for the rest of her life.

At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her lines. In her first scene, a coat check girl exclaimed, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West became an instant sensation when she replied, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."

She brought Diamond Lil, now Lady Lou, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933), personally selecting Cary Grant for the male lead, a role that made him a star. The movie was a huge success and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

In 1934, the Hays Office emerged to enforce censorship of movies and her scripts began to be heavily edited. Her answer was to increase the double-entendre, saying phrases with risqué connotations that could also be taken to mean something else.

West starred in eight movies for Paramount before their association came to an end. Two years later, she starred opposite W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (1940) at Universal.

During World War II, allied soldiers called their inflatable life jackets "Mae Wests" because of its resemblance to her curvaceous torso.

She was apparently married April 11, 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian, who in 1942 showed up in Hollywood with a marriage certificate. She denied ever marrying him, and records showed she had never lived with him, but she still found it necessary to seek a legal divorce.

West appeared in her last movie during the studio age with The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia. She remained active during the ensuing years, however. Among her stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great on Broadway. She also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show surrounded by bodybuilders and singing to delighted crowds, which included a large number of gay men. Many celebrities attended West's show, including Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Liberace, and Jayne Mansfield (who met and married West's muscle man Mickey Hargitay, getting him fired).

On radio, West appeared on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's show and did a sexy sketch with Bergen's dummy, Charlie McCarthy, based on Adam and Eve, that shocked the listening audience. She was banned from the airwaves for several years.

In 1958, she wrote her autobiography titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It.

In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded a Rock and Roll album titled "Great Balls of Fire," which covered songs by Elvis Presley and The Beatles, among others. She also recorded a number of parody songs, including "Santa, Come Up and See Me Sometime."

With Tom Selleck in Myra Breckinridge
With Tom Selleck in Myra Breckinridge

West also appeared on television talk shows and, in the early 1960s, she guest starred as herself on the popular television series Mister Ed.

After an absence of almost thirty years from the silver screen, she appeared in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with John Huston, Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. It failed.

At the age of eighty-five, West returned in her last movie, Sextette (1978) with Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, and George Hamilton, with Rona Barrett, Walter Pidgeon, and George Raft. It was also amusingly terrible and failed at the box-office, despite the fact that before its release large photographs of her reclining on a chaise longue went up on billboards all over Hollywood proclaiming, "Mae West Is Coming."

In November 1980, she suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital, but the prognosis was not good and she was sent home. She died at home in the Ravenswood apartment building on Rossmore Avenue. She is entombed in the Cypress Hills Cemetery at 833 Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

Mae West has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.


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