By Steve Starr
Giant billboards all over Hollywood shamelessly depicted the ancient, 85-year-old actress, once known as the Queen of Sex, who was decades past her prime, hair blonde and curled, trussed up and dressed in white from head to toe, reclining seductively on a chaise lounge to promote her latest and last film appearance with the highly suggestive caption "Mae West Is Coming."
Mary Jane West was born in Brooklyn, August 17, 1893. Her father was an Irish prizefighter, "Battlin' Jack West”. Her mother, Matilda, was a corset model and a dressmaker, who also played in vaudeville. Little Mae, encouraged by her parents, went on the New York stage at the age of five, and for the next six years performed on the road in various plays including Mrs. Wigg of the Cabbage Patch and Ten Nights In A Barroom. Mae picked up some formal schooling along the way which later helped her to write books and plays, but that type of education never interested the clever girl that much. At age 12 her rowdy vaudeville performances had her billed as "The Baby Vamp."
In 1911, eighteen-year-old Mae made her Broadway debut in A La Broadway, and then appeared in Hello Paris. That same year, in Milwaukee, she married a jazz singer named Frank Wallace and together they developed a song-and-dance act. After quickly deciding marriage just wasn't for her, she dumped Frank and dissolved the act. West never spoke of this union until 1942, when her husband re-appeared after touring the country in a show as Mae West's Husband, suing her for divorce and $1,000 a month maintenance. Mae once wrote, "Save a boyfriend for a rainy day, and another in case it doesn't rain."
West continued to work in revues and vaudeville, and Mother Matilda encouraged her daughter to write her own material. In 1926 Mae produced a play on Broadway, named Sex about a prostitute. In the 41st week of the play's run, West was arrested for writing a "profane" drama and giving a "suggestive" performance. Her ten-day stint for obscenity in the Welfare Island jail established her as New York's most famous and beloved jailbird. She was released two days early for good behavior.
West's second play, The Drag, opened in New Jersey. It was a story about homosexuals, a topic rarely discussed publicly at that time, and Mae was convinced by numerous, serious officials not to bring the production to New York. Her third play, Diamond Lil, was a huge success, and it was in this show that she first uttered her most famous line, "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" In 1928, her Broadway play, The Pleasure Man, was closed by the police after one performance. In 1931, her play The Constant Sinner was forced by the district attorney to close after two performances.
Tired of her censorship problems on the stage, West turned to Hollywood, where she was allowed to write her own dialogue. In 1932, at age 39, the ex-vaudevillian appeared in her first film for Paramount Studios, Night After Night. In the film, Mae enters a nightclub owned by star George Raft, and maneuvers her ample form across the foyer and past a hat-check girl who remarks to Mae, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” West then creates an immortal moment when she responds, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." Also in the film, when asked "Do you believe in love at first sight?" Mae replies "I don't know, but it saves an awful lot of time."
In 1933, Mae chose young, handsome, unknown Cary Grant to be her male lead in the film adaptation of her play Diamond Lil, re-named She Done Him Wrong. In the film, Cary asks Mae, "Haven't you ever met a man who could make you happy?" Mae replies, "Sure, lots of times." The movie was a huge success, and Cary became a star. Mae’s success during the Great Depression helped save Paramount Studios from bankruptcy, at a time when they were planning to sell out to MGM, and prevented the closing of 1,700 of their Paramount theatres, a situation which was looming on the horizon. That same year, Grant appeared with West again in I'm No Angel, which was an even bigger success. One of her lines in the film was "Don't let a man put anything over on ya 'cept an umbrella." Uttering her own witty, sexually charged dialogue while wearing fantastic costumes and artfully singing suggestive songs made Mae a screen sensation.
However, the sensational sexual content of Mae's films with Cary Grant also helped the Hays office, which had earlier attempted to induce a code of decency for films, to, for the first time, successfully regulate the content of films with the Motion Picture Producers Association Code. By 1934, the “Hays Code of Decency” was in place, and it limited West's brand of humor. Not only were the subjects of narcotics and sexual deviation to be excluded from movies, the exposure of the inside of a woman’s thigh was verboten, as were all sorts of situations, suggestions, and words.
Anyone on film who transgressed from accepted moral standards were to be punished by the end of the picture. But Mae wrote her clever dialogue with double talk that could be taken in various ways, and pushed her work past the censors. Her next film, Belle Of The Nineties (1934), was another tremendous hit. In 1936, when she made both Klondike Annie and Go West Young Man, she was the highest paid woman in the United States. The only person who earned more was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who did not like her.
West and Don Ameche appeared on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show in 1937, and did a sketch as Adam and Eve that was thought to be blasphemous and risque. Then, her sketch with Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy was considered so shocking that she was banned from the airwaves and was not heard again on radio for 31 years. One line that drove the NBC executives to panic when she lewdly used it on the wood dummy was, “Charles, I remember our date, and have the splinters to prove it.” That same year, West made Every Day's A Holiday, and then waited three years to appear with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (1940). The big blonde disliked her co-star, and felt he was vile and crude.
During World War II, Army and Navy pilots, referring to West's obvious attributes, named their inflatable life vests after her. The term "Mae West" made it into Webster's dictionary, and continues in use today.
In 1943, West made the first film she didn't script herself, The Heat's On. The censors had become even more restrictive, and she decided to abandon her film career. Mae concentrated on writing, producing, and starring in various plays. In 1954, at age 61, she developed an outstanding, popular Las Vegas nightclub act in which she sang surrounded by handsome musclemen. The show ran for three years, and one of the men in her show became her life partner for the next 26 years. In 1959, West published her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It.
To attract a younger audience, she recorded a Rock & Roll album titled Great Balls of Fire. On Broadway she appeared in the title role in Catherine Was Great. In 1970, when film censorship was lifted, Mae returned to the screen after an absence of almost three decades in the outrageous Myra Breckenridge, co-starring Raquel Welch who she feuded with, movie critic Rex Reed, John Huston, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck. In 1978, outrageously suggestive billboards appeared throughout the film capital crudely depicting West’s elderly, sexually charged image to promote her final film appearance in Sextette.
Many of West’s lines of dialogue, written decades ago, are still remembered and much appreciated today. Here are some more examples:
"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted"
"It's better to be looked over than overlooked."
"I generally avoid temptation, unless I can't resist it."
"There are no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out".
"It's not the men in my life that counts, it's the life in my men."
"A hard man is good to find"
"I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure."
"Between two evils, I always pick the one I haven't tried before."
"A man in the house is worth two in the street."
After a series of strokes, Mae West died November 22, 1980. She was 87 years old. West was once quoted, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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