|Born:||August 17, 1893|
Queens, New York, USA
|Died:||November 22, 1980 (aged 87)|
Hollywood, California, USA
|Height:||5 ft 1 in (1.55 m)|
Famous for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to conquer and make her unforgettable place among the great performers of the motion picture industry.
One of the most controversial stars of her day, West encountered many obstacles, including early censorship, but her indomitable spirit, coupled with an indefatigable drive, made her persevere.
When her movie career ended, she continued to perform on stage, in Las Vegas, in England, on radio and television, even recording a few Rock and Roll albums.
Even toward the end of her life, she was known for maintaining a surprisingly youthful appearance. She stated in her autobiography that she spent two hours every single day massaging cold cream into her large breasts to keep them youthful. In her old age, she returned to the silver screen and starred in two final movies in the 1970s.
Born Mary Jane West in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York she spent her childhood in various parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. (It is rumored that when she was born her parents were actually living at what is now 308 Humboldt Street, near the corner of Powers Street on the edge of Williamsburg and Bushwick.) She was the daughter of John Patrick West (1865-1935) and Matilda "Tillie" Delker-Doelger (1870-1930). Her sister and brother were Mildred Katherine "Beverly" West (1898-1982) and John Edwin West (1900-1964).
Her father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a policeman. He was later a detective who ran his own agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model.
West began performing in vaudeville in 1905 at the age of twelve. When she was 12, she was performing 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 in 1913 and she was even photographed for a song-sheet. The title of this song was "Everybody Shimmies Now." She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that whatever her beloved daughter said or did was fantastic.
Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a stage actress. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence.
Eventually, she began 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 10 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 and the warden reportedly took her to dinner every night. She served eight days, with two days off for good behavior. Media attention to the case enhanced her career.
Her next play, The Drag, was about homosexuality and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box-office success, but audiences had to go to New Jersey to see it because it was banned from Broadway. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights. She famously told policemen who were raiding a gay bar, "Don't you know you're hitting a woman?", showing sensitivity and compassion towards homosexuals in a time where understanding of homosexuality by a public figure was extremely rare.
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 throughout the course of her career. Mae West was an actress ahead of her time.
In 1932, West 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. She maintained a residence at the Ravenswood, her preferred abode, for the rest of her life, although she also owned a beach house and a ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In West's first scene, a hat 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.
Her next release was I'm No Angel, which paired her with Grant again. It was another huge success and, along with She Done Him Wrong, saved Paramount from bankruptcy. Mae West was the largest box office draw in the United States at the time. However, the frank sexuality and seamy settings of her films aroused the wrath of moralists. On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced and her scripts began to be heavily edited. Her answer was to increase the number of double entendres in her films, expecting the censors to delete the obvious lines and overlook the subtle ones.
West's next movie was Belle Of The Nineties (1934). It was originally titled It Ain't No Sin, but the title was changed due to the censor's objection. Other tentative working titles included That St. Louis Woman, Belle of St. Louis and Belle of New Orleans. The same could be said for her following vehicle, Goin' to Town (1935), which was originally titled How Am I Doin'? West starred in three other 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. West and Fields, who were both accustomed to working with supporting players and not as co-stars, did not get along and she would not tolerate his drinking. An urban legend states that the only way Fields and West could be in the same scene was to film them separately and then splice the film together. My Little Chickadee was a big box-office success and outgrossed all other W.C. Fields movies. Universal was delighted with its success and offered West two more movies to star with Fields, but she would not hear of it. She told them that once was enough starring with Mr. Fields.
On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show that shocked both the listening audience and NBC executives. She appeared as herself, flirting very heavily with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's dummy, utilizing her usual brand of sexy wit and risqué sexual references.
Even more outrageous was a sketch earlier in the show, written by Arch Oboler, that starred West and Don Ameche as Adam and Eve in the Garden Of Eden. The conversation between the two was considered so risqué, bordering on blasphemous, she was banned from being featured, or even mentioned, on the NBC network. She did not appear on radio for another 31 years.
Marriage and divorce
West was apparently married April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, to Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian who, in 1937, showed up in Hollywood with a marriage certificate seeking a share of "their" community property. Although West denied ever marrying Wallace, and it was proven she never lived with him, she still found it necessary to obtain a legal divorce on July 21, 1942.
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 (1944) on Broadway, in which she spoofed the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, surrounding herself with an "imperial guard" of muscular young actors, all over 6 feet tall. The play was produced by Mike Todd and went on a long national tour in 1945.
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 later married, one of West's muscle men, Mickey Hargitay, getting him fired).
When Billy Wilder offered West the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she refused and pronounced herself offended at being asked to play a "has-been," similar to the responses he received from Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, and Pola Negri. Ultimately the more amenable Gloria Swanson was cast in the role, which became immortal on celluloid.
In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson. Her autobiography, titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was published by Prentice-Hall in 1959 and became an instant success.
West also made some rare appearances on television, including The Red Skelton Show in 1960. She did a comedy sketch with Skelton regarding her recently published autobiography and her appearance was a big success. Viewers were astounded by her youthful appearance and incredible energy. In 1964, she guest starred as herself on the popular sitcom Mister Ed. The ratings were way above the usual for the series and much interest was generated in West by this appearance.
In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded two Rock and Roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas in the late 1960s. The single "Treat Him Right," from Way Out West, was a big success for her and the album itself was a very good seller. She also recorded a number of parody songs, including "Santa, Come Up and See Me Sometime," in her successful album Wild Christmas.
After an absence of 26 years from the silver screen, she appeared in the role as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with John Huston, Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. The movie created a huge amount of interest in West.
Premiere audiences went wild over West's personal appearances and cheered her on. In New York, fans were held back by a large number of policemen, including those on horseback, who were there to maintain the crowd.
Her reappearance in Myra Breckinridge launched a mania that seemed to rival that of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and reporters marveled at her incredible youthfulness and young-looking skin. Despite all this, the movie failed miserably at the box-office. It became a camp classic, however, due to its sex change theme.
West recorded another rock album in the 1970s on MGM Records titled Great Balls of Fire, which covered songs by Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, among others, and her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was updated in a new version and republished.
In 1976, she appeared on the The Dick Cavett Show and gave an exclusive interview about her life and career, along with insights into her proclivity toward vulgar humor and her battle with censorship. This appearance caused renewed interest in West and led to another motion picture.
At age 85, she returned to the screen for a final time as Marlo Manners in Sextette (1978) with an all star cast, including a cameo by George Raft, which provided an odd symmetry to both their long careers.
Sextette was another box-office failure. It did not do well 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."
Although the movie was not received well by critics or the general public, After Dark magazine awarded West the "Star of the World" award for her performance in what became her final screen appearance. Sextette has become a cult classic and has done well on cable movie channels as well as VHS and DVD releases.
In the 1950's, Mae West rented a rather lavish apartment at The Ravenswood, one of Los Angeles's most prestigious apartment houses. When she discovered that one of her male employees had been refused admittance to the building because he was black, she bought the entire building.
West continued to surround herself with virile muscle men for the rest of her life, employing companions, bodyguards and chauffeurs. She would occasionally make appearances at Hollywood parties and have luminaries and friends in to visit at her apartment in the Ravenswood. At one such party West astonished guests when she got up and performed a belly dance. They were amazed at her youthful appearance and incredible charisma. It became very fashionable to have West attend a party.
After making Sextette, West did some radio commercials for Poland Springs Drinking Water saying she had been drinking Poland Springs water for 20 years, "Ever since I was six!"
In the late summer of 1980, she suffered a stroke at her apartment and fell out of bed. She was rushed to the hospital. She rallied, but suffered another stroke in November. The prognosis was not good and she was sent home. She died at her apartment on North Rossmore Avenue in Hollywood at age 87.
Mae West is entombed with her family in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.
During WWII, Allied soldiers called their inflatable, vestlike life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" because of the resemblance to her curvaceous torso. West became one the first movie stars in history to have her name listed in Webster's Dictionary.
A "Mae West" is also a type of round parachute malfunction which contorts the shape of the canopy into the appearance of an extraordinarily large brassiere, presumably one suitable for a woman of Mae West's proportions.
In the PC game Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, in which your protagonist searches for an ancient sarcophagus which frequently switches hands, one character remarks that the sarcophagus "gets around more than Mae West".
A Mae West slot canyon is one that is too narrow at the bottom to traverse on foot. Instead, one uses chimneying techniques to negotiate above the floor.
MAE-West was also the name of the Metropolitan Area Exchange West, one of the first Internet tier-one hubs to connect all the major TCP/IP networks that made up the Internet back in 1992. It is unknown whether the founders of MAE-West named this early Internet Exchange after the actress.
Mae West is one of the people to appear on the famous cover of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When permission to use her likeness was requested, she refused. "No, I won't be on it. What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" In response, the Beatles personally wrote a letter asking her to reconsider. She changed her mind.
Though spelled differently, the snack cake May West (by Vachon) is named for the famous actress. A May West snack cake has creme filling, surrounded by moist white cake, in a thin shell of dark chocolate.
One of the most popular objects of the surrealist movement was the Mae West Lips Sofa, which was completed by the artist, Salvador Dalí, in 1937.
- Night After Night (1932)
- She Done Him Wrong (1933)
- I'm No Angel (1933)
- Belle Of The Nineties (1934)
- Goin' To Town (1935)
- Klondike Annie (1936)
- Go West, Young Man (1936)
- Every Day's A Holiday (1938)
- My Little Chickadee (1940)
- The Heat's On (1943)
- Myra Breckinridge (1970)
- Sextette (1978)
Plays by West
- The Ruby Ring (1921)
- The Hussy (1922)
- The Chick (1924)
- Sex (1926)
- The Drag (1927)
- The Pleasure Man (1928)
- Diamond Lil (1928, revised 1964)
- Frisco Kate (1930)
- The Constant Sinner (1931)
- Catherine Was Great (1944)
- Come On Over (1946)
- Sextette (1952, revised 1961)
- Babe Gordon (1930)
- Diamond Lil (1932)
- Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It (1959, revised 1970)
- Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP (1975)
- Annual Mae West Gala
- Mae West Color Site
- Mae West Photo Gallery
- 611 Ravenswood - Mae West Fan Site
- Mae West in 1900 through 1930
- Mae West's Gravesite