Mary Jane "Mae" West (August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980)[1] was an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seven decades.

Known for her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, and breezy sexual independence, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood to become a comedian, actress, and writer in the motion picture industry, as well as appearing on radio and television. For her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema.

One of the more controversial movie stars of her day, West encountered many problems, especially censorship. She bucked the system, making comedy out of prudish conventional mores, and the Depression-era audience admired her for it. When her cinematic career ended, she wrote books and plays, and continued to perform in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, and on radio and television, and to record rock and roll albums. Asked about the various efforts to impede her career, West replied: "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it."[2][3]

Early life, career, and jail

West was born in Bushwick, Brooklyn on August 17, 1893, having been delivered at home by an aunt who was a midwife.[4] She was the eldest surviving child of[5][6][7] John Patrick West and Matilda "Tillie" Delker (sometimes spelled "Dilker"). Delker and her five siblings emigrated with their parents, Jacob and Christiana, from the German state of Bavaria in 1886.[8] West's parents married on January 18, 1889, in Brooklyn and reared their children as Protestants, although John West was of mixed Catholic-Protestant descent [9][10][11] and Matilda "Tillie" Delker was of Jewish descent.[10]

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.[12] Her mother was a former corset and fashion model.[13] Her paternal grandmother, Mary Jane (née Copley), for whom she was named, was of Irish Catholic descent,[14] and West's paternal grandfather, John Edwin West, was of English-Scots descent and a ship's rigger.[15][16]

Her eldest sibling, Katie, died in infancy. Her other siblings were Mildred Katherine West, later known as Beverly (December 8, 1898 – March 12, 1982), and John Edwin West, II (sometimes inaccurately called "John Edwin West, Jr."; February 11, 1900 – October 12, 1964).[17] 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.[18][19]

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.[20] She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14.[21] West first performed under the stage name "Baby Mae",[22] and tried various personas, including a male impersonator,[23] 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.[24] 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,[25] but at age 18, West was singled out and discovered by The New York Times.[26] 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.[27]

"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.[28] 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.[14] In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn.[29] Her character Mayme danced the shimmy,[30] and her photograph appeared on an edition of the sheet music for the popular number "Ev'rybody Shimmies Now".

Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast.[31] Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play she 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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".[33]

Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality, and was what West called one of her "comedy-dramas of life".[35] After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York.[36] However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due 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." [37] West was an early supporter of the women's liberation movement, but said she was not a "burn your bra" type feminist. Since the 1920s, she was also an early supporter of gay rights.[38]

West continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. Her productions aroused controversy, which ensured that she stayed in the news, which also often resulted in packed houses at her performances.[39] Her 1928 play, Diamond Lil, 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.[40] This show had an enduring popularity and West successfully revived it many times throughout the course of her career. With Diamond Lil being a hit show, Hollywood naturally came courting.[41]

Motion pictures and censorship

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

In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures despite being close to 40. This was an unusually late age to begin a movie career, especially for women, but she was not playing an ingénue, and her characterization of a freewheeling, sexually secure, and liberated woman was timeless and ageless. She nonetheless managed to keep her age ambiguous for some years. She made her film debut in 1932's Night After Night starring George Raft, who suggested her for the role, and helped secure her entry into film history. At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes.[42] In West's first scene, a hat-check girl exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds", and West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."[43] Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, "She stole everything but the cameras."[43]

She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed "Lady Lou", to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933).[44] The film is also notable as one of Cary Grant's first major roles, which boosted his career. West claimed she spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead.[45] 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.[44][46] The success of the film saved Paramount from bankruptcy, grossing over $2 million, the equivalent of $140 million in today's dollars. Paramount recognizes that debt of gratitude today, with a building on the lot named after her.[47]

with Cary Grant in I'm No Angel (1933)

Her next release, I'm No Angel (1933), paired her with Grant again. I'm No Angel was also a financial success, and was the most successful film of her entire movie career. In the months that followed the release of this film, reference to Mae West could be found almost anywhere, from the song lyrics of Cole Porter, to a WPA mural of San Francisco's newly built Art-Deco Coit Tower, to "She Done Him Right", a Betty Boop cartoon, to "My Dress Hangs There", a painting by renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's equally famed muralist painter 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, Mae 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."[48]

Publicity photo 1936

By 1933, West was one of the largest box office draws in the United States[49] and, by 1935, West was also the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst).[50] Hearst invited West to San Simeon, California. "I could'a married him," West explained, "but I got no time for parties. I don't like those big crowds." On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. West would purposely place over-the-top lines in her scripts, knowing the censors would cut them out. She hoped they would then not object as much to her other lines. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). The original titled, It Ain't No Sin, was changed due to the censors' objections.[51] Despite Paramount's early objections regarding costs, she 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 picture. Her next film, Goin' to Town (1935), received mixed reviews, as censorship continued to take its toll in eroding West's best lines.[52]

Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1936) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy.[53] Some critics called the film her screen masterpiece, but not everyone felt the same way. Press baron and would-be film mogul William Randolph Hearst, ostensibly offended by an offhanded 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. This may be surprising by today's standards, as West's films contained no nudity, no profanity, and very little violence. Though raised in an era when women held second-place roles in society, West portrayed confident women who were not afraid to use their sexual wiles to get what they wanted. "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."[54]

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

That same year, 1936, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay.[6][55] Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era, due to the censor's cuts.[56]

West next starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. Again, due to censor cuts, 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 his film version of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind after Tallulah Bankhead turned him down. West also declined the part, claiming that as it was, 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.[57]

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

In 1939, Universal Pictures 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.[58] 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).[58][59] Despite the stars' intense mutual dislike, and Fields's very real drinking problems,[60] and fights over the screenplay,[58] My Little Chickadee was a box-office success, 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 "Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven't tried before", and "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"[61]

West's next film was The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. She initially did not want to do the film, but after actor/producer/director and personal 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.[62] Censors by now, though, had 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 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 censorship office, that she would not attempt another film role for the next quarter-century.[63] 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 more censorship

On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour.[64] 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 her latest movie, Every Day's a Holiday.[65] 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!"[66] West was on the verge of being banned from radio.

More outrageous still was a sketch written by Arch Oboler, starring Don Ameche and West as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden on NBC. She told Ameche in the show to "get me a big one... I feel like doin' a big apple!"[66] 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" by societies for the protection of morals.[67] 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".[64] 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".[68] 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.[69]

NBC Radio scapegoated West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations.[70] 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.[65] 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.[71] 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

West in 1953

After appearing in The Heat's On in 1943, West returned to a very active career on stage and swank 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.[72] The play was produced by theater and film impresario Mike Todd (Around The World In 80 Days) and ran for 191 performances.[73]

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.[74] Jayne Mansfield met and later married one of West's muscle men, a former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay.[75]

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.[76] After Mary Pickford also declined the role, Gloria Swanson was cast.[77] In subsequent years, West was offered the role of Vera Simpson, opposite Marlon Brando, 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

In 1958, West appeared at the live televised Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson, which brought a standing ovation.[78] 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.[79] 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, which was censored by CBS in 1959, and 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.[80] 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",[81] on the album Wild Christmas,[82] which was released in 1966 and reissued as Mae in December in 1980.[83] 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.

The April 18, 1969 issue of Life featured West at age 75, with images by child star, actor, and professional photographer Roddy McDowall.

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".[84] 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. Despite Myra Breckinridge's mainstream failure, it continued to find an audience on the cult film circuit where West's films were regularly screened and West herself was dubbed "the queen of camp". Mae West's counterculture appeal included the young and hip, and by 1971, the student body of 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.[85]

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.[86] Her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, was also updated and republished in the 1970s.[87]

Final decade

West in Sextette (1978)

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."[88] 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.[89] Due to 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.[90] 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 wrote an article on the indomitable star entitled "At 84, Mae West Is Still Mae West".[90][91]

Upon its release, Sextette was not a critical or commercial success, but remains notable for the diverse cast, and because none of West's contemporaries such as Dietrich, Garbo, etc., were still making films. The cast included some of West's first co-stars such George Raft (Night After Night, 1932), silver screen stars such as Walter Pigeon 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 famed 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. The film was a last hurrah and a Valentine from Mae West to her fans.[92]

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

In August 1980, West tripped while getting out of bed. After the fall, West was unable to speak and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke.[93] She died on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87.[94]

A private service was held in the Old North Church replica, in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, on November 25, 1980.[95][96] 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.[92][97][98]

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.[99][100]

Personal life

West in 1973, by Allan Warren

West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Szatkus,[101] whose stage name was Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17; he was 21.[102] West kept the marriage a secret,[103] but in 1935, after West had made several hit movies, a filing clerk discovered West's marriage certificate and alerted the press.[104] An affidavit in which she had declared herself married, which she made during the Sex trial in 1927, was also uncovered.[105] At first, West denied ever marrying Wallace, but she finally admitted in July 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, that they had been married.[106] Although legally wed, the couple never lived together as husband and wife. She insisted they have 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".[107] The final divorce decree was granted on May 7, 1943.[108]

In August 1913, she met an Italian-born vaudeville headliner and star of the piano-accordion, Guido Deiro. Her affair went "[v]ery deep, hittin' on all the emotions". West later said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet."[109]

West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930.[110] In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the new Ravenswood apartment building, where she lived until her death in 1980.[111]

After she began her movie career, her sister, brother, and father followed her to Hollywood. West provided them with nearby homes, jobs, and sometimes financial support.[112] Among West's other boyfriends was boxing champion William Jones, nicknamed Gorilla Jones. When 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.[113]

West had a relationship with James Timony, an attorney 15 years her senior, in 1916, when she was a vaudeville actress. Timony was also her manager. By the time West 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.[114]

At 61, West became romantically involved with one of the muscle men in her Las Vegas stage show, wrestler, former Mr. California, and former merchant marine Chester Rybinski.[115][116] He was 30 years younger than West, and later changed his name to Paul Novak. He soon moved in with her, and their romance continued until West's death in 1980 at age 87.[115][117] Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West."[118] West was a practicing Presbyterian[119] and her funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills, California.[120]

In popular culture

  • During World War II, Allied aircrews called their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" partly from rhyming slang for "breasts"[121] and "life vest" 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.[122]
  • 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".[123]
  • One of the most popular objects of the surrealist movement was the painting by Salvador Dalí 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.[124] A version of the sofa in red was created by famed Paris furniture maker Jean-Michel Frank, and a rendition in pink is at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. One can see the actual Dali Mae West room, and walk into it, at the Dali Museum in Figueras, Spain.
  • 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.[125]
  • 'Mae West' is often used as Cockney rhyming slang for the word 'best' - e.g. "it's not the Mae West".[126]
  • Visible Fry gas pumps used in the 1920s and 1930s that had two glass reservoirs were referred to as "Mae West" pumps.[citation needed]
  • Artist Rita McBride created a 52m/170ft large sculpture in Munich in 2010-11 named after West because of the hyperboloid shape that is reminiscent of West's figure.
  • The rock group Aerosmith mentions Mae West phrase "come on up and see me" from the film My Little Chickadee (1940), in their song "Rag Doll"<www.lyricsmode.com › Aerosmith></1988>.

Broadway stage

Broadway stage
Date Production Role Notes Ref.
September 22, 1911 – September 30, 1911 A La Broadway Maggie O'Hara [127]
November 20, 1911 – February 24, 1912 Vera Violetta West left the show during previews [127]
April 11, 1912 – September 7, 1912 Winsome Widow, AA Winsome Widow Le Petite Daffy West left show after opening night [127]
October 4, 1918 – June 1919 Sometime Mayme Dean [127]
August 17, 1921 – September 10, 1921 Mimic World of 1921, TheThe Mimic World of 1921 [127]
April 26, 1926 – March 1927 Sex Margie LaMont Written by Jane Mast (West), West was jailed for 10 days due to the play's content. [127]
January 1927 Drag, TheThe Drag Closed during out-of-town tryouts (Bridgeport, Connecticut)
credited only as writer
November 1927 Wicked Age, TheThe Wicked Age Evelyn ("Babe") Carson [127]
April 9, 1928 – September 1928 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil [127]
October 1, 1928 – October 2, 1928 Pleasure Man, TheThe Pleasure Man Credited only as writer [127]
September 14, 1931 – November 1931 Constant Sinner, TheThe Constant Sinner Babe Gordon [127]
August 2, 1944 – January 13, 1945 Catherine Was Great Catherine II [127]
1945–46 Come on Up Tour
September 1947 – May 1948 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Revival) United Kingdom [127]
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" [127]
September 14, 1951 – November 10, 1951 Diamond Lil Diamond Lil (Third Revival) [127]
July 7, 1961 – closing date unknown Sextette Edgewater Beach Playhouse [128]
Other plays as writer
Other plays as writer
Year Title Notes
1921 Ruby Ring, TheThe Ruby Ring Vaudeville playlet
1922 Hussy, TheThe Hussy Unproduced
1930 Frisco Kate Unproduced, later produced as the 1936 film Klondike Annie
1933 Loose Women Performed in 1935 under title Ladies By Request
1936 Clean Beds Sold treatment to George S. George, who produced
an unsuccessful Broadway play of West's treatment


Year Film Role Co-stars Director Studio
1932 Night After Night Maudie Triplett George Raft
Constance Cummings
Wynne Gibson
Archie Mayo Paramount Pictures
1933 She Done Him Wrong Lady Lou Cary Grant
Owen Moore
Gilbert Roland
Lowell Sherman
I'm No Angel Tira Cary Grant
Gregory Ratoff
Edward Arnold
Wesley Ruggles
1934 Belle of the Nineties Ruby Carter Roger Pryor
Johnny Mack Brown
Katherine DeMille
Leo McCarey
1935 Goin' to Town Cleo Borden Paul Cavanagh
Gilbert Emery
Marjorie Gateson
Alexander Hall
1936 Klondike Annie The Frisco Doll
Rose Carlton
Sister Annie Alden
Victor McLaglen
Phillip Reed
Helen Jerome Eddy
Raoul Walsh
Go West, Young Man Mavis Arden Warren William
Randolph Scott
Alice Brady
Henry Hathaway
1937 Every Day's a Holiday Peaches O'Day Edmund Lowe
Charles Butterworth
Charles Winninger
A. Edward Sutherland
1940 My Little Chickadee Flower Belle Lee W.C. Fields
Joseph Calleia
Dick Foran
Edward F. Cline Universal Pictures
1943 The Heat's On Fay Lawrence Victor Moore
William Gaxton
Lester Allen
Gregory Ratoff Columbia Pictures
1970 Myra Breckinridge Leticia Van Allen Raquel Welch
John Huston
Farrah Fawcett
Michael Sarne 20th Century Fox
1978 Sextette Marlo Manners
Lady Barrington
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) also were released from 1933 to 1973.


  • 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 (1970) [1959]. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It. Prentice-Hall. 
  • West, Mae (1975). Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP. W. H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-01613-1. 
  • West, Mae (1975). Pleasure Man. Dell Pub. Co. 
  • West, Mae; Joseph Gorden Lovitz (1967). The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West. G. P. Putnam. 

See also


  1. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. p. 1183. ISBN 0-415-93853-8. 
  2. ^ "Actress Mae West Sentenced for "Sex"". History Channel. Retrieved October 19, 2016. 
  3. ^ Karen Weekes (February 15, 2011). Women Know Everything!. Quirk Books. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-59474-545-4. 
  4. ^ Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. p. 5. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  5. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  6. ^ a b Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 10. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  7. ^ West, Mae (1959). Goodness Had Nothing to Do With it. Prentice-Hall. p. 1. 
  8. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  9. ^ "The religion of Mae West, actress". adherents.com. 
  10. ^ a b Gross, Max (February 6, 2004). "Playwright Examines Mae West's Legal Dramas". forward.com. Retrieved November 22, 2008. 
  11. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  12. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 12. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  13. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  14. ^ a b Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West. William Morrow & Co. p. 20. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  15. ^ Louvish, Simon (2007). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-37562-X. 
  16. ^ 1870, 1880, 1900 US censuses.
  17. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 12, 289. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  18. ^ amNew York, Thursday, September 5, 2013, p. 23.
  19. ^ Lisa L. Colangelo (June 22, 2010). "Woodhaven bar Neir's Tavern gets a time-machine fix up". Daily News. New York. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  20. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 16, 18. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  21. ^ Louvish, Simon (2005). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. St. Martin's Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  22. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 23, 170. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  23. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 38, 170. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  24. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. pp. 122–3. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. ,Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. p. 18. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  25. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  26. ^ Maurice Leonard. Mae West Empress of Sex. ISBN 0-00-637471-9; pp. 33–34
  27. ^ Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. pp. 50, 452. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  28. ^ Biery, Ruth, "The Private Life of Mae West: Part One", Movie Classic, January 1934, pp. 106–08
  29. ^ Tuska, Jon (1992). The Complete Films of Mae West. Citadel Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 0-8065-1359-4. 
  30. ^ Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. pp. 78, 79, 452. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  31. ^ Yeatts, Tabatha (2000). The Legendary Mae West. Lulu.com. p. 77. ISBN 0-9679158-1-3. 
  32. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. pp. 88–89. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  33. ^ a b Bunyan, Patrick (1999). All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities. Fordham University Press. p. 317. ISBN 0-8232-1941-0. 
  34. ^ Schlissel, Lillian; West, Mae (1997). Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 0-415-90933-3. 
  35. ^ Hamilton, Marybeth (1997). When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. University of California Press. pp. 57, 67. ISBN 0-520-21094-8. 
  36. ^ Chauncey, George (1995). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. Basic Books. p. 312. ISBN 0-465-02621-4. 
  37. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 66–68. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  38. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 299. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
  39. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. p. 1187. ISBN 0-415-93853-8. 
  40. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 78, 79, 81. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  41. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 223, 228, 229. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  42. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. pp. 105–106. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  43. ^ a b Ashby, LeRoy (2006). With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830. University Press of Kentucky. p. 224. ISBN 0-8131-2397-6. 
  44. ^ a b Smith, Sarah (2005). Children, Cinema and Censorship: From Dracula to the Dead End Kids. I.B.Tauris. p. 55. ISBN 1-85043-813-7. 
  45. ^ McCann, Graha (1998). Cary Grant: A Class Apart. Columbia University Press. p. 73 l1br1d0. ISBN 0-231-10885-0. 
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  47. ^ Starr, Kevin (2002). The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s. Oxford University Press US. p. 256. ISBN 0-19-515797-4. 
  48. ^ Eells, George; Musgrove, Stanley (1982). Mae West: A Biography. Morrow. p. 127. ISBN 0-688-00816-X. 
  49. ^ Pendergast, Tom (2000). St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. St. James Press. p. 116. ISBN 1-55862-405-8. 
  50. ^ West, Mae; Schlissel, Lillian (1997). Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, the Drag, the Pleasure Man. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 0-415-90933-3. 
  51. ^ Doherty, Thomas Patrick (1999). Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American cinema, 1930–1934. Columbia University Press. p. 338. ISBN 0-231-11095-2. 
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  53. ^ Black, Gregory D. (1996). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 228, 229. ISBN 0-521-56592-8. 
  54. ^ Bavar, Michael (1975). Mae West. Pyramid Communications. p. 87. ISBN 0-515-03868-7. 
  55. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 402. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  56. ^ Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. p. 308. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  57. ^ Jewell, Richard B. (2012). "7". RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born (1 ed.). London: University of California Press. p. 153. ISBN 0-520-27179-3. 
  58. ^ a b c Louvish, Simon (1999). Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 435. ISBN 0-393-31840-0. 
  59. ^ Deschner, Donald (1989). The Complete Films of W.C. Fields. Citadel Press. p. 140. ISBN 0-8065-1136-2. 
  60. ^ Curtis, James (2003). W.C. Fields: A Biography. A.A. Knopf. p. 399. ISBN 0-375-40217-9. 
  61. ^ Gehring, Wes D. (1999). Parody as Film Genre: "Never Give a Saga an Even Break". Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 39. ISBN 0-313-26186-5. 
  62. ^ Tuska, Jon (1992). The Complete Films of Mae West. Citadel Press. p. 153. ISBN 0-8065-1359-4. 
  63. ^ Dick, Bernard F. (1993). The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. University Press of Kentucky. p. 130. ISBN 0-8131-1841-7. 
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  66. ^ a b Pendergrast, Mark (2000). Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Basic Books. p. 200. ISBN 0-465-05467-6. 
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  68. ^ Ohmart, Ben (2007). Don Ameche: The Kenosha Comeback Kid. BearManor Media. p. 50. ISBN 1-59393-045-3. 
  69. ^ Craig, Steve. Out of Eden: The Legion of Decency, the FCC, and Mae West's 1937 Appearance on The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Journal of Radio Studies (November 2006). 
  70. ^ Hilmes, Michele; Loviglio, Jason (2002). Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. Routledge. p. 138. ISBN 0-415-92821-4. 
  71. ^ Curry, Ramona (1996). Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. U of Minnesota Press. p. 81. ISBN 0-8166-2791-6. 
  72. ^ Shafer, Yvonne (1995). American Women Playwrights, 1900–1950. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. p. 419. ISBN 0-8204-2142-1. 
  73. ^ Bloom, Ken (2004). Broadway: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 480. ISBN 0-415-93704-3. 
  74. ^ Robertson, Pamela (1996). Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. I.B.Tauris. p. 27. ISBN 1-86064-088-5. 
  75. ^ Strodder, Chris (2000). Swingin' Chicks of the '60s: A Tribute to 101 of the Decade's Defining Women. Cedco Publishing Company. p. 83. ISBN 0-7683-2232-4. 
  76. ^ Staggs, Sam (2003). Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. Macmillan. p. 8. ISBN 0-312-30254-1. 
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  78. ^ Robertson, Pamela (1996). Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Duke University Press. p. 25. ISBN 0-8223-1748-6. 
  79. ^ Yeatts, Tabatha (2000). The Legendary Mae West. Lulu.com. p. 71. ISBN 0-9679158-1-3. 
  80. ^ Cullen, Frank; Florence Hackman; Donald McNeilly (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. p. 1188. ISBN 0-415-93853-8. 
  81. ^ album cover
  82. ^ Kashner, Sam; Macnair, Jennifer (2003). The Bad & the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 335. ISBN 0-393-32436-2. 
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  84. ^ Hoberman, J.; Jonathan Rosenbaum (1991). Midnight Movies. Da Capo Press. p. 268. ISBN 0-306-80433-6. 
  85. ^ Hamilton, Marybeth (1997). When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. University of California Press. p. 263. ISBN 0-520-21094-8. 
  86. ^ Louvish, Simon (2006). Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Macmillan. p. 463. ISBN 0-312-34878-9. 
  87. ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2000). Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press. p. 401. ISBN 0-306-80951-6. 
  88. ^ Yeatts, Tabatha (2000). The Legendary Mae West. Lulu.com. p. 74. ISBN 0-9679158-1-3. 
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  93. ^ Watts, Jill (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press US. p. 313. ISBN 0-19-516112-2. 
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  95. ^ "Former Boxing Champ Managed by Mae West Succumbs at Age 75". Jet. 61 (17): 52–53. January 28, 1982. ISSN 0021-5996. 
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  99. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame members". 
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  125. ^ Martin, George (1995). Summer of Love: the Making of Sgt. Pepper. MacMillan. p. 139. 
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External links