Mary Jane West (August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980), known as Mae West, was an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter andsex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seven decades.
Known for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion picture industry. In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the greatest female stars of all time. One of the more controversial movie stars of her day, West encountered many problems, including censorship. When her cinematic career ended, she continued to perform on stage, in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, on radio and television, and recorded rock and roll albums. She used the alias Jane Mast early in her career.
Early life and career
West was born Mary Jane West in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, delivered at home by an aunt who was a midwife. She was the eldest surviving child of John Patrick West and Matilda "Tillie" Doelger (also known as Matilda Delker Doelger), who had emigrated with her family from Bavariato the United States in 1886. West's parents married on January 18, 1889, in Brooklyn and reared their children as Protestant. By some accounts West's mother was of partial Jewish descent.
Her father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a "special policeman" and then as a private investigator who ran his own agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model. Her paternal grandmother was an Irish Catholic, and West's paternal grandfather, John Edwin West, was of English-Scots descent and a ship's rigger.
Her eldest sibling, Katie, died in infancy. The other siblings were Mildred Katherine West (December 8, 1898 – March 12, 1982), known as Beverly; and John Edwin West, II (sometimes inaccurately referred to as "John Edwin West, Jr."; February 11, 1900 – October 12, 1964). During her childhood, West's family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, Queens, as well as Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
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. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of fourteen. West first performed under the stage name Baby Mae, and tried various personas including a male impersonator, Sis Hopkins, and a blackface coon shouter. 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. 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 just eight performances, but at age 18, West was singled out and discovered by the New York Times. She next appeared in a show called Vera Violetta, whose cast featured Al Jolson. In 1912 she also appeared in the opening performance of A Winsome Widow as a 'baby vamp' named La Petite Daffy.
"Ev'rybody Shimmies Now" sheet music cover with portrait, 1918
Her photograph appeared on an edition of the sheet music for the popular number "Ev'rybody Shimmies Now" in 1918. She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that whatever her daughter did was fantastic. 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.
In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn. Her character Mayme danced the shimmy. 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 entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials, and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast.
She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days for "corrupting the morals of youth." 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. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior. Media attention about the case enhanced her career.
Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality and was what West called one of her "comedy-dramas of life". After a series of try-outs in Connecticut andNew Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York. However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due to the Society for the Prevention of Vice vows to ban it if West attempted to stage it. West was an early supporter of the women's liberation movement, but said she was not a feminist. She was also a supporter of gay rights.
West continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and other problems, although the controversy ensured that West stayed in the news and most of the time this resulted in packed performances. Her 1928 play,Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit. This show enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would successfully revive it many times throughout the course of her career.
"Diamond Lil" returning to New York from Hollywood, 1933
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures, when she was 38 years old, an unusual age to begin a movie career. However, West would keep her age ambiguous for several more years. She made her film debut in Night After Night starring George Raft. 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 exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds." West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, "She stole everything but the cameras."
She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed Lady Lou, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). 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. 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. The success of the film most likely saved Paramount from bankruptcy.
Cary Grant and Mae West in I'm No Angel
Her next release, I'm No Angel (1933), paired her with Grant again. I'm No Angel was also a financial success, a film that proved to be her most successful film of her entire movie career. By 1933, West was the eighth-largest U.S. box office draw in the United States and, by 1935, the second-highest paid person in the United States (afterWilliam Randolph Hearst). On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited.
West's next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). Originally titled It Ain't No Sin, the title was changed due to the censors' objections. Her next film,Goin' to Town (1934), received mixed reviews.
Publicity photo for Night After Night
Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1935) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy. Some critics called the film her screen masterpiece. That same year, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hitPersonal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era.
West next starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. After the film failed at the box office, West 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 wereJoan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn, and James Cagney. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter and was taken seriously by studio executives. The association argued that these stars' high salaries and extreme public popularity didn't affect their ticket sales and thus hurt the exhibitors.
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 vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount eighteen months earlier and looking for a comeback film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940). Despite their intense mutual dislike, and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a moderate box office success, but the film outgrossed Fields's previous film,You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), and the later The Bank Dick (1940).
West's next film was The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. She initially didn't want to do the film but after producer and director Gregory Ratoffpleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she didn't, West relented. The film opened to bad reviews and failed at the box office. West did not return to films until 1970.
On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. By this point in her career, West's fame was fading and she was on the show hoping to promote her latest film, Every Day's a Holiday. 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 that his kisses gave her splinters.
Even more outrageous was a sketch written by Arch Oboler that starred West and Don Ameche as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. She told Ameche in the show to "get me a big one... I feel like doin' a big apple!" Days after the broadcast, NBC received letters calling the show "immoral" and "obscene". Women's clubs and Catholic groups admonished the show's sponsor,Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company, for "prostituting" their services for allowing "impurity [to] invade the air". The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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". There is some debate regarding the reaction to the skit, however. Mainstream reaction was not as swift as that of Catholics. Some claim that Catholic groups already had it in for Mae West; they despised her sexual image and warned the sponsor of the program they were planning to protest. Nevertheless, the incident is known as one of the first cases where radio programming faced claims of indecency from the FCC.
NBC personally blamed West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations. They claimed it was not the content of the skit, but West's tonal inflections that gave it the controversial context. West would not perform in radio for another twelve years until January 1950, in an episode of The Chesterfield Supper Club hosted by Perry Como.
After appearing in The Heat's On in 1943, West remained active during the ensuing years. 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 tall, muscular young actors. The play was produced by Mike Todd and ran for 191 performances. In the 1950s, she also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show, singing while surrounded by bodybuilders. Jayne Mansfield met and later married one of West's muscle men, a former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay.
When casting the role of Norma Desmond for the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder offered West, then nearing 60, the role. West turned down the part. Wilder later said, "The idea of [casting] Mae West was idiotic because we only had to talk to her to find out that she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she had ever been." Gloria Swanson was eventually cast in the role.
In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson. In 1959, she released her autobiography entitled Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, which went on to become a best seller.
Later career and final years
West made some rare appearances on television, including The Red Skelton Show in 1960. In 1964, she guest starred on the sitcom Mister Ed. In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded two rock and roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas (later re-issued as "Mae in December") in the late 1960s. 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 also recorded a number of parody songs including "Santa, Come Up to See Me" on the album Wild Christmas. The April 18, 1969 issue of Life magazine featured Mae at age 75. The article detailed her views on homosexuals, her generosity to Roman Catholic nuns, her vast real estate holdings and her continued desire to revive her career in the 1970s.
West arriving to the 1978 opening of Sextette
, her last film
After a 26-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 a deliberately campy sex change comedy that was both a box office and critical failure. Vidal later called the film "an awful joke". Despite Myra Breckinridge's mainstream failure, it did find an audience on the cult film circuit where West's films were regularly screened and West herself was dubbed "the queen of camp".
West recorded another album in 1968 (released in 1972) on MGM Records titled Great Balls of Fire, which covered songs by The Doors among others. Her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, was also updated and republished.
In 1976, she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and that same year began work on her final film, Sextette (1978). Adapted from a script written by West, daily revisions and disagreements hampered production from the beginning. Due to the numerous changes, West agreed to have her lines fed to her through a speaker concealed in her wig. Despite the daily problems, West was, according to Sextette director Ken Hughes, determined to see the film through. In spite of her determination, Hughes noted that West sometimes appeared disoriented and forgetful and found it difficult to follow his directions. Her now failing eyesight also made navigating around the set difficult. Hughes eventually began shooting her from the waist up to hide the out-of-shot production assistant crawling on the floor, guiding her around the set. Upon its release, Sextette was a critical and commercial failure.
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 the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles where tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke. She remained in the hospital where, seven days later, she had a diabetic reaction to the formula in her feeding tube. On September 18, she suffered a second stroke which left her right side paralyzed and developed pneumonia. By November, her condition had improved, but the prognosis was not good and she was sent home. She died there on November 22, 1980, at age 87.
A private service was held in the Old North Church replica, in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, on November 25, 1980. Bishop Andre Penachio, who was also a friend, officiated at the entombment in the family grave 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 was laid to rest in the last of the five crypts less than 18 months after West's death.
For her contribution to the film industry, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.
West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Szatkus, stage name Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17, he was 21. West kept the marriage a secret. But in 1935, after West had made several hit movies, a filing clerk discovered West's marriage certificate and alerted the press. An affidavit in which she had declared herself married, which she made during the Sex trial in 1927, was also uncovered. At first, West denied ever marrying Wallace but finally admitted in July 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, that they had been married. Even though the marriage was a reality, she never lived with Wallace as husband and wife. She insisted they have separate bedrooms and she soon sent him away in a show of his own in order 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 she and Wallace had lived together for only "several weeks." The final divorce decree was granted on May 7, 1943.
West may also have had another secret marriage. 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. You can't get too hot over anybody unless there's somethin' that goes along with the sex act, can you?" Deiro fell in love with West and arranged his bookings so that the two traveled together. They became engaged in either late 1913 or early 1914. Some sources reported the pair were married. During a 1935 radio broadcast Walter Winchellincorrectly reported that Mae West had been married to Guido's brother, Pietro. Walter Wincher, a writer for Accordion News magazine, corrected the error: "In a recent radio broadcast, Walter Winchell conveyed the information that Pietro Deiro had been married to Mae West for four years. As one Walter to another, I must set him right. Pietro was never married to the 'come up and see me sometime' girl. Guido Deiro, his brother, was supposed to be the fortunate accordionist."
West made no public statements indicating that she had been married to Deiro. She referred to him simply as "D" in her autobiography. West's biographers state that the two never married. West and Deiro split in 1916.
Deiro's son claimed that years later Mae West privately revealed to him that she had become pregnant by Guido, and had an abortion without his knowledge, resulting in complications which left her sick for nearly a year and ultimately unable to bear children.
According to Deiro's biographer, West filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery on July 14, 1920. The divorce was granted by the Supreme Court of the State of New York on November 9 of that year. West later said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet."
West in 1973, by
Mae West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930. In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the new Ravenswood apartment building, where she would live until her death in 1980. After she began her movie career, her sister, brother and father followed her there. West provided them with nearby homes and also jobs and sometimes financial support.
West also began a relationship with James Timony, an attorney fifteen years her senior, in 1916 when she was a vaudeville actress. In addition to their romantic relationship, Timony acted as her manager. By the time West was an established movie actress in the mid-1930s, they were no longer a couple. However, 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.
At the age of 61, Mae West became romantically involved with one of the musclemen in her Las Vegas stage show, wrestler, former Mr. California, and former merchant marine Chester Rybinski (1923–1999). He was thirty years younger than West, and later changed his name to Paul Novak. He soon moved in with her and their romance continued until West died at the age of 87 in 1980. Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West."
West had many other boyfriends throughout her life, including boxing champion William Jones, nicknamed Gorilla Jones. When the management at her apartment building discriminated against the African-American boxer and barred his entry, West solved the problem by buying the building.
In popular culture
The "Four Ladies of Hollywood" gazebo at the western border of the Walk of Fame: Mae West,
Dolores del Río,
Anna May Wong.
- During World War II, Allied aircrew called their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" partly from rhyming slang for "breasts"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.
- West has been the subject of songs, such as in the title song of Cole Porter's Broadway musical Anything Goes and in "You're the Top", from the same show.
- One of the most popular objects of the surrealist movement was the Mae West Lips Sofa, which was completed by artist Salvador Dalí in 1938 forEdward James
- When approached for permission to allow her likeness on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, West initially refused stating that she would never be 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.
- Mae West has a statue at Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles, designed by Catherine Hardwicke built in honour of multi-ethnic leading ladies of the cinema, together with Dolores del Rio, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong.