Mae West (August 17, 1893 - November 22, 1980) was an American actress, playwright, screenwriter, and sex symbol.
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. One of the more controversial 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.
Born Mary Jane West in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City,he was the daughter of John Patrick West and Matilda "Tillie" Doelger (also spelled Delker).
Her father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a "special policeman" and then as a detective who ran his own agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model. The family was Protestant, although West's mother was reported as a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria. Her Irish Catholic paternal grandmother, as well as other relatives who were Roman Catholic, disapproved of her career and her choices, as did the aunt who helped deliver her. By some accounts, West's paternal grandfather, John Edwin, may have been an African American who passed for white.
Her siblings were Mildred Katherine West (December 8, 1898 - March 12, 1982) and John Edwin West (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. She may have attended Erasmus Hall High School.
At five years old West 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 legitimate 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. She then appeared in a show called "Vera Violetta," whose cast featured another newcomer, Al Jolson. In 1912 she also appeared in the opening performance of "A Winsome Widow" as a 'baby vamp' named La Petite Daffy.
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.
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 risque plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play she titled Sex, which she also 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 and told reporters that she wore her silk underpants 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 and New 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 stated 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.
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures. She was 38, unusually advanced for a first movie, especially for a sex symbol (though she kept her age ambiguous for several more years). West 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 lovely 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. 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.
Her next release, I'm No Angel (1933), paired her with Grant again. I'm No Angel, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, was a tremendous financial blockbuster. 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 (after William Randolph Hearst). However, the frank sexuality and steamy 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 screenplays were heavily edited. Her tactical response was to increase the number of double entendres in her films, expecting the censors to delete the obvious lines and overlook the subtler ones.
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 (1935), received mixed reviews.
Her next film, Klondike Annie (1936), was concerned with religion and hypocrisy and was very controversial. Many critics have called this 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 hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era. After this film, West starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end.
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 mutual dislike between West and Fields (at least in part because West was a teetotaler who disapproved of Fields' heavy drinking) and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box office success, outgrossing Fields' previous films You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and 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 Ratoff pleaded 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 would 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. Appearing as herself, West flirted with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's dummy, using her usual brand of wit and risque 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 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". NBC personally blamed West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations. 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.
Mae West remains notable for a large number of quips, some firmly tied to herself and her characters, and others widely borrowed for very different settings. A famous Mae West quip was "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" She made this remark in February 1936, at the railway station in Los Angeles upon her return from Chicago, when a Los Angeles police officer was assigned to escort her home. She first delivered the line on film in She Done Him Wrong, and again to George Hamilton in her last movie, Sextette (1978).
In her later years, she famously described the gangster Owney Madden, a former boyfriend who helped bankroll her Hollywood career, as "Sweet, but oh so vicious".
Likewise, "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better", from I'm No Angel, is generally quoted in its original context. Conversely, however, some quips have been widely adapted to very different settings and meanings. For example, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful" has been applied to many settings by others, including Warren Buffett (as a sound principle of informed financial investing).
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 was also uncovered that West made in 1927, during the Sex trial, in which she had declared herself married. 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 "very 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 late in 1913 or perhaps early in 1914. Some sources reported the pair were married. During a 1935 radio broadcast Walter Winchell incorrectly 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. If they were married, this would have constituted bigamy as West was legally married to Frank Wallace at the time. 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, 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."
Mae West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930. In that year, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the historic Ravenswood apartment building (where she would live until her death in 1980). After beginning her movie career, her sister, brother and father followed her there. West provided them with nearby homes and also jobs and sometimes financial support. Another person whom West spent her life with was lawyer James Timony. She met Timony, who was fifteen years her senior, in 1916 when she was a vaudeville actress. They became romantically involved and he also began to act as her manager. By the mid-Thirties when West was an established movie actress, they were no longer a couple. However, they remained extremely close, living in the same building, working together, and providing support for each other, until Timony's death in 1954. A year later, when she was 67, 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. 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. Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this earth to take care of Mae West." West also had many other boyfriends throughout her life. One was 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.
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.
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 in the late 1960s. She also recorded a number of parody songs including "Santa, Come Up and See Me Sometime," on the album Wild Christmas.
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 the 1970s 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 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 topIn 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, West's 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 room 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 within 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.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers