Mae West

 Portrait of Mae West in Belle of Nineties directed by Leo McCarey, 1934.

Mae (Mary Jane) West was born on August 17, 1893.  Beginning as a vaudeville and burlesque performer, Mae West would later become an iconic playwright, director, singer, and a noted Broadway and film actress.
At the age of 17, Mae married fellow vaudeville performer Frank Szatkus (stage name  Frank Wallace).  However, their individual performance opportunities pulled them apart and their hasty marriage quickly deteriorated.  Although Mae vowed to keep the union a secret,  years later, she would be forced to confront society’s judgement, expectations, and disappointments.
Mae West showing off her wedding ring adjacent to husband Frank Wallace in 1911
Being exposed to dancing popularized by African Americans, Mae West introduced the “shimmy-shawobble,” a dance isolating movements to the torso, pelvis, shoulders, and breasts to her vaudeville routines.

A sensual performer, Mae’s overt sexual presence, coupled with her bold choices of high fashioned form-fitting clothing, won over fans.  Correspondingly, her productions also challenged societies mores.  Her stage production of Sex (1926), although well attended, was eventually shutdown due to widespread obscenities.  In 1927, for writing, acting, and producing Sex, she was arrested,  fined $500 and sentenced to 10 days in jail.  Nevertheless, the negative worldwide attention did not halt Mae’s career.  Instead, it served as a vehicle for future roles and opportunities.

In 1927, fascinated by the lifestyles of homosexuals and bisexuals, Mae researched and wrote The Drag, a play which featured drag queens and required the staging of a drag ball onstage.  Although the play received regional success, when announced it would open on Broadway, the play was aggressively attacked and subsequently banned by the Society for the Prevention of Vice (an organization which monitored the compliance of New York Stage Laws regarding morality).  Although the play’s run on Broadway was halted, the conflict garnered Mae West national publicity and notoriety.

In 1932, Mae’s career catapulted when her friend (and fellow actor) George Raft, introduced her to Paramount studios.  At his urgings, West received a small part in Night after Night, a film in which Raft would star.  In Mae’s film-acting debut, she was given permission to rework the dialogue.  When a Hatcheck girl (Patricia Farley) looked at Mae’s diamonds and uttered, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” Mae West famously replied,  “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”  A queen of unexpected verbal quips, this witty exchange solidified her as Hollywood’s newest juggernaut.

Excerpt from Night After Night
By 1933, Mae West was slated to star in her first film She Done Him Wrong co-starring Cary Grant, a then unknown actor.  A grave success, Mae West would co-star with Cary Grant in another blockbuster film entitled “I’m No Angel.”  She followed with films such as Klondike Annie (1936), My Little Chickedee (1940), and Sextette (1978).
In her film work, Mae continued to garner the attention of the law and censor groups.  Her bold sensuality challenged society to confront and view sexuality in ways previously frowned upon.  Her view on homosexuality, sex, femininity, and love were unpopular, yet served as a paradigm for derailing censorship.  A performer, “sex goddess”, politician, businesswoman, playwright, actress, director, and producer, the legacy of Mae West continues to challenge others to confront societal ideas to discover and claim their power.
Portrait of Gary Grant and Mae West in I’m no Angel directed by Wesley Ruggles, 1933.
Portrait of Mae West in Goin’to Town directed by Alexander Hall, 1935.
Mae West Quotes:
  • I like a man in uniform… and that one fits you grand.
  • Well, it’s better to get looked over than overlooked.
  • When women go wrong, men go right after them.
  • When I’m good, I’m very good, and when I’m bad I’m better
  • Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
  • Give a man a free hand and he’ll put it all over you.
  • When caught between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.
Click to view more Mae West Quotes
Click to view Mae West Filmography

Mae West in I’m no Angel directed by Wesley Ruggles, 1933.

Portrait of Mae West in She Done Him Wrong directed by Lowell Sherman, 1933.
Portrait of Mae West in Belle of Nineties directed by Leo McCarey, 1934.

Portrait of Mae West in Belle of Nineties directed by Leo McCarey, 1934.

 Portrait of Mae West, 1936.

 

Portrait of Mae West in Go West Young Man directed by Henry Hathaway, 1936.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-hvyaucN3Gp4/VC5G6OSfYFI/AAAAAAAAIBI/M-4a_eQDroo/s1600/1928-Oct3_Mae_court_t.jpg

Mae West at age 86, in 1979, in front of her piano where her nude statue stood.

Other resources

‘There’s nothing better in life than diamonds’  This is an edited version of Charlotte Chandler’s interview with Mae West in Ravenswood Apts, Hollywood, in 1979

Click to enter Mae West’s official site.

By Artistic Associate Tamera N. Izlar

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