American actress and screenwriter Mae West (1893 - 1980), 1934. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Long before Madonna, Miley and Marilyn, there was Mae West, the original celebrity bad girl. The actress and comedienne, who was born in 1893, loved to push the boundaries of decency and toy with sexual innuendos during a time when women still wore their dresses down to their ankles and didn’t have the right to vote. Mae West performed in burlesque shows, wrote her own adult-content plays and advocated for gay rights…all of which put her at odds with morality groups, censorship committees and religious groups.
Mae West was a Born Performer
Mae West started to perform at church events when she was just five years old. From there, she moved on to enter amateur shows and talent contests, winning many of them. In 1907, when she was just 14, she joined the Hal Claredon Stock Company, a vaudeville troupe. She danced and sang and mimicked the female impersonators that were popular at the time, including Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge.
Mae West Shimmied and Vamped
In 1911, Mae West was asked to perform in a review on Broadway called A La Broadway. The show was a flop overall but West received good reviews and was mentioned in the New York Times. West appeared with Al Jolson in her next show which was called Vera Violetta. The next year, she took on the role of a ‘baby vamp’ in A Winsome Widow. West became a regular vaudeville performer and quickly learned how to work the audience. She instinctively knew what they wanted to hear … bawdy, sexual banter. She began to write her own lines.
She got it From Her Momma
Mae West’s mother, Tillie, was once a corset model and fashion model. She was comfortable with her own body and passed along that confidence to her oldest daughter, Mae, whose given name was Mary Jane. Tillie’s family was Jewish and did not approve of her marriage to West’s father, the Irish Catholic John Patrick West. John Patrick West went by the name “Battlin’ Jack” when he was a prizefighter. He later worked as a policeman and then owned a private investigation agency.
Mae West was Jailed on Moral Charges
Mae West wrote her own risqué plays that she starred in. Her first one was produced on Broadway in 1926 and titled Sex. The audience packed in to see the show, although it did not receive favorable reviews. It did, however, get the attention of city officials who had been tipped off about the show by local religious groups. The theatre was raided by police officers and West, along with her cast, were all arrested. On April 19, 1927, she appeared in court to face the charges against her and was sentenced to ten days in jail for ‘corrupting the morals of youth.’ West had the option to pay a fine and avoid jail time but she knew that serving out her time in jail was good for publicity. She quipped, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Mae West was an Early Supporter of Gay Rights
Mae West’s second play was called The Drag and focused on the topic of homosexuality and cross-dressing. She held auditions and practices by New York City officials, under pressure from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, banned the show from staging in the city. During her time working in vaudeville, West encountered many ‘drag queens’, male entertainers whose dresses were more elaborate than women’s clothing, adopted feminine mannerisms and performed sexually provocative material. She came to understand that these men were misunderstood and forced to live inauthentic, secretive lives because their sexuality didn’t fit societal norms. She followed The Drag with other plays, including The Wicked Age, The Constant Sinner, and Pleasure Man. With the release of each play, Mae West stirred up controversy which she welcomed. It kept her name in the newspapers and it kept ticket sales high.
Mae West Hit it Big with Diamond Lil
The next play that Mae West wrote for herself turned out to be her biggest hit. The 1928 Diamond Lil starred West as a smart but racy dame of the 1890s. Diamond Lil became a huge Broadway smash and helped to cement Mae West’s image as a lovable bad girl. On and off throughout her career, she brought back Diamond Lil, to the delight of audiences.
Hollywood Came Calling
With the success of Diamond Lil, Mae West attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. Despite being almost 40 years old, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. Her Diamond Lil character received a new name and was featured in the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, which was notable for being Cary Grant’s first major movie role. The movie earned an Academy Award nomination and the box office ticket sales were enough to pull Paramount Pictures back from the edge of bankruptcy.
Mae West: Queen of the One-Liners
Even though she had to dodge censors who accused West of being a negative role model, the actress and screenwriter was able to slip through some memorable movie lines that have come to be synonymous with Mae West. She said, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”, “Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven’t tried before”, “When I’m good, I’m very very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better” and “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
Mae West has Entered Pop Culture
An icon of pop culture and a veteran of numerous films, Mae West will forever be remembered as the original bad girl whose quick wit and ability to employ double meanings made people either love her or hate her. A confident, sexy and savvy woman, Mae West was ahead of her time but she laid the foundation for future bad girls everywhere.