Clever and sultry, Mae West conquered both stage and screen, becoming America’s favorite “sex goddess” of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1893, West was the daughter of a former prizefighter and a model. Her mother encouraged her to enter amateur talent contests. Billed as “Baby Mae,” she won her first contest at age eight with a song-and-dance act. Mae was soon in demand for child parts in stage shows. Almost immediately, she began rewriting her roles to better suit her talents, a habit she would practice throughout her performing career. By her teens, Mae was finding work in traveling shows. She briefiy teamed up with Frank Wallace, whom she married in a secret ceremony in 1911. They soon separated, and they divorced in 1942. At 18, West began appearing in musical revues in New York City. She also found success on the vaudeville circuit. Unlike most women in vaudeville, she usually performed as a solo act. Often dressed in satin and fur, she developed a sensual swagger while perfecting her comic gifts. West quickly emerged as a master of the double entendre. Even when she spoke a seemingly innocent line, her audience interpreted it as risqué. As West herself explained, “It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it.”
Disappointed with the roles she was offered, West decided to write her own. After penning three unproduced plays, she finally decided to produce her fourth herself. The play was provocatively titled Sex (1926) as a conscious bid for publicity. Broad sheet newspapers refused to run ads for the play, but the tabloids were plastered with stories about West and her production. She also sent boys all over New York with stickers featuring the play’s title. West later wrote, “If you stopped for a minute when one walked by, why you got a sticker stuck clean across your back, with SEX printed on it.”The play was an enormous success. West starred as Margy Lamont, a former prostitute with a heart of gold. Far from ashamed of her past, Lamont is unrepentant over how she earned the money to pay for her mansion. She jeers at a snobbish socialite, “The only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away.”Despite its racy subject matter, the play ran without incident for 41 weeks, in part because New York’s major was an admitted West fan. While the mayor was out of town, however, the vice mayor ordered a raid on the production. Sex was shut down, and West was arrested. In court, the city failed to prove that the play’s text was obscene. West, though, was found guilty of “corrupting the morals of youth.” Although she was fully clothed, her navel was said to move in an obscene manner during one of her dances. West was sentenced to 10 days in prison, though she was let out after eight for good behavior. She complained about the scratchy prison underwear but gleefully told the press that her jail experience had given her enough material for a dozen more plays. West’s next work, The Drag (1927), was among her most provocative. A comedic plea for tolerance of male homosexuality, it featured a great ball attended by drag queens. The play was produced in Paterson, New Jersey, but was deemed too controversial for Broadway. The next year saw the play that would make her a legend, Diamond Lil (1928). Set in New York’s Bowery, the play featured West as a singer hobnobbing with a variety of underworld figures. Showing an unerring instinct for how best to present herself on stage, West set Diamond Lil in the 1890s. Her full figure was too plump to dress in the slim, linear fiapper style that defined 1920s sexuality. Her physique was ideal, however, for the low-cut, corseted look of Gay Nineties fashions.
The play also showcased West’s own style of humor to its best advantage. As a critic in The New Republic wrote, “it uses every tried and trusted trick, hokum, motive and stage expectation, but always shrewdly.” However old-fashioned the plot, the play offered West plenty of wisecracks. Her favorite targets were sexual repression, hypocrisy, and romantic ideals. To West’s Diamond Lil, sex was nothing but a pleasure to be enjoyed, and the only person a woman could depend on was herself. After a raid shut down her next play, The Pleasure Man (1928), West went on tour with Diamond Lil. In 1932, she welcomed the chance to take on Hollywood, when her friend George Raft got her a small part as his girlfriend in Night After Night. West sparkled in her role, ad-libbing what became one of her most famous lines. After a coatchecker admires her jewelry with “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” West replied, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” The line became the title of her 1959 autobiography.
Excited by its new star, Paramount Studios decided her next film would be an adaptation of Diamond Lil. The studio suggested calling it He Done Her Wrong, but West, offended by the passivity that title implied, insisted it be titled She Done Him Wrong. She also got her way in the selection of her costar—Cary Grant, a handsome actor 10 years her junior whom she spotted on the lot. The film broke box-office records, as did West’s next movie, I’m No Angel, which teamed her again with Grant. These two films brought Grant to stardom, saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and made West the most powerful woman in Hollywood. They also inspired Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to inaugurate a strict code of what could and could not been seen and heard on screen. West made seven more films during the 1930s and 1940s, but the strict rules of the production code increasingly reined in her risqué humor. She also wore out her welcome with audiences by playing over and over again variations on her Diamond Lil character. By the late 1930s, West had fallen so out of favor that she was considered box-office poison. She had a modest success with My Little Chickadee (1940), costarring W. C. Fields, but by 1943 she was forced to retire from films.
West returned to the stage, first with a misguided new play titled Catherine Was Great (1944), then with a touring revival of Diamond Lil. During the late 1950s, West, now in her 60s, developed a musical comedy revue, in which she shared the stage with a troupe of male bodybuilders. One of her troupe, Paul Novak, became West’s companion for the last 25 years of her life. West’s brand of sexual humor found a new, young audience in the 1960s and 1970s. She tried to capitalize on the renewed interest in her movies by recording three record albums and appearing in two widely reviled films, Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). At 87, West suffered a stroke. She died three months later, on November 22, 1980. West’s Diamond Lil has since emerged as iconic a film character as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Those who have never seen her movies are still familiar with her face, her voice, and her sashay. Even better known are West’s bons mots—from “Come up sometime and see me” to “Peel me a grape”—making her perhaps the most quoted movie star of all time.
Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Leider, Emily Wortis. Becoming Mae West. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.
West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. Revised edition. New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1970.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
I’m No Angel (1933). Universal, VHS, 1993.
My Little Chickadee (1940). Universal, VHS, 1993.
She Done Him Wrong (1933). Universal, VHS, 1993.
Sextette (1979). Rhino, DVD/VHS, 2000/1997.