Mae West (August 17, 1893–November 22, 1980) reigned during the 1930s as one of Hollywood's most popular and controversial actresses. Born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1893, West was raised in a poor family. A precocious child, she began performing with local stock companies. By 1910, she embarked on a professional career and for years bounced between vaudeville and burlesque with occasional Broadway engagements in between.
By the 1920s, West had developed a unique and bold performance style rooted in vaudeville, melodrama, drag performance, and African-American culture. In 1927, her fame grew with her appearance in SEX, a play she had authored. SEX's frankness, combined with her attempt to stage another play about homosexuality, landed West a ten-day jail sentence. In 1928, she wrote and starred in the hit, Diamond Lil, the story of a former prostitute with a heart of gold. The image of the swaggering, hand on her hip, wise-cracking Lil became enmeshed with West's public persona.
West's film break came in 1932 when Paramount Studios, despite movie censors' ban on the actress, slipped her into a small part in Night after Night. Critics agreed: West was brilliant. Realizing her earning potential, the nearly bankrupt studio gave West complete creative control and proceeded with filming Diamond Lil. The result, She Done Him Wrong (1933), broke all box office records and revived Paramount. West's follow-up, I'm No Angel (1933) was equally successful. The actress became a national phenomenon. Her clever sayings, including "Come up and see me sometime" and "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better," and Mae West look-alike contests swept the country.
Although Hollywood's most powerful woman, Mae West could not outsmart censors for long. They drastically sheared her fourth film, Belle of the Nineties (1934). West made only five more films during the decade, and with each one her character became blander and her audience dwindled. Nonetheless, she remained a presence and even found herself banished from radio after a saucy performance in an Adam and Eve skit in 1937.
Much of West's appeal rested in her ability to empower people struggling through the Great Depression. West played the underdog who triumphed through wit and guile. Her bold celebration of female sexuality empowered women. But her rags-to-riches story also spoke to Americans from all walks of life, giving them hope that they too could overcome adversity.
Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. 1996.
Hamilton, Mary Beth. When I'm Bad I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Popular Entertainment.1995.
Leider, Emily Wortis. Becoming Mae West. 1997.
Robertson, Pamela. Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. 1996.
Watts, Jill. Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. 2001.