West, Mae (1893–1980)

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West, Mae (1893–1980)

American actress, singer and comedian, one of the great perennial figures of American popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s, who was a legend in her own lifetime . Name variations: known to her family as Mamie; early appeared on stage as May West; on occasion, used the pen name Jane Mast; known as the "Brooklyn Bernhardt" or "Vamp of High Camp." Born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893 (the date is now certain), in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York; died in her Hollywood home at age 87 on November 22, 1980; daughter of John West (a boxer of Irish background who died in 1935) and Matilda Dilker (or Doelger) West (a German-born corset model who died in 1930); second of four children, she had an older sister who died in infancy, a younger sister Mildred (a sometime actress, who appeared on the stage for a time as Beverly Osborn), and a ne'er-dowell brother John West, Jr.; briefly attended public school between the ages of 8 and 14; married Frank Wallace (né Szatkus), on April 11, 1911 (divorced 1942); no children.

First appeared on stage at an amateur night in Brooklyn singing "Movin' Day" (c. 1900); played children's roles with Hal Clarendon's Stock Company (1901–04); appeared as Maggie O'Hara in A La Broadway and Hello Paris (September 22, 1911, NY), as a dancer, singer and chorus girl in Vera Violetta (November 11, 1911, NY), as La Petite Daffy in A Winsome Widow (April 11, 1912, in San Francisco), as Mame Dean in Sometime (October 4, 1918, NY), as Shifty Liz, Madelon and Cleopatra in The Mimic World (April 15, 1921, NY), as Margie LaMont in Sex (April 26, 1926, NY), as Evelyn "Babe" Carson in This Wicked Age (November 4, 1927, NY), in the title role in Diamond Lil (April 11, 1928, NY); toured in Diamond Lil (1929); toured in Sex; published first novel Babe Gordon (reissued as The Constant Sinner, 1930); appeared as Babe Gordon in the play The Constant Sinner (October 14, 1931, NY); debuted on radio on the "Chase and Sanborn Hour" (1938); opened in play Catherine Was Great (August 2, 1944, toured 1945); toured as Carliss Dale in Come on Up (1946); appeared in London revival of Diamond Lil (1947–48), New York revival (February 5, 1949); toured night clubs in "The Mae West Show" (1954–59); published memoirs Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959); toured in Sextette (summer 1961); semi-retired (1961–69); appeared as Leticia Van Allen in Myra Breckinridge (20th Century-Fox, 1970); semi-retired (1971–76); published novelized version of her play Pleasure Man (1975); virtually retired (1976).


Night After Night (Par., 1932); She Done Him Wrong (Par., 1932); I'm No Angel (Par., 1933); Belle of the Nineties (Par., 1934); Goin' To Town (Par., 1934); Klondike Annie (Par., 1936); Go West Young Man (Par., 1937); Every Day's a Holiday (Par., 1938); My Little Chickadee (Par., 1940); The Heat's On (Columbia, 1943); Myra Breckinridge (Fox, 1969); Sextette (Fox, 1976).

Born in 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, Mae West grew up in a middle-class home in the Bushwick section. Her father, a prize fighter in his youth, operated a livery stable and later a private detective agency. Her mother, to whom she was devoted, sacrificed her own life to further her daughter's career. It is not known exactly when West first appeared on the stage—the story varied each time she told it—but an appearance at an amateur night in Brooklyn appears to have taken place when she was seven, either in 1900 or 1901. Thereafter, she joined Hal Clarendon's Stock Company doing little girl impersonations of such popular vaudevillians as Eva Tanguay , Eddie Foy, and Bert Williams, and playing children's roles in such melodramas as Little Nell, The Marchioness, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Ten Nights in a Barroom, For Their Child's Sake, and The Three Claudias; she was also cast as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Except for a brief hiatus in her career during her awkward age, Mae West rarely attended school and on most subjects outside of her profession and her real-estate investments she appears to have been uninformed. She spoke with a broad Brooklyn accent that she never lost (punctuating her conversation with double negatives and referring to the bathroom as the "terlet"), and her creativity as a writer extended to her spelling and grammar.

By 1907, she was working again, singing and dancing in vaudeville. About 1910, she formed a song-and-dance team with Frank Wallace, and in April 1911 they were married. Since she was not yet 18, she had to lie about her age; this is why her birth year is often given as 1892. The account of her marriage in her autobiography is suspect, and it seems to have lasted for longer than the brief period she claimed. In any case, the two separated early and, after she became famous, she pretended that Wallace did not exist.

Little is known of Mae's life between her marriage and her sudden Broadway stardom in the mid-1920s. By her own account, she toured the country for years in vaudeville, learning her trade by carefully observing other performers and enjoying a number of romantic affairs. She performed as a ragtime singer, did a song-and-dance act with the Girard Brothers, did an act with her sister Mildred, who used the stage name Beverly Osborn , and appeared as a singer with Harry Richmond on piano. Gradually, West developed the self-mocking persona of the exaggerated siren, with a purring, insinuating voice and a slinky, undulating walk that came to be her trademarks and which she seems to have derived at least in part from watching female impersonators. Reviews of her various acts in the trade papers were rarely laudatory, but West nevertheless managed to secure an engagement at the Palace, the highest goal of all vaudeville artists after its opening in New York in 1913. From time to time, she appeared on the Broadway stage, usually in a musical revue such as Vera Violetta with Al Jolson and Gaby Deslys (1911) and Sometime with Ed Wynn (1918), in which she introduced a dance called the "shimmy" that she had seen in Chicago cabarets, and which briefly became a craze.

The years between 1921 and 1926 are the most obscure. West seems to have continued touring in vaudeville, but there is some evidence that she may have had to support herself by working burlesque. In any case, she surfaced again in 1926, opening on Broadway in a play of her own devising called by the then scandalous title Sex. A dreadful piece of goods by all reports, it achieved notoriety by the refusal of the newspapers to carry ads for it and the necessity of opening at an obscure theater far uptown. Although West claimed repeatedly that Sex was her first venture as a playwright, the copyright-deposit collection at the Library of Congress has at least two earlier manuscripts by her pen, The Hussy (1922) and Chick (1924). Sex ran for months in New York until February 21, 1927, when it was raided, together with two other productions, during a periodic cleanup of the Broadway stage. Though the other producers agreed to pay the fine and close their shows, West—recognizing a million dollars worth of free publicity—allowed the case to go to court. She lost and was sentenced to ten days in jail, during which she kept busy, writing an article for Liberty magazine. Once released, she found herself a national celebrity and the darling of the tabloid press. While Sex was still running, West announced the production of a new play "by Jane Mast" entitled The Drag and billed as "A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts." It opened in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 31, 1927, and, although West did not appear in it, the play did good business for two weeks despite dreadful reviews. The New York police, however, warned her against bringing it to Broadway, and she followed their advice. West's next vehicle was her own This Wicked Age (1927), which also received bad reviews. It ran for only 19 performances.

Mae West's next opus, however, was of a different order, the now legendary Diamond Lil (1928). Although one critic opined that as a melodrama, Diamond Lil was so bad that it had considerable merit as parody, it turned out to be the best vehicle that West ever concocted for herself. Set in the seamy and raffish world of the Bowery at the turn of the century, the play tapped a wellspring of nostalgia never before exploited, and enabled her to display her ample figure in the costumes and plumage of the era when women of her type had been fashionable. Speckled with clever dialogue, Diamond Lil presented West at her very best as a stage personality. Spicy, but in no way indecent, even by the standards of the day, Diamond Lil ran for nine months in New York.

During its successful run, West found time to stage another of her own plays, Pleasure Man, which she wrote and produced but did not appear in. As in The Drag, the theme was homosexuality, and the police raided the theater after its opening night performance. Once again, West opted to go to court, receiving even more free publicity, and this time being acquitted.

After the closing of the Broadway run of Diamond Lil, West took the play on tour. It was about this time that she began writing novels, The Constant Sinner (1930) and a novelized version of Diamond Lil (NY: McCauley, 1932). Neither of them qualify as literature, but both made a good "read," sold well and were occasionally being reissued as late as the 1950s. Back in New York, Mae opened in a stage version of The Constant Sinner, dealing with the then daring theme of a white woman and her black lover. Whatever redeeming social import the play might have had, however, was vitiated by the poor writing, for, while there is no question that West took her art as seriously as did Eugene O'Neill, she just wasn't very good at it. The Constant Sinner lasted only eight weeks.

In 1932, West accepted an invitation to make a film at Paramount Studios. Her first appearance was in a George Raft vehicle called Night AfterNight in which, as Raft later stated, West stole everything but the scenery. Delighted with her impact, the studio immediately accepted her idea of filming Diamond Lil, which, for some reason not entirely clear, was retitled She Done Him Wrong (1932), and in which she played opposite Cary Grant. Though phenomenally successful, the film was falsely credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Running for an entire year in Paris, it catapulted West to international fame. This picture was followed almost immediately by I'm No Angel (1933), a modern-dress story set in the circus world, again with Grant. Equally as successful as She Done Him Wrong, it left its star the most talked-about actress of the day, and by 1935 she would be the most highly paid woman in America ($485,000 per year). Mae West thus achieved the astonishing feat of becoming an international sex goddess at age 40. Her picture was on every magazine cover, and over the next few years, Life did a spread on her "many-mirrored apartment," Britain's Royal Air Force named its new two-chambered life jacket a "Mae West," and Salvador Dali used her face as the basis for a "still life." In an era that liked its women slim as reeds, West openly flaunted an hourglass figure; in a profession that prized youth, she triumphed in full-blown maturity; in an age that still gave lip-service to traditional morality, she treated sex openly and honestly, portraying women who knew what they wanted, saw nothing wrong in going after it, and suffered no pangs of remorse at the story's end.

Judge: "Are you trying to show contempt for this court?"

Mae West: "I'm doin' my best to hide it."

But Hollywood had gone too far in the early days of talking films, and Mae appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Under threat of government intervention, the Hays Office had been formed to police the film industry from within, and West became its first major target. Her fourth film, originally called It Ain't No Sin (1934), was butchered to the point where its plot makes little sense, and it was forced to change its title to the innocuous Belle of the Nineties. Thereafter, although she continued to make films, she never made them with the frequency that film stars of the '30s usually did, and each seemed to be more innocuous, if not downright duller, than the last. Of these, it should be noted that, although she is usually associated with turn-of-the-century settings and costumes, only two of West's many plays and only five of her twelve films were set in the past. She was assiduous in keeping her image and her material up to date.

In Hollywood, West settled down in a fourroom apartment on the top floor of the Ravenswood Apartments, which had been rented for her by the studio before her arrival. Here, having decorated the place herself in a white-on-white Louis the Umpteenth style in the worst taste of 1932 (which she never redid), surrounded by her air-brushed photos, nude portrait, and a nude statue of herself by sculptor Gladys Lewis Bush , she lived for the rest of her life. Over the years, she invested heavily in real estate, including the Ravenswood (which she later sold for a handsome profit), a 22-room beach house in Santa Monica, and a ranch in San Fernando Valley near Van Nuys. When not making films, West attended prize fights and horse races, played with her increasing collection of diamonds, cut an occasional phonograph record, dabbled in the occult, awaited her muse, worked on her scripts, received her gentlemen callers, and let herself get fat. Once a film was scheduled, however, she became an athlete in training, working out, shedding pounds and, when necessary, having her face lifted.

Although she dropped broad hints that she was quite different in her private life from the characters she portrayed on stage and screen, the opposite was true. If anything, her taste in men was on a lower plane than that of the heroines in her vehicles. Boxers, wrestlers, body builders, weight lifters and miscellaneous gangsters, roughnecks, gigolos, and toughs were regulars at the Ravenswood, all grist for her mill when she was not bedding such actors as George Raft, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant (the last of whom, with some exaggeration, she claimed to have discovered). Fond of mustachioed Latins, and an early supporter of giving roles to black actors and musicians, West freely practiced affirmative action in her libidinous adventures. Given the climate of the time, however, she worked hard to keep this a secret, even going so far as to deny it under oath. Whatever her relations with her men, however, West, ever preoccupied with her "dignity" and fancying herself "a lady," insisted on being treated with respect; no one was allowed to call her "Mae" in public.

Although West cavorted with many men, the only one with whom she was long associated in her heyday was Jim Timony, a heavy-set Irishman who had once been her mother's lawyer. Serving as her manager and gentleman-in-waiting for 25 years, and intensely jealous, Timony

supervised her increasing real-estate holdings and did everything he could to curb her amorous adventures. In Hollywood, it was even whispered that they were secretly married. Eventually, in 1935, West's real marriage was discovered, and, after first vigorously denying even knowing Wallace, she was finally forced to admit that he was her husband and made a settlement with him in order to obtain a divorce granted in 1942.

The late '30s brought another succès d'scandale when West made her radio debut on "The Chase and Sanborn Hour," hosted weekly by the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. She so shocked radio audiences with her burlesque of the Adam and Eve story that she was not allowed to appear on radio again for a dozen years.

In the midst of all this, West appeared in her last important film, My Little Chickadee (1940), in which, sensing that she was slipping, the studio co-starred her with the famed comedian W.C. Fields. This picture, long popular on the cult-film circuit, is far less the hilarious comedy that it could have been, largely due to the jealousy of the two stars that led them to play most of their scenes without the other being involved. Detesting alcoholics, West took an immediate dislike to the hard-drinking Fields and even after his death did nothing to hide her bitterness over their squabbles on the set. Three years later, the first phase of her film career closed with The Heat's On (Columbia, 1944), which was not only her worst film until that time—Myra Breckinridge still lay ahead—but her first released as the "B" picture on a double feature.

The disaster of The Heat's On convinced West that there was no longer a future for her in Hollywood, and at 50 she returned to the New York stage with a script for which she had been unable to obtain support at Paramount. The play, Catherine Was Great, was originally intended to be a satire on the great Russian empress of the 18th century, famed for many things, including her sexual escapades. Unfortunately, the production, which opened in New York on August 2, 1945, with lavish costumes and no less than a dozen sumptuous sets, represented the high water mark of West's tendency to take herself too seriously. Though it was peppered with feeble one-liners and occasional smut to give the audience what it had come for, West tried to present a serious portrait of Catherine II the Great 's career and, in over her head, received appalling reviews. So hungry was the public for a glimpse of Mae West in the flesh, however, that the play managed five and a half months in New York (191 performances) and packed theaters on tour all through 1945. In 1946–47, she appeared in Oakland, California, in a play called Ring Twice Tonight, which she had adapted to her style and which she later toured in under the title Come on Up, without bringing it to New York.

In September 1948, West revived Diamond Lil in England, the only trip that she ever made abroad. The new production followed the film version, stressing the humor and featuring the star in song. Diamond Lil toured the British provinces for 12 weeks before opening in London on January 24, 1948, where West—if not her play—received good notices. The production ran for four months. Returning to America, she then staged the play on Broadway, where, relatively slimmed down, swathed in ostrich feathers, crowned with plumes, corseted within an inch of her life, and stuffed into tightly fitted turn-of-the-century gowns of lavender, beige, and vermilion, she was one of the sights of New York. The opening night of the revival was probably the high point of West's long career. A certified legend at 55 and still a handsome, voluptuous woman, she received a standing ovation, generally rave reviews, a layout in Life, and a portrait on the cover of Theater Arts Monthly. The play (temporarily closed when West broke her ankle) reopened in September to run for another six months after which she toured the country for the next three years, finally closing the play after a second Broadway run in November 1951 only to attend to Jim Timony who by now was clearly failing.

After his death and without his restraining influence, West opened a new phase in her career. In August 1954, turning 61, she launched a night-club act at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, appearing with nine scantily clad, title-holding body builders. For five years, she took this act from coast to coast, breaking box-office records everywhere with what she called "the first barechest act for ladies." The show came to an end in 1959 in a swirl of bad publicity after West became involved in an altercation between two of her men, and it became common knowledge that she had been sleeping with most of her cast, some of whose members were less than half her age. The one durable result of this last major phase of her career was the acquisition of one of the body builders as her companion for the rest of her life.

Thereafter, West returned to Hollywood where she dictated a witty but largely ghosted autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959). On the strength of this, she staged a revival of Sextette in Chicago in the summer of 1961. Though the show was well received by the local critics, as well as in Detroit and Miami, the death of her co-star cast a pall over the production, and West closed it without bringing it to New York.

The closing of Sextette was not meant to be the end of West's career but to a certain extent it was, for she never starred on stage again. Entering her 70s, she devoted her remaining years to a variety of activities, recording albums (Way Out West, Wild Christmas and Great Balls of Fire, 1966), appearing on television ("The Red Skelton Show," 1960, twice on "Mr. Ed," 1964, 1965), eating her health foods, riding her stationary bicycle, pursuing her interest in the supernatural, publishing a novelized version of Pleasure Man and an updated version of her "memoirs," coping with her sister's alcoholism, nursing her investments and her diabetes, and granting preposterous "interviews" (Esquire, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Life, The Gay Advocate, etc.), during which she claimed to have started whatever happened to be fashionable at the time, from the sexual revolution and women's liberation to civil rights for blacks and homosexuals. As the years passed, she became increasingly the object of a Mae West cult, receiving a steady volume of mail from fans who lived from one rare public appearance of their idol to another and who stood in line for hours to see revivals of her films. The University of Southern California football team chose her as its mascot, After Dark magazine honored her with a banquet and its "Ruby Award," and she was voted the "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." She was adored by many homosexuals, whom she had early depicted in her plays and whom she had always defended, and "doing Mae West" became a standard feature of the female impersonator's art.

The collapse of film censorship in the '60s and the continued devotion of her fans prompted West to return to the screen in 1969 after an absence of 27 years. The vehicle chosen was Gore Vidal's bizarre but brilliant novel Myra Breckinridge with West given top billing in the much built-up role of "singer-agent" Leticia Van Allen. Unfortunately, the production, which might have been a comic masterpiece, was entrusted to an inexperienced English director, Michael Sarne, who made a fiasco of it. Released in 1970, it has often been cited as one of the worst films ever made. West's songs were poor; she was badly lit and badly photographed; most of her best lines and scenes were cut; and the reviews were savage. The premier in New York, however, was a personal triumph. A mob greeted her arrival at the theater, and afterwards she held a press conference, basking in the attention of New York reporters as in days of yore. Then, in 1976, after her successful appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show," she unwisely allowed herself to be induced into making yet another picture, a film version of Sextette, in which, at age 83, she played a glamorous movie star of 26, an incredible tour de force of interest only to her die-hard fans. In many ways a better film than Myra Breckinridge, Sextette had a fine cast and good production values, but was vitiated by the fact that, except in a few startling scenes, West, stiff in movement, artlessly painted and blurred in soft focus, was no longer able to bring off what had once been her forte. After glittering openings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, followed by scathing reviews and empty seats, the film was unable to find a distributor and ended up being shown only at a few cult theaters. West lingered a few years longer, teetering on the edge of senility, and increasingly reclusive, attended by her companion of 30 years. Suffering a stroke on August 10, 1980, she died on November 22, three months after her 87th birthday; her last professional activity had been a radio advertisement for Poland Spring Mineral Water earlier the same year. She had thus been a performer for some 80 years.

Mae West was essentially a personality. Amazingly easy to impersonate, she nevertheless remained her own unique creation, and there was never anyone else like her on stage or screen. She was neither beautiful nor talented, and historians have gone to considerable lengths to explain her ability to capture the imagination of the public and to become a legend in her lifetime. Above all, one has to make an attempt today to explain the now almost incomprehensible public outcry over an actress who used no foul language, bared no flesh, and engaged in no sexual activity on screen beyond an occasional kiss or a momentary embrace. The best suggestion has been that at a time when women were still supposed to be sex objects, Mae West tossed hypocritical conventions out the window and conveyed, however implicitly, that she was as interested in having a physical relationship with her men as they were in having one with her. It would not be until the 1960s that the public was willing to accept the open sexuality of women and the fact that "decent" women could desire men as much as men desired them. Mae West disturbed many women, who feared or envied her frank sexuality, and many men resented her unwillingness to play the female role on their terms. In all her films and plays, however crude they may be, there is a continuing theme wherein we find a heroine ready to face the world and unwilling to pretend that life is anything other than what it really is.

To this extent, Mae West was well ahead of her time and this was something that she, though usually anything but introspective, appreciated herself. It must be left to psychology, however, to explain a female who flaunted her femininity but who comported herself more like a female impersonator than a real woman, and who, for all her sexual escapades, never seemed to be able to love any one man as an individual. Her colossal ego undoubtedly masked a very insecure person, who may have had grave doubts about her own worth as a woman to the point that she was driven over and over again to prove it to the world and in this way to herself.

Strong willed but good natured, Mae West was devoted to her family, helped many individuals quietly, and was able to earn the devotion of the few people whom she trusted enough to allow to get close to her, among them the designer Edith Head , who created the costumes for She Done Him Wrong, Myra Breckinridge, and Sextette, and who stood by her on the set during the filming of her last two pictures. West looked after the people who had worked well with her and was always ready to cast one in her later productions. Shrewd, cunning and a good business woman, she nevertheless lacked sagacity and never seemed able to distinguish herself from her stage persona or to understand the demons that drove her. She took herself seriously as an actress, boldly sang in her small voice, and, having amassed an oeuvre consisting of several dreadful plays, clumsily written novels, and pedestrian film scripts, fancied herself a lady of letters. Though she had beautiful eyes and a dazzling smile, Mae West was otherwise a 5'4" bleached blonde, round-shouldered and somewhat dumpy. Famed for the size of her bosom, she was not, in fact, particularly endowed but simply big-boned and generally heavy set. The rest was padding. Only her legs were really beautiful, and these she rarely showed. Badly dressed off screen, she waged (and usually lost) a lifelong battle with obesity, yet she never ceased to consider herself irresistible to men, mindlessly accepting, as early as the 1920s, outrageous and often crude airbrushed publicity photographs as proof of her unfading charms.

A brilliant showwoman, however, West understood her craft to its very depths, and there was no one to whom the word "professional" was more fittingly applied. Sensuous by nature, she triumphed over her physical limitations by shrewd costuming and by allowing her natural sexuality to project itself through an uncanny use of voice, movement and gesture that bordered on genius. In comedy, she was the unparalleled mistress of the "one-liner" and, in her delivery, had a genius for timing. Her casual quip in Diamond Lil, "Come up and see me sometime," so innocuous on paper, when presented in her own particular inflection and tone of voice, became the most famed of salacious invitations. She knew, to the finest detail, what worked for her to the point where the limitations imposed upon her by the censors in the 1930s probably deprived us of some of her most brilliant work. Ironically, she remains best remembered for My Little Chickadee, still viewed today because of the popularity of W.C. Fields. Mae West would not have been pleased.


Eels, George, and Stanley Musgrove. Mae West. NY: William Morrow, 1982.

Tusca, Jon. The Films of Mae West. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1973.

West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1959 (2nd ed. NY: Macfadden-Bartell, 1970).

suggested reading:

Hamilton, Marybeth. "When I'm Bad, I'm Better." CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Lawrenson, Helen . "Mirror, Mirror, on the Ceiling: How'm I doin'?," in Esquire. July 1967.

Leider, Emily Wortis. Becoming Mae West. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1997.

"Mae West: America's Favorite Hussy Comes Back Again as 'Diamond Lil,'" in Life. May 23, 1949.

"Mae West; Goin' Strong at 75," in Life. April 18, 1969.

Meryman, Richard. "Mae West; a Cherished, Bemusing Masterpiece of Self-Preservation," in Life. April 18, 1969.

Parish, James Robert. The Paramount Pretties. Castle Books, 1972.

Roberts, Stephen B. "76 and Still Diamond Lil," in The New York Times Magazine. November 2, 1969.

Ward, Carol. Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey