Mae West (1893-1980)

Mae West
Mae West
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Mae West was a movie and stage actress and writer who became famous in the 1930's for her extravagant showmanship and for a sexually liberated attitude far ahead of her time. During her show business career of over 60 years she became famous for her wisecracking, 'woman of the world' persona, for her eye-catching and tight-fitting costumes, and for her salacious "doubles-entendres" designed to circumvent the censorship rules of the day. Amazingly she was aged 39 when she began her film career and she only made a total of 12 movies. Nevertheless from this small base she became one of the most famous and well paid women in the world and her her legend as a brassy, blonde sex symbol, lives on to this day. She was placed by the American Film Institute at number fifteen on their list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends.

Her fame spread far beyond the world of movies and she was reputed to be the model for the shape of the Coca Cola bottle. Even today the inflatable life jackets used by the American military are known as "Mae Wests" from their resemblance to her curvy figure.


She was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1893 but was known as Mae or May, from babyhood.. She had one elder sister who died in infancy and a younger sister and brother. Her father was a professional boxer, known as "Battling Jack West" and her mother, Tillie, after a short career as an actress, became a seamstress. Tillie was ambitious for her daughters and it was at her urging that Mae first took to the stage, first as a singer and dancer in local amateur talent shows from the age of five. She left school when she was seven and continued her amateur career, often winning talent competitions. Her theatrical apprenticeship continued when, in the early years of the new century she joined a New York Stock Company run by actor Hal Clarendon. She performed as a child actor in melodramas such as 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and 'Little Lord Fauntleroy'. It was cheap theater, appealing to the baser instincts of the working class audiences and Mae learned lessons about provoking and arousing audiences by shocking them which she would use throughout her career.

Mae performed under the stage names of 'The Baby Vamp' and 'Baby Mae' and during this early period she experimented with several acts including blacking her face for a minstrel show and working as a male impersonator. She later claimed that she developed her famous slinky, hip-swinging walk from her female impersonator friends. There were very few solo female entertainers on the New York vaudeville stage at that time and Mae developed a large following and commanded a high salary to match.

Mae's first Broadway appearances were in 1911, when she was eighteen and already a seasoned professional. She appeared in the revues 'A la Broadway' and 'Hello Paris', both of them short-lived runs but they brought her to the attention of both the critics and the public. For several years she alternated between Broadway shows, none of them successful, and the more earthy vaudeville theater where she was developing and increasing a cult following. In 1918 she appeared at the Schubert theater in the hit musical 'Sometime', co-starring with Ed Wynn, but in the main she had a long, unglamorous theatrical apprenticeship.

Mae began writing her own vaudeville material and developed the wisecracking, amoral theatrical persona which we would recognise today. In 1921 she wrote and toured with 'The Ruby Ring', and her popularity with the theater-going public increased. In 1926 she achieved the fame and notoriety she craved when she wrote, under the nom de plume 'Jane Mast' the play simply and graphically entitled 'Sex'.

She was 34 and she at last achieved national fame. The play, in which she played a prostitute, ran for 375 performances to full house audiences. Eventually the theater was raided and Mae was imprisoned for 10 days on obscenity charges. She was also fined the then substantial sum of $500 but the otherwise free publicity from the case made her nationally famous.

She wrote a series of plays over the next few years including 'Drag' in 1927, dealing with the theme of homosexuality and cross-dressing and 'Diamond Lil' in 1928 which became a major Broadway hit. After more self-penned successes with 'Pleasure Man' in 1928 and 'The Constant Sinner' in 1931, Mae was invited to Hollywood, and in 1932 she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. At the age of 39 her movie career began.

Mae's first film was 'Night After Night' in 1932, starring established heartthrob actor, George Raft. She did not have a large role but but nevertheless achieved instant immortality with lines she is reputed to have written herself. When a cloakroom girl says,"Goodness, what lovely diamonds!", Mae replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it". In her next movie, Mae had a starring role when she transferred her popular character, Diamond Lil, (although now called Lady Lou) to the screen in 'She Done Him Wrong' in 1933. The movie, which starred a young male lead called Cary Grant was a massive success and was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Mae followed it with another hit in 1933 when she played a liontamer in 'I'm No Angel'.

Mae stayed with Paramount for the remainder of the 1930's, and, in all, made eight movies for the studio, each one a success and each one celebrated as a major event by the moviegoing public. She became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and she invested her earnings shrewdly, becoming a wealthy woman. She reached her peak of popularity with 'Go West, Young Man' in 1936 and 'Every Day's a Holiday' in 1938, both hugely successful films.

After leaving Paramount in 1939, she joined Universal Studios and in 1940 made another hit movie, 'My Little Chickadee', starring opposite comic W.C.Fields, but the effects of the Hays Code were being felt more and more and Mae's style of salacious, saucy comedy was looking increasingly out of touch with an America newly at war. After starring in one more movie in 1943, 'The Heat's On' which was not well received, a frustrated Mae made the decision to return to the stage and retire from movies.

She appeared in a number of stage plays including the eponymous title role in 'Catherine Was Great' first on Broadway and then on national tour in 1944 and in 1948 in 'Ring Twice Tonight' . She also made several appearances in revivals of her original hit 'Diamond Lil' .

As Mae's popularity declined with advancing years she tried to reinvent herself in the 1950's by performing in a nightclub act called "Mae West and her Adonises". In 1959 she wrote a best-selling autobiography called "Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It".

With the advent of the 1960's social mores caught up with Mae's own moral philosophy and she became an admired cult figure. She appeared in 2 further films, 'Myra Breckinridge' in 1970 and 'Sextette' in 1978, although both were disappointing.


Mae's sexually aggressive public persona was mirrored by her private life in which she had many lovers.

She was married once, in 1911 to one of her early vaudeville song and dance partners, Frank Szatkus, whose stage name was Wallace, when she was just 17. The relationship ended quickly and Mae tried hard to disguise the fact that she had ever been married. She and Wallace finally divorced in 1942.

Mae West died on 22 November, 1980, in her Hollywood apartment, after a series of strokes. She was in many ways ahead of her time in her attitude to sex and public awareness of sex. she was more than just a beautiful movie star, she was a writer, astute business woman, raconteur and humorist. She helped shape and change social attitudes, and she changed them for the better.

Mae West Academy Awards

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Mae West Filmography

Night After Night
She Done Him Wrong
I'm No Angel
Belle of the Nineties
Goin' to Town
Klondike Annie
Fashions in Love (short)
Go West Young Man
Every Day's a Holiday
My Little Chickadee