Mae West could have been famous for any one of her remarkable qualities. A stunning, magnetic screen star, a scandalously witty writer, and an outspoken believer in free expression, Mae lived large in every sense of the phrase. More inspiring still, she retained complete control over her career and public image throughout her life. To put it in her own words, she demonstrated that “a dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.”
Vivacious Mae seemed destined for stardom and began performing in vaudeville shows in 1907 at the tender age of 14. The daughter of a former boxer turned private eye and a one-time corset model, Mae’s dream of becoming an actress was supported by her parents. In bawdy, sequin-splashed stage productions, she transformed into characters ranging from wide-eyed virgins to frisky young men to sultry vamps. Learning as much—if not more—from comedians and female impersonators as from the leading ladies with whom she shared the stage, Mae honed the audaciously sexy presence that would make her a legend.
A turning point in Mae’s career would come in 1927 when she wrote and starred in a play titled Sex. The story of good time girls, mistaken identities, and blackmail was a sensation, running for 375 performances before the clamor from conservative protesters led to a raid of the theater where Sex was playing. Mae was convicted on charges of corrupting public morals in spite of the fact that an estimated 325,000 audience members had seen the play and seemed to have emerged more or less unscathed by the experience. Resilient and cagey, she turned her 10-day jail sentence into media gold, talking about how she enjoyed dinner with the warden and had worn silk panties the entire time. Her sentence was reduced by two days, due to good behavior.
She was a bona fide star by the time she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1932. Exploding onto the screen with an impossible hourglass figure and startlingly modern attitudes towards sex, Mae was permitted to rewrite elements of her screenplays to best showcase her skill for delivering snappy dialogue. Starring turns in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel found Mae portraying charismatic bad girls who win the hearts of men with wit and sex appeal. The party wouldn’t last, though, and when the restrictive censorship standards of the Hays Code were instituted in July 1934, Mae’s star vehicles came under extreme scrutiny. The first of Mae’s post-code films, released as Belle of the Nineties, was originally to be titled It Ain’t No Sin. Hollywood legend claims that the chorus of fifty parrots that were trained to sing the film’s forbidden title had to be released into the jungle, presumably squawking the taboo line through the tropical South American nights.
Mae was devoted to her family throughout her life. Though her mother died before she made the move to Hollywood, she supported her brother, sister, and father with earnings from her screen work. Her love life was—perhaps predictably—tumultuous, though. At 17, she married a fellow vaudeville performer and the two slept in separate bedrooms during the short period of time they cohabited. Mae kept the marriage secret until a search of court records revealed the truth in 1935, but the divorce wasn’t finalized until 1943. She continued to have passionate affairs during this period, including a romantic entanglement with professional boxer William “Gorilla” Jones. When racist policies at the apartment building where she resided prevented her African American lover from visiting, Mae bought the building. She would live in the penthouse there for the rest of her life.
In 1938, Mae was dubbed “Box Office Poison” in an infamous editorial published by the Independent Theatre Owners of America. Due far less to her talent than to the over-zealous (maybe even vengeful) shears of the censors, earnings from her films dropped. She left her contract with Paramount, but would return to the screen for 1940’s My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields. The comic legends clashed on set, with Mae reportedly furious at having to share script credit with her boozy co-star though she had put in the lion’s share of writing time. Although the film was a commercial success, the experience left Mae questioning her place in Hollywood. After her signature racy content was cut from The Heat’s On in 1943, she left the movie world for greener pastures.
Though Hollywood during the 40s had become conservative and censorious, Mae found a welcoming audience on the stage. Free to indulge in double entendre, she penned a comic take on the life of Russia’s Catherine the Great that featured a cadre of well-muscled young men. Her ambition to give women a bit of eye candy would become a new element of her signature style. The image of Mae in her 50s and 60s, glamorous as ever and flanked by hunky men, would become iconic. Her risqué wordplay and unapologetic sexuality would prove to be a perfect match for Las Vegas in its Sin City heyday of the 1950s, where her revue would pack the house night after night.
During the 1960s, Mae would appear in magazines and on television due to reignited interest after the publication of her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. Mae embraced her status as a camp icon, putting out records of cover songs and making cameos in TV comedies. Time had not dulled her ribald wit and embrace of sexuality—at least one interview filmed with the star had to be scrapped due to the on-screen presence of a naked statuette depicting her famous physique. Her swan song was 1978’s Sextette, which found 86-year-old Mae in lavish gowns, playing her signature sexpot role one more time.
Though she struggled to come to terms with the changing face of feminism in the 60s and 70s, Mae West was in many ways ahead of the times with her presentations of female sexuality. Her joyful outlook on her erotic life seems to have anticipated many of the elements of sex positive feminism. There’s no better way to close the story of Mae West than to let her have the last word: “you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”