Mae West

This is the story of the life and times of a showbiz legend. She was outspoken, and with little formal education this 4 foot 11 inch young woman would later become one of Hollywood`s, and indeed one of America`s, richest women of her time. Actress, singer, playwright and author, her career would span 80 years and despite being no special beauty, she would become a sex symbol.

By studying her audience, she branded herself into an iconic figure that had such impact that she is remembered even today.. Although her character was such a success, it did have it`s drawbacks as we shall see.

The Early Years

Mae West (née Mary Jane) came into this world in New York on the 17th of August, 1893. Her parents were John ¨Battling Jack¨West, former prize fighter, livery stable owner until the advent of the automobile. He later became a special policeman and opened his own private investigation agency and Matilda ¨Tillie¨Doelger West, corset and fashion model.

Her father was said to bring little Mae to the ring when he practiced his boxing despite her mother`s disapproval.


Making her way

Convinced of her daughter`s talent (she had already performed once at a church social when she was five) Tillie started bringing her to amateur nights at the local theaters at the age of seven. After rewriting and adding words to a song they had given her to sing, she won a prize and thus started her career in show business.

She started on the vaudeville stage at the tender age of 8 and by 14 she was known as Baby Mae. Her early roles included cross-dressing and black face

During this period, the only time she was away from the stage was between the ages of twelve and fourteen when she got to know her siblings Mildred and David. It was the only family time she was to have in her early years.

When she returned to the stage in 1908, much of the time was spent traveling the vaudeville circuit which could be dangerous for a girl her age and so at 17 she married another vaudeville performer by the name of Frank Wallace while in Milwaulke. She admittedly did this for protection.

The marriage only lasted about two weeks, which were spent in different rooms, after which she found her hubby another job on the circuit to be rid of him. She finally divorced him on May 7, 1943 and never remarried.

She was discovered, so to speak, at the age of 18 and cast in bigger roles including the musical A la Broadway where she received good reviews by the New York Times. She was then cast in Vera Violetta with Al Jolson in 1911.


After appearing the The Winsome Widow in 1912, it was back to the vaudeville circuit where she toured with Bobby ONeil and Barry Laughlin as Mae West and the Gregory Brothers. Her show was closed by censors, however, after doing her wriggle, where she twisted and contorting her body, bringing the audience to an uproar.

This would not be the last time censors would prove to be a problem. Mae was quite happy about this nonetheless. The audience`s reaction had excited her. She knew she was onto something and when she popularized the Shimmy dance with her character of Mayme in the 1918 Shubert Brothers Showtime, she was well on her way to finding her own special brand.

The Making of a Star

Miss West continued to play the Vaudeville circuit until 1926 when she wrote, under the pen name Jane Mast, the play SEX which despite becoming quite the hit on Broadway. would land her a 10 day stint in jail for ¨corrupting the morals of youth¨. She would continue to write The Drag, The Wicked Age, The Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner, all of which pushed the envelope when it came to sexuality, the women`s liberation movement and gay rights. However, it was her 1928 play Diamond Lil which would catapult her to stardom. She would incorporate this character in the movie She Done Him Wrong (1933) as Lady Lou and would also return to Broadway at a later date.

¨Hello Hollywood¨

Her success on Broadway got the attention of Hollywood and Paramount asked her to come out . Miss West moved into the Ravenwood apartments when she moved to Los Angeles and would spend the rest of her life there.

She later became the owner of the building when her boyfriend William Jones, a boxer known as Gorilla Jones, was banned from entering the building because he was black. Real estate was another revenue stream which is why by 1935, Miss West was the wealthiest woman in the United States.

They paid her $1000.00 per week but it was a good 7 weeks before she actually got to see a script. She had offered to repay them the money so she could go back to New York but they weren`t having it.

She was cast in Night After Night (1932) starring George Raft in a small role but was satisfied when she was allowed to rewrite her lines. She was such a hit that according to Raft she stole ¨Everything but the cameras¨. Here is a small excerpt from the movie:

¨Goodness has nothing to do with it dearie¨

Miss West was so popular that despite being close to 40 years old, she became such a box office hit that she was able to pull Paramount out of financial straights. She would go on to star in only a total of 11 movies during her cinematic career:

  • She Done Him Wrong ( 1933)
  • I`m No Angel (1933)
  • Belle of the Nineties (1934)
  • Goin To Town (1935)
  • Klondike Annie (1936)
  • Go West Young Man (1936)
  • Every Days a Holiday (1937)
  • My Little Chickadee (1940)
  • The Heats On (1943)
  • Myra Breckingridge (1970)
  • Sextette (1978).

The Middle Years

By Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles Times photographic archive, At age 50 in 1953

After The Heat`s On in 1943, Miss West had had enough of what she called the blue nose critics in Hollywood. The censors had put a stop to her burlesque character that she had spent so much time developing and now it seemed that anything she put on film was considered too riské and offensive. Her double entendres and low necklines were no longer tolerated and since she couldn’t write her own dialogue, this latest movie did not fare well and opened to bad reviews. So back to the stage it was where she was allowed to be herself, much to the audience`s approval. She would bring back Diamond Lil to the stage and star in Catherine Was Great (1944) . It would be almost a quarter of a century before our fair Miss West would grace the screen once again.

Since Miss West was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, she had custom 9 inch platform heels made so she could look taller in her films. Here is one pair. It also accounted for the sway in her walk and the fact that you never see her in anything other than floor length dresses.

Aside from the stage and the screen, Miss West also did some radio shows, but alas, the censors were to cut that short as well. In one instance, while flirting with ventriloquist Edgar Bergens dummy Charlie McCarthy, she referred to him as ¨All wood and a yard long¨ and said to him ¨Charles, I remember our last date, and have the splinters to prove it!¨ The FCC deemed the broadcast ¨vulgar and indecent`.

Besides publishing her plays in print, she also wrote her autobiography Goodness Has Nothing To Do With It in 1959 which was revised in 1970 which is a delightful witty read.

The Later Years

At 65, Mae West was given a standing ovation after her performance of Baby It`s Cold Outside with Rock Hudson at the 1958 Academy Awards.

Although appearing a few times on television in guest appearances (The Dean Martin Show in 1959 and The Red Skelton Show in 1960) as well as a few interviews to promote her autobiography, it wouldn`t be until 1970 that Miss West would return to the big screen.

1973 at the age of 80 (pic by Allan Warren)

In Myra Breckenridge (1970) at the age of 77, true to character, she would play the role of Leticia Van Allen, the Queen of the casting couch, when being told there were 13 young gentleman to see her that day, she requested that one be sent home as she was a bit tired….lol.

Her last film, the comedy Sextette (1978), at the age of 85, was not a success despite the all star cast which included Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, Timothy Dalton, Dom Deluise, Tony Curtis and Rona Barrett.

Her Love Life

No doubt about it, Mae West loved her men. She was quoted as saying ¨It`s not the men in your life but the life in your men¨and when asked what type of man she preferred, she replied ¨Only two, foreign and domestic¨.

Despite having several meaningful relationships during her life, she said “Marriage is a great institution. I’m not ready for an institution yet.”

Her last and longest relationship was with Chester Rybinski (1923–1999) who later changed his name to Paul Novak. They met when she hired him for one of her Las Vegas stage shows in 1954 and although he was 30 years younger than she, they were together until her death on November 22nd 1980 at the age of 87 when she passed away due to complications following a stroke. She was interred in the family mausoleum in the Cyprus Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

1560 Vine Street in Hollywood

Mae West was an amazing woman who lived her life on her terms and not the ones dictated to her by society`s standard of the day.

Buster Keaton

Known for his mind-blowing stunts, his pork-pie hat and his dead-pan expression (I`ve yet to find a photo of him with a smile),  Buster Keaton, born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4th, 1895  in Piqua Kansas, was, in my opinion, one of the most influential people in the film industry at it`s infancy.  His popularity in comedy second only to Charlie Chaplin.

His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were Vaudevillian comedians with their own act, in which Buster was a part of as early as of the age of four. 

It was at that age, early in the career of his parents, they traveled around with a medicine show which included a certain friend of theirs we all know as Harry Houdini.  It was Mr. Houdini who was at the origin of Buster`s name when the boy fell down a flight of stairs and the magician was said to remark to the lad`s father that that was a buster of a fall.  Mr. Keaton liked that so much that the name stuck.   How cool is that?

Although Buster had an older brother and sister, it appears that he was the only child of the family to participate in the show and apparently it was quite a rough and tumble show, with Buster participating in the stunts even a a young age.

The three Keatons continued to touring the circuits until Mr. Keaton`s alcoholism became too problematic and Buster, at the age of 21 and already a seasoned performer,  decided to stop the show. 

Budding career

It was at this point that he was discovered by the famous actor and director Roscoe Arbuckle, who went by the nickname Fatty.  He cast Buster in his upcoming short film The Butcher Boy (1917).  This would be the first of 149 films in which he appeared and the beginning of a fast friendship with Mr. Arbuckle which ended with the latter`s sudden death in 1933.   He stood by his friend when in 1921, Arbuckle was tried three times (the first two trials ending in a hung jury) for the murder of Virginia Rappe.  Although not convicted, he suffered such a blow to his reputation that his business fell apart and he went totally broke.  Keaton offered to testify on his behalf at the risk of his own budding career and would later help his friend out financially and by sending some directing work his way.

In 1920, before all this tragedy befell Mr. Arbuckle, he decided to take on feature length films at the behest of Paramount, and passed his studio down to Keaton who began producing his own works.  He produced several successful shorts, notably One Week (1920), The Boat (1921) and Cops (1922).

It was a year later, in 1921, through a business partner of Arbuckle,  that Keaton met and subsequently married Natalie Talmadge on the 31st of May. Their marriage lasted eleven years and they had two sons, Buster Keaton Jr. and Bob Talmadge.  The reason behind the last name of the youngest was because after the divorce, Natalie changed the last names of the boys and denied Keaton access to them.  Only ten years later, when they had reached adulthood, did the boys renew their relationship with their father. 

In 1923, Keaton decided to move to feature length films also, beginning with Three Ages (1923).  At the top of his game, Keaton produced two features a year.  He followed Three Ages with Our Hospitality (1923),  The Navigator and  Sherlock  Jr. (1924) and The General (1926), breaking ground with special effects in Sherlock Jr. His father Joe and his wife Natalie starred in several of his films.

Although Keaton considered The General one of his best achievements, his audience didn`t agree.  They preferred his comedies rather than dramas despite the expense and special effects, most notably a train falling into a river after the collapse of the bridge. 

He made a few more silent films before the talkies arrived, including College (1927), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman also in 1928 and his first film under MGM Spite Marriage (1929) which he would have preferred with sound but was over ruled by the studio. 

Trouble on the horizon

It was with MGM that Keaton produced his first sound film Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) but according to Keaton, signing with MGM was to be his greatest regret.  He was not allowed his own production unit and they continually reduced his creative input. 

It was at this point in his life that his first wife Natalie filed for divorce, not only taking away his sons but the home he had built as well.  All this turmoil would affect his health and he followed in his father`s alcoholic footsteps.  He became depressed, violent and erratic and MGM finally decided to put an end to his contract in 1933. His last starring feature that year was What, No Beer? with Jimmy Durante.  He had teamed up with Mr. Durante on two previous films in 1932: The Passionate Plumber  and Speak Easily.  They would again be reunited in the 1963 It`s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

While in treatment for his alcoholism that he met a nurse by the name of Mae Scrivens.  They would marry in 1932 but it would be a short-lived relationship that ended in divorce in 1935. 

It was 1936 before he was to produce his next film Grand Slam Opera and considering all the problems he was having in his personal life, it was considered as one of his best performances. 

In 1939 Columbia hired Keaton to star in ten two-reel movies and although he favored Pest From The West, the first of the series, according to his biography  My Wonderful World of Slapstick, he regarded, as a whole,  these Columbia shorts as his worst work, vowed to never again make any more of these ‘crummy two-reelers’ and stuck to his word.

The Later Years

Although he kept relatively busy during the 1940`s, it was after a minor role in the 1949 film Good Old Summertime that interest in Keaton`s work was revitalized.  This spawned a flurry of interviews, television appearances, film  roles and world tours which kept him quite occupied for the rest of his life.  He played with Charlie Chaplin in the 1952 film The Limelight.  The only other film in which they played together was the 1922 movie Seeing Stars.  His last film was A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in 1963.

His third and last marriage in 1940 at the age of 45 was to Eleanor Norris.  She was his faithful companion until his death on February 1st 1966 from lung cancer at the age of 71.

He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial in Los Angelos, California.

6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard

 

Mary Astor

At 17 years old.

Mary Astor, née Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was an American actress born on May 3rd, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois to parents Otto Ludwig Langhanke, a German immigrant and an American mother Helen Marie de Vasconcellos

CAREER

Recognizing her beauty, Mary`s parents enlisted her in beauty pageants and a photo sent to Motion Picture`s Magazine`s beauty contest got the attention she needed.  Although she appeared in several unaccredited bit parts since 1920, she landed 2 credited roles in 1922-1923 with the films The Man Who Played God and John Smith. Having been impressed by her photo in a magazine, John Barrymore, who was 41 years old at the time asked the then 17 year old Mary Astor to play a part in his movie Beau Brummel (1924) and her career (as well as a short lived love affair with the actor in question) was launched.  Despite the age difference, John Barrymore was clearly enamored of the young Mary Astor however, her parents made sure their love affair would not last.

A scene with John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924)

Whilst Ms. Astor started her acting career in the silent film era, this tall 5 foot 6 auburn haired young woman with a good voice and excellent screen presence was able to transition to the talkies with the 1930 film Ladies Love Brutes with Fredric March followed by Holiday (1930) with Ann Harding.  In 1935 alone she was featured in no less than 5 films which kept her in the forefront of the movie industry.

Although Her most memorable role was as Brigid O’Shaughnessy with Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, in the same year, she received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Sandra Kovac in the film The Great Lie with Betty Davis. It was to be her only Academy Award.

With Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Receiving an Oscar for her role in A Great Lie (1941)

Up until 1943, Astor was a featured artist in quite a few good movies including The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937), Midnight (1939) and Brigham Young (1940) and that`s the way she liked it. She didn`t want top billing nor the responsibility of carrying the picture as the leading star. After that she signed a contract with MGM that she regretted, as she was, more often than not, cast in what she considered another humdrum mother role.

Between the years 1951-1959, Ms Astor also played on Broadway and in television as well as on film.

She wrote My Story: An Autobiography in 1959, in which she recounts her personal struggle with alcoholism and her failed marriages, that became a best-seller as well as a follow up biography in 1971 called A Life On Film. Between 1960 and 1968, She also authored five novels.

Her film career spanned a total of 45 years and ended when she was 59 in her 109th film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) in her role as Mrs. Jewel Mayhew. She is featured in the 10th position in IMDB`s Top 25 Best Actresses born between 1900-1909.

Her star on the walk of Fame is situated in the north side of the 6700 block of Hollywood Boulevard 

Here are four more movies that I found in the public domain and available on my Youtube channel: 

The Royal Bed (1931)   Behind Office Doors (1931)  The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Trapped By Television (1936)

PERSONAL LIFE

Ms Astor lived a long life, fraught with tumultuous relationships, starting off with her parents who after having pushed her into the movie industry at the age of 14, kept a tight rein on her and her earnings. Despite having signed a contract with Paramount that paid $500 a week, an astronomical amount in that day, Ms Astor found herself practically a prisoner in her own home.

Her parents were living well off of their daughter`s earnings and in 1925 they bought Charlie Chaplin`s house Moorcrest which sat on an acre of land in the hills above Hollywood.  At that time she was 17. By the time she was 19 years old, she was earning $2,500 a week yet had only managed to obtain a $5 a week allowance.

Moorcrest

She finally got fed up with her father`s physical and psychological abuse and escaped from her second floor window to live in a hotel in Hollywood.

After her father was persuaded to give her a savings account with $500 and the freedom to come and go as she pleased, she returned to Moorcrest but it wasn`t until she was 26 years old that she finally gained control of her own finances. Ms Astor agreed to pay her parents $100 a month after they sued her for support. Apparently, greedy star parents go back to the beginning of the film industry.

Her first marriage to Kenneth Hawks (1928-1930) at the age of 22 ended with his death while he was filming a WWI dog fight and the biplane he was in crashed.

Mary Astor and Kenneth Hawkes

Her second marriage to Franklin Thorpe (1931-1935) ended in divorce and scandal. The marriage was already at an end when Thorpe found her diary detailing her lovers, including the married and celebrated playwright George S. Kaufmann in 1936, to whom she referred to as `G`. A very public custody battle ensued over their 4 year old daughter Marilyn in which Thorpe leaked certain entries to the press. Florabel Muir of the Daily News got her hands on the diary and came out with an article just hours before the trial started. Thankfully, the diary was deemed inadmissible in court as parts were purported to have been forged. Ultimately, it was ruled that the custody be shared. School months with Astor and vacations and weekends with her father with expenses and decisions regarding daycare, nurses and such shared between the two.

Today`s adage of `any publicity is good publicity`was not the case in the 1930S Hollywood and this scandal could have cost Mary Astor her career due to a morality clause in her contract. Fortunately, that was not the case as Samuel Goldwyn refused to fire her despite pressure to do so. The movie Dodsworth (1936) that was filming during the trial came out to rave reviews assuring the studio that Mary Astor was still a popular star and not a liability.  Two books were written about the scandal: The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930`s by Joseph Egan and Mary Astor`s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel.

 

She was married twice more after that. To the Mexican film editor Manuel del Campo from 1936-1941 with whom she had a son (Tono del Campo) and then to a stockbroker by the name Thomas Gordon Wheelock from 1945-1955.

Since the 1930s, alcohol was a constant in her life but in 1949 it came to a head and she was sent to a sanitarium for alcoholics.

In 1951, she was rushed to the hospital for an attempted suicide with sleeping pills; the third such overdose in two years.

She converted to the Catholic faith and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, to both of which she credited her recovery.

From 1971 to 1987, Ms Astor lived in a small cottage on the grounds of the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the industry’s retirement facility in Woodland Hills, California,

She passed away on September 25th, 1987 at the age of 81 to respiratory failure due to pulmonary emphysema and is interred in Holy Cross Cemetary in Culvert City, California.