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.