By Vern Bullough

Mae West (Mary Jane West, 1893-1980)

Mae West was a self-made sex queen who moved from burlesque to vaudeville to the Broadway stage, and in the process created a character of an outrageous self mocking, tough talking, and sultry New York vamp. She wrote many of the plays she acted in and it was from her one liners and self exaggerations that she achieved fame and fortune.

She became a public legend with her play Sex in 1926 in which she enacted the role of a prostitute. Despite attempts to close the play it continued to attract capacity audiences until the New York Mayor Jimmy Walker left the city for a junket to Florida, and the acting mayor instituted police raids on it and two other bawdy Broadway shows. Mae West was arrested and booked for corrupting the "morals of youth and others" but was quickly bailed out for $1,000 and the play was allowed to continue until a verdict was reached.

At the trial she was found guilty, fined $500 and sentenced to serve 10 days in jail. Never daunted, she later wrote that the time she spent in jail was the most profitable time of her life, and she considered the publicity alone worth millions of dollars. In 1928 she went on to her greatest Broadway success, Diamond Lil in which she played a "diamond encrusted, bone-corseted, waspwaisted, balloon bosomed" Bowery saloon hostess. With this play, she also broke through to women -- her earlier audiences had been predominantly male. The play also was her ticket to Hollywood where it was made into a movie retitled It Happened One Night, a change made to appease Hollywood censors.

For a time in the early 1930's, when she made a string of movies, she was one of the mostly highly-paid celebrities in Hollywood. Her success, however, aroused the antagonism of the increasingly powerful Hays office, established by the film industry to raise the moral level of the movies. West’s unwillingness, or inability, to conform successfully to the newly established norms, seriously hindered her career. The Catholic League of Decency and the ever more vigilant interference in plots and the lives of the stars by the Hayes office made her persona non grata to the studios.

In spite of her flamboyant public persona, West remained extremely private about her own sexual affairs, although a few like George Raft, who was instrumental in bringing her to Hollywood, were known to the public. In her autobiography, Goodness Has Nothing To Do With It, West is highly selective, telling her readers only what she wants them to believe rather than what actually happened.

In actual fact, many of her liaisons were with African Americans, including a long term one with her chauffeur (and well-known boxer) Chaulky Wright. When asked if she had ever seen Jack Johnson, the one time heavy boxing champion, in the ring, she replied "No, but he came up to seem me -- several times."

In her novel, The Constant Sinner, West’s main character, Babe Gordon, is regarded as reflecting many of Mae West's beliefs and practices, and Gordon takes both black and white lovers. In explaining Babe's promiscuity, West wrote that there are a number of different kinds of females including those who live a conventional sex life and enter into marriage and motherhood. But, she added, there are also women who are so formed in body and mind that they are destined to be daughters of joy, which she called "femme amoureuses." Babe was such a woman and it seems that this is the way West regarded herself.

In her old age West was recognized as a sexual institution, famous for her exaggerated femininity -- so much so that one of her critics called her the best female impersonator in the business. Her famous one liners were collected in a book entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West and several made their way into the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations. Among her best known are "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie"; "When caught between two evils I generally like to take the one I never tried before," and "Come up and see me sometime."

Probably Mae West’s most important contribution to female sexuality was to emphasize in her writings and actions that women, even after the age of 40, possessed strong libidos; that power and desire for power was not limited to men; and that sex could be openly kidded about by women. And also very much enjoyed. In one of the plays she wrote, West was asked by one of her admirers whether "she had ever met a man who could make her happy?" Her stage reply was "Sure, lots of times."

As far as male conquests were concerned, she also said in one of her plays what is believed to be a self-description of her conquests: "I’m in a class by myself. I star in everything and I break records all over the world." Life jackets in World War II were popularly called "Mae Wests." Willem de Kooning drew her in 1964 as a resplendent bosom attached to an asymmetrical face, with a wandering eye. The list could go on. For her any publicity was good. publicity.

In 1959, she was interviewed for a television program by Charles Collingwood. The interview was never aired because, among other things, she told him she kept a mirror over her bed because she liked to see what she was doing. The interview was full of double entendres such as her statement that she had a weakness for "foreign affairs." She also allegedly stated that when she inspected the new body guards she had hired after being robbed that she "hoped it wasn't just the guns in their pocket that cause such bulges."

Such was Mae West.

Emily Worth Ledier, Becoming Mae West. Da Capo Press, 2000.