Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Whatever Happened To... Mae West?

 She was the original bad girl. Unique - and I mean unique. She's a lady my friend, the incomparable Shehanne Moore, loves as much as I. The one, the only Mary Jane West..I mean, of course: Mae West.

For seven decades, Mae teased, tantalised, shocked and had a whale of a time, strutting her stuff across stage and screen and creating such wonderful quotes as:

"I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it." 
"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before."
" When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad I'm better."
"Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I'm tired."
And my own personal favourite, "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

The list goes on and on.

At first sight, Mae West was something of an unlikely screen siren. In an age when the classic beauty of Garbo, the provocative charms of 'It' girl, Clara Bow, and the blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, were worshipped, along came this voluptuous, mature woman who bucked the trend in beauty.But she could sizzle them all off the screen with her quips, clever humour and sheer presence. Let's face it, the woman had charisma - in bucketloads.

She was also an astute businesswoman and self-publicist, who could turn her hand to a whole range of creative arts. Actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, she made her name initially in vaudeville in New York before moving to Hollywood.

She was born in Brooklyn in 1893 and her background was (wait for it) Jewish, German, Scots, Irish, English, Catholic. She was raised Protestant. She first performed at the age of five at a church social and then went on to win talent contests from the age of seven. Her professional career started at the age of fourteen, with the Hal Clarendon Stock Company, in 1907. Her trademark sassy walk was said to have been influenced by female impersonators (specifically Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge). She appeared opposite Al Jolson in Vera Violetta at the age of eighteen.

Supported by her mother (though not by other members of her family), Mae started to write her own risque plays, under the pen name Jane Mast and, in 1926, her notorious play, Sex, resulted in a raid on the theatre and a prosection for Mae for "corrupting the morals of youth". She was sentenced to ten days in jail. Mae took it all in her stride and spent the time in prison, wearing silk panties and dining with the warden and his wife. With time off for good behaviour, she served 8 days.

Needless to say, all the scandalous publicity helped further her career and more self-penned plays followed: The Drag (which dealt with homosexuality), The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, The Constant Sinner and a massive hit in 1928 - Diamond Lil. Ahead of her time in both her work and her political views, Mae was a supporter of gay rights and equal rights for women.

Hollywood beckoned in 1932, when Paramount Pictuires signed her, despite having reached the unfashionable age of 40. Her debut was in Night After Night opposite George Raft. She was allowed to rewrite her scenes and Raft said of her performance, "She stole everything but the cameras." One of her rewrites included another of her famous quotes. In her first scene, the hat check girl remarks, "Goodness what beautiful diamonds." Mae's reply? "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

She is credited with discovering Cary Grant and for saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, owing to the success of her film She Done Him Wrong. Her next film also paired her with Cary Grant and was the most successful of her career - I'm No Angel (1933).

Censorship became more rigorous as the 1930s progressed and bit into Mae's scripts - even causing one film to be retitled. It Ain't No Sin became Belle of the Nineties. During this era, not all of Mae's films were well received, but in 1939, she made My Little Chickadee when she was paired with W.C. Fields. The film outgrossed both his previous and next films, although the two stars reputedly hated each other.

Her private life was as controversial as her public one. In 1911, she married Vaudeville star Frank Szatkus but kept the marriage secret until she was forced to admit it in 1937. It was rumoured that she married another Vaudeville star - Guido Deiro - in 1913, but this is debatable, although she certainly had a deep and lasting affair with him. Following a string of other relationships, Mae's final partner was a former Mr California, called Chester Rybinski, who changed his name to Paul Novak. Thirty years her junior, he stayed with for the rest of her life and said, "I believe I was put on this earth to take care of Mae West."

Mae's final film was Sextette (adapted from her stage play, Sex) and released in 1978. As always, she had a gorgeous man (Timothy Dalton, in this case) at her beck and call and steadfastly refused to look a day over 55. A trooper to the end, she was desperately ill at the time of shooting. Two years later, she died at the age of 87.

Her legacy remains - not just in her plays and films, but also in her influence on popular culture. The famous 'Mae West Lips Sofa', designed by Dali, her image on the cover of Sgt Pepper and, of course, the life preservers known as 'Mae Wests' - well, what else would you call them? And, of course, for those wonderful quotes. 

I'll leave the last words to her:

“I wrote the story myself. It's about a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it.”


  1. YES.!!!! WHAT A DAME. That is why I heart her,

  2. Fabulous woman - "When women go wrong, men go right with them". That's another one. I wonder how she was when she was off stage? Pity the paparazzi weren't around at that time to take shots of her in bars :-)

  3. True, Sue! Those paparazzi would have got some great quotes too. They just came second nature to her.