By Fred Muenz
She was once quoted as saying “I believe in censorship, I’ve made a fortune out of it”. Later recognized for her sexual independence and bawdy manner of speech, Mary Jane “Mae” West was born in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in August, 1893. Delivered by her aunt, who was a midwife, her mother, Matilda, was a former corset and fashion model, while her father, “Battlin” Jack West was a prizefighter who later became a policeman and owner of a private detective agency. Possessed of a beautiful singing voice, young Mae was performing at church socials by age five. By age seven, she was appearing in local amateur shows and winning talent contests. At 14, she was performing professionally in vaudeville, using the stage name Baby Mae. Her act included appearing as a male impersonator and singing in blackface. Her signature exaggerated walk was inspired by a pair of female impersonators who were popular with audiences at the time.
She made her Broadway debut in 1911 in a revue put on by her former dancing teacher. Although the show was closed after only eight performances, she was singled out for a glowing revue by the drama critic of The New York Times. This led to a role in the play Vera Violetta, starring Al Jolson. In 1918, after a long string of high-profile revues, she was cast in the play Sometime, starring Ed Wynn. In the play, her character danced The Shimmy on stage, which caused a sensation. Her picture was printed on the cover of the sheet music of the popular dance. Over the next few years, she wrote a series of risqué plays under the name, Jane Mast. Her first Broadway starring role came in 1926, in a play called Sex, which she wrote, produced and directed. During the first performance of her play, the theater was raided by the police and she, and the entire cast, placed under arrest. Sentenced to ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth”, she spent her incarceration dining with the warden and his wife every night. A feminist and early supporter of gay rights, her attempt to bring a gay themed play, called The Drag, to Broadway, was stopped by The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which fought to have her banned from the stage.
In 1932, despite her being close to 40, she was offered a contract by Paramount Pictures. Her film debut came in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932), starring George Raft. Unhappy with the script, she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. Her entire film career could be summed up by the memorable first scene in which she appeared. In the scene, a hat-check girl sees her jewelry and remarks “goodness, what beautiful diamonds” to which West replies “goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. George Raft summed up her performance by saying “she stole everything but the cameras”. She was next cast in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933), which marked Cary Grant’s first major role. She claimed that she spotted Grant on the studio lot and told the director “if he can talk, I’ll take him”. She was again paired with Grant in I’M NO ANGEL (1933), and was on her way to becoming the second highest paid person in the country, after William Randolph Hearst. Although she continued to appear in films, new attitudes and the new Hollywood Production Code, forced many of her scripts to be heavily censored. The Independent Theater Owners Association added her to their “Box Office Poison” list, which already included, among others, Gerta Garbo, Marlene Deitrich, Fred Astaire and Katherine Hepburn. She was in good company.
In 1937, she made her radio debut on Edger Bergen’s show, The Chase and Sandborn Hour, and, on a live broadcast, referred to Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, as “all wood and a yard long”. Thousands of complaints followed, and NBC banned her, and even the mention of her name, from all of their radio stations. It would be 23 years before her voice was heard again on the radio. Still possessed of a good singing voice, she devoted much of her remaining show business career to the musical stage, nightclubs, the occasional record album and guest appearances on TV. In April, 1980, she suffered a stroke which left her unable to speak. While in the hospital, she had a diabetic reaction to the formula in her feeding tube. In September, she suffered a second stroke which left her right side paralyzed. Although she showed some improvement for a while, she died on November 22, 1980. Mae West was 87 years old.