Mae West (August 17, 1893-November 22, 1980) was one of the mega-stars of Hollywood in the Golden Age of the 1930s and she was the Golden Girl. In an age that celebrated curvilinear forms, females with round faces and blonde hair (it was known as the Depression Modern Style), Mae West filled the bill. Her bountiful curves were said to be the inspiration for industrial designer Raymond Loewy to create the modern Coca Cola bottle! If Mae West had the right look at the right time, it was by no means accidental. She didn’t have natural blonde hair, was significantly overweight into her twenties and always had to find ways to corset herself into the dresses that made such a stunning impression on thirties film audiences. And by the time she made it to the top in the early thirties she was already pushing 40! For sheer drive, self-confidence and will power, and as someone who set new standards for what a woman could say and where she could go, Mae was an original, able to hold her own on-screen and on-set with the likes of W. C. Fields or a young Cary Grant. She was obsessive about her appearance and constantly in search of the quotable quote or one-liner that could be printed or quoted and which usually was supercharged with sexual innuendo. She also learned the value of creating shows that sold sex and, left to her own devices to sell herself, became a writer, producer, director and star of her own Broadway vehicles!
One of five children of Bavarian immigrants in Brooklyn, Mae had a father who was a prizefighter and later a private investigator and a mother who was a former fashion model. After knocking around in vaudeville for almost ten years and gaining only modest fame, she came to prominence as a shimmy dancer in the Ed Wynn musical production Sometime. Shimmy dancing which began in the African-American community involved shoulder shaking while holding the rest of the body still or swaying back and forth. Many white female dancers claimed to have invented it and Mae, having been professionally trained as a dancer under such famous choreographers as Ned Weyburn, used it to propel her into the big time. In 1918, she was even featured on sheet music of the hit song Ev’rybody Shimmies Now, arguably the biggest song of the shimmy craze along with I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate!
Realizing that sex sells theater tickets, Mae began to write her own material. She was a free-thinker who refused to allow herself to be limited in anything she did simply because she was a woman, and in 1926, Mae wrote a play called Sex which until then was a word that had never been used on Broadway as the title of a major production. It caused a furor and made sure that Mae was the topic of conversation all over New York and across the nation.
Audiences wanted to see what they thought they couldn’t or shouldn’t in a show such as this, insuring that it ran for more than 350 performances. When she was fined and temporarily jailed and sentenced to public service, it only fueled her notoriety as a sex star on Broadway. The fact that the play dealt surprisingly openly with prostitutes and pimps added to its shock value and it came at a time in American culture, the so-called Roaring Twenties, when the younger generation, now back from World War I and its horrors, realized that life was short and, in fact, as one hit song of 1918 had stated: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paris”.
Another fortuitous break in the life of Mae West was the development of the talking picture soon after her risque plays had become the talk of
New York. Now her double entendre sexual innuendo could hit the movie screen at full force with sexy titles such as Night After Night, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, surrounding herself with gorgeous boy-toy leading men such as Cary Grant (twice) and George Raft. Although her career slowed down as she aged, she continued to write and perform and maintain her image as a woman very much in charge of her life, often surrounded by handsome and especially muscular men, and full of witty banter with double meaning.
She continued this persona even into old age, appearing in the ill-conceived Myra Breckenridge, based loosely on the Gore Vidal novel, and starring Raquel Welch. Most viewers were appalled to see Mae still in this persona at her age and questioned her judgement in accepting the role but it kept her before the public still flouting her sex goddess image, even at the age of 76. At the age of 85 Mae West actually starred in a little-known Hollywood film called Sextette which was a major failure but at the premiere thousands of fans turned out to view a living legend and pioneering feminist who literally forged her way through her own writing and acting skills and her larger than life personality. She remains an icon of the women’s liberation movement in America.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology has the following sheet music of Mae West:
Good-night, Nurse Comic Song 1913 – by Thomas J. Gray, W. Raymond walker. Cover MAE WEST
For some of Mae West’s most unforgettable movie lines see: