Mae West


Actor, Comedian
Mae West

About

Also Known As
Jane Mast, Mary Jane West
Birth Place
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Born
August 17, 1892
Died
November 22, 1980
Cause of Death
Complications Following A Stroke

Biography

When she was good, she was very good. But when she was bad, she made film history. Whether making films, writing plays or flirting with the camera, Mae West was undisputedly the most controversial sex siren of her time. At 33 years old, she wrote, produced, directed and starred in her first Broadway play entitled "Sex," a 1926 production deemed so obscene that she landed in jail for it. ...

Photos & Videos

She Done Him Wrong - Movie Poster
Belle of the Nineties - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Belle of the Nineties - Movie Posters

Family & Companions

Frank Wallace
Husband
Jazz singer. Married on April 11, 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; separated a few months after marriage; divorced in 1943.
Owney Madden
Companion
Gangster. Co-owner of The Cotton Club.
Paul Novak
Companion
Appeared in chorus of West's nightclub act in the 1950s; together from c. 1954 until her death; died of prostate cancer on July 14, 1999 at age 76.

Bibliography

"Mae West: An Icon in Black and White"
Jill Watt, Oxford University Press (2001)
"Becoming Mae West"
Emily Wortis Leider, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1997)
"Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography"
Carol M Ward, Greenwood Press (1989)
"Mae West on Sex, Health, and ESP"
Mae West (1975)

Notes

"Without doubt, one of the most unique fabrications of the twentieth century was the show business phenomenon known as Mae West. She was assertive in an age when women were supposed to be submissive; she was openly bawdy when decorum was the order of the day. With her buxom hour-glass figure and her lascivious frame of reference, she shocked, intrigued, captivated, and amused many generations of fans. For over seven decades, she was an active performer, shrewdly promoting what she knew and understood best--Miss Mae West." --James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts ("Hollywood Songsters" 1991)

"She's a plumbers idea of Cleopatra!" --quote attributed to W C Fields

Biography

When she was good, she was very good. But when she was bad, she made film history. Whether making films, writing plays or flirting with the camera, Mae West was undisputedly the most controversial sex siren of her time. At 33 years old, she wrote, produced, directed and starred in her first Broadway play entitled "Sex," a 1926 production deemed so obscene that she landed in jail for it. She was the queen of double entendres on and off screen, delivering some of the best-remembered quips in movie history. In "She Done Him Wrong" (1933), West delivered one of the most quoted lines in movie history, "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

Mary Jane West was born on Aug. 17, 1893 in Woodhaven, NY. Her father, John Patrick West, was a boxer who later became a cop; her mother, Matilda "Tillie" Delker-D lger, was a former corset and fashion model. She had two siblings, Mildred Katherine "Beverly" West, and John Edwin West. The family moved quite often to various parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, where she attended high school. The acting bug bit the New York native at an early age. At age five, she took home prizes for appearing in amateur shows. At age 12, she became a professional vaudeville performer.

West, who was less than 5'2 tall, was rumored to have worn customized 8-inch platforms attached to her sh s to increase her stage presence. The 1911 revue "A La Broadway" was her first legitimate Broadway show; which she left after only a week's worth of performances. In 1913, the young, raven-haired girl performed a salacious "shimmy" dance for a song-sheet; the song was "Everybody Shimmies Now." Her mother was said to have approved of all of her daughter's performances, making her perhaps one of the first of the notorious stage mothers.

Even at such a young age, West wrote several plays under the pen name "Jane Mast" and was arrested for "Sex" on Broadway, receiving a 10-day jail sentence. Rumors ran rampant that while behind bars, she was permitted to wear silk underpants instead of the rough prison garb everyone else had to wear and that the warden wined and dined her every night. She was set free after serving eight days. Nonplussed, she appeared in a string of successful plays, including "The Drag," a 1927 play that was banned from Broadway because of its homosexual theme. She was an advocate of gay and transgender rights, but her belief that "a gay man was actually a female soul housed in a male body" ran counter to the belief at that time that homosexuality was an illness. Nevertheless, she was still considered a feminist and a hardcore supporter of the gay community. West continued to stir up controversy with her plays, including the Broadway smash "Diamond Lil" (1928), about a loose woman of the 1890s. She dominated the Broadway scene for many years to come, but she also set her eyes on another stage: Hollywood.

In 1932, Paramount Pictures courageously signed up the Broadway star. It was quite a feat at the time, for she was already considered a "mature" actress, but West looked younger than her 38 years. This youthful glow endured throughout the rest of her life and gave Hollywood's newest unlikely sex symbol an edge over her contemporaries. Her first film was "Night after Night" (1932), where she hated her small part in the film yet, true to form, she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. West stole the show during her first scene when the hatcheck girl complimented her baubles with "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." Without missing a beat, she exclaimed, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."

West's gaining popularity boosted her co-stars' careers as well. In "She Done Him Wrong," she insisted that a young Cary Grant play opposite her. The movie not only put Grant on the map, but it was also a box office hit and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. She co-starred with Grant again in "I'm No Angel" (1933), also nominated for a Best Picture award. Both movies were box office successes, as was West, who, at that time, became the second highest paid actor in the country. It was the former film which contained, perhaps, the most misquoted line in film history delivered by West to Grant: "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" versus the incorrectly but famously quoted West line, "Why don't you come up and seem me sometime?"

Despite her box office pull, her blunt sexuality onscreen kept rubbing the censors the wrong way. In 1934, censors - in care of the infamous Hayes Code of onscreen ethics - began deleting overtly sexy lines and scenes from her films. To fight back, West increased the number of double entendres, hoping that the censors would delete the most offensive lines and miss the subtler ones. More controversial films followed, including the critically acclaimed "Klondike Annie" (1936) and one of her biggest hits "My Little Chickadee" (1940) from Universal Pictures, as well as Columbia Pictures' "The Heat's On" (1943). West was already 50 when she made "The Heat's On," but her youthful look and performance made the film a cult favorite.

West continued to shock her fans and critics on radio, making two appearances on Edgar Bergen's very popular show. In one sketch, she starred opposite Don Ameche as Adam and Eve; the dialogue between the two was so risqué that she was banned from being featured, or even talked about on NBC. The line that caused all the fury was directed at Ameche, "Get me a big one I feel like doing a big apple!" Aside from radio, she appeared on TV a few times and even recorded two successful rock albums, post her film heyday of the 1930s.

After a 26 year absence from film, she once again stole the limelight - from that era's sex symbol, Raquel Welch, no less - in her comeback role as Leticia Van Alen in "Myra Breckinridge" (1970). The movie tanked at the box office, but it brought the actress back to the forefront once again and garnered her a new generation of fans - many of whom were gay. She married once, to fellow vaudevillian Frank Wallace, in 1911. She denied the marriage at first, but legal records proved otherwise. The divorce papers were granted on May 7, 1943. But West was not without male companionship, even in her later years when she surrounded herself with young muscular men, employing them as bodyguards and chauffeurs.

Despite the decades, her looks continued to make headlines. In the 1970s, she was the only celebrity who permitted reporters to check her for signs of plastic surgery. None were found. At age 85, West graced the silver screen for the last time as Marlo Manners in "Sextette" (1978), leading many doctors to exclaim, "She has the health and body of a 35-year-old." West once said that she spent hours every day massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them looking young. The actress lived in Los Angeles for the remainder of her life, maintaining a residence on Ravenswood near Melrose Avenue. She was always gracious to her fans, corresponding with them personally and listing her phone number in Los Angeles so they could "call her and see her sometime!" In the summer of 1980, West suffered a concussion and a stroke. Later that year, she had another stroke and never recovered from it. She died at her apartment in Hollywood at age 87 on Nov. 22, 1980. Her fans' cries reverberated throughout the city. She was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn and her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was placed at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.

Life Events

1897

Vaudeville debut at age six doing a song and dance for Brooklyn's Royal Theatre's amateur night; appeared in "Little Nell the Marchioness"

1911

Broadway debut in "A la Broadway" at Folies Bergere dinner theater

1913

Appeared with a vaudeville headliner, billed as "The Baby Vamp", with sister Beverly on the Loew's circuit

1920

Made screen test for lead opposite Jack Dempsey in Pathe serial, "Daredevil Jack" (didn't get role)

1926

Broadway writing, directing and producing debut (also actress), "Sex"; play shut down by police and West was sentenced to served ten days in jail at Blackwell's Island and fined $500 on obscenity charges (she was released after eight days), wrote play under pseudonym Jane Mast

1928

Had a hit play on Broadway with "Diamond Lil", which she both wrote and starred in

1932

Signed with Paramount

1932

Film acting debut in prominent supporting role in "Night After Night", starring George Raft

1933

Starred in "She Done Him Wrong," film adaptation of own play, "Diamond Lil" (the industry's Hays Office wouldn't let Paramount keep the play's original title, given its spicy reputation)

1933

Screenwriting debut (also actress), "I'm No Angel"

1933

Made exhibitors boxoffice poll of top ten stars two years in a row

1935

Highest paid woman in the US, earning $480,833 that year

1937

Controversy over suggestive witticisms on NBC radio's "Chase and Sanborn Hour", starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy kept West off airwaves for 12 years

1943

Last film for over 25 years, "The Heat's On"

1961

Last stage appearance, "Sextette" at the Edgewater Beach Playhouse, opposite Jack LaRue

1970

Made film comeback at age 78 in film "Myra Breckinridge" (reported earned $350,000 for ten-days shooting; wrote her own scenes)

1978

Final film, lead in "Sextette"

Photo Collections

She Done Him Wrong - Movie Poster
She Done Him Wrong - Movie Poster
Belle of the Nineties - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Belle of the Nineties - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Belle of the Nineties - Movie Posters
Belle of the Nineties - Movie Posters
Belle of the Nineties - Publicity Stills
Belle of the Nineties - Publicity Stills
Belle of the Nineties - Scene Stills
Belle of the Nineties - Scene Stills
Belle of the Nineties - Lobby Card
Belle of the Nineties - Lobby Card
I'm No Angel - RKO Newsette Promo
Mae West and I'm No Angel are featured in this 1933 issue of "RKO Newsette"

Videos

Movie Clip

Myra Breckinridge (1970) - Get Your Resumès Out First appearance by Mae West, brought out of retirement by a big payday and a contract that let her write her own dialogue and approve her wardrobe, as already-discussed Hollywood agent Leticia Van Allen, with Tom Selleck among her recruits, and clips with Richard Widmark in Kiss Of Death (1947) and Laurel & Hardy in Great Guns, 1941, from Myra Breckinridge, 1970, starring Raquel Welch, from the Gore Vidal novel.
She Done Him Wrong (1933) - Come Up Sometime Salvation Army Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) from next door is cutting a thief (James C. Eagles) some slack, when resident saloon singer Lou (star and screenwriter Mae West) appears, her famous line not quite as usually cited, in She Done Him Wrong, 1933.
Belle Of The Nineties (1934) - My American Beauty Having established St. Louis in 1893, wrapping the opening act we meet the main attraction, Mae West as a fictional Vaudevillian, working from her own script, Gene Austin the singer, song by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow, Travis Banton the credited costume designer, in Belle Of The Nineties, 1934.
Belle Of The Nineties (1934) - Masculine Supremacy Comfortable with her own leisurely screenplay, Mae West as entertainer Ruby, whose boyfriend (Roger Pryor) we learn is boxer "Tiger Kid," his manager (James Donlan) waiting outside, taking place in St. Louis, 1893, in West's fourth picture, Belle Of The Nineties, 1934.
My Little Chickadee (1940) - Will You Take Me? Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields) has a proposal for Flower Belle (Mae West) on the train approaching Greasewood City in My Little Chickadee, 1940.
My Little Chickadee (1940) - The Old Heave Ho! Newly married Twillie (W.C. Fields) and Flower Belle (Mae West) check into the hotel at Greasewood City in Universal's My Little Chickadee, 1940.
My Little Chickadee (1940) - Opening, Flower Belle Opening credit sequence followed by Flower Belle (Mae West) getting snatched by "The Masked Bandit" (Joseph Calleia) in the W.C. Fields/Mae West comedy My Little Chickadee, 1940.
My Little Chickadee (1940) - Indians! Twillie (W.C. Fields) is introducing himself to Flower Belle (Mae West) when Indians attack the train in My Little Chickadee, 1940.
I'm No Angel (1933) - Sister Honky Tonk Following some buildup the first appearance of the star and screenwriter Mae West (as dancer and some-time lion tamer "Tira"), the song by Harvey Brooks, Gladys Du Bois and Ben Ellison, from Paramount's I'm No Angel, 1933.
I'm No Angel (1933) - Ruled By Astrology Cary Grant, just introduced as Jack Barton, friend of the lovesick Kirk, visits star and screenwriter Mae West (as "Tira," object of Kirk's affection), their first scene in their second film together from 1933, Paramount's I'm No Angel.

Trailer

Promo

Family

John Patrick West
Father
Heavyweight boxer.
Matilda West
Mother
Corset designer. German immigrant.
Mildred West
Sister
Younger sister.
John Patrick West II
Brother
Younger brother.

Companions

Frank Wallace
Husband
Jazz singer. Married on April 11, 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; separated a few months after marriage; divorced in 1943.
Owney Madden
Companion
Gangster. Co-owner of The Cotton Club.
Paul Novak
Companion
Appeared in chorus of West's nightclub act in the 1950s; together from c. 1954 until her death; died of prostate cancer on July 14, 1999 at age 76.

Bibliography

"Mae West: An Icon in Black and White"
Jill Watt, Oxford University Press (2001)
"Becoming Mae West"
Emily Wortis Leider, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1997)
"Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography"
Carol M Ward, Greenwood Press (1989)
"Mae West on Sex, Health, and ESP"
Mae West (1975)
"Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It"
Mae West (1959)
"The Constant Sinner"
Mae West (1930)
"Diamond Lil"
Mae West (1928)
"Pleasure Man"
Mae West

Notes

"Without doubt, one of the most unique fabrications of the twentieth century was the show business phenomenon known as Mae West. She was assertive in an age when women were supposed to be submissive; she was openly bawdy when decorum was the order of the day. With her buxom hour-glass figure and her lascivious frame of reference, she shocked, intrigued, captivated, and amused many generations of fans. For over seven decades, she was an active performer, shrewdly promoting what she knew and understood best--Miss Mae West." --James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts ("Hollywood Songsters" 1991)

"She's a plumbers idea of Cleopatra!" --quote attributed to W C Fields