Today is the birthday (1893) of Mary Jane “Mae” West, a US actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, and comedian whose entertainment career spanned seven decades. She was known for her lighthearted bawdy double entendres and breezy sexual independence. Mae West was born in Kings County, New York (either Greenpoint or Bushwick, before New York City was consolidated in 1898). She was the eldest surviving child of John Patrick West and Mathilde “Tillie” (later Matilda) Delker. During her childhood, West’s family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, as well as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In Woodhaven, at Neir’s Social Hall (which opened in 1829 and is still standing), West supposedly first performed professionally. West was 5 when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of 7, often winning local talent contests. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14. West first performed under the stage name “Baby Mae,” and tried various personas, including a male impersonator.
She used the alias “Jane Mast” early in her career. Her trademark walk was said to have been inspired or influenced by female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, who were famous during the Pansy Craze. Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 revue A La Broadway put on by her former dancing teacher, Ned Wayburn. The show folded after eight performances, but at age 18, West was singled out by The New York Times. The Times reviewer wrote that a “girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.” West next appeared in a show called Vera Violetta, whose cast featured Al Jolson. In 1912, she appeared in the opening performance of A Winsome Widow as a “baby vamp” named La Petite Daffy.
In 1918, after several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn. Her character Mayme danced the shimmy and her photograph appeared on an edition of the sheet music for the popular number “Ev’rybody Shimmies Now.” Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play she entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Although conservative critics panned the show, ticket sales were strong. The production did not go over well with city officials, who had received complaints from some religious groups and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast. She was taken to the Jefferson Market Court House, (now Jefferson Market Library), where she was prosecuted on morals charges and on April 19th, 1927, was sentenced to 10 days for “corrupting the morals of youth” (shades of Socrates). Though West could have paid a fine and been let off, she chose the jail sentence for the publicity it would garner. While incarcerated on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she dined with the warden and his wife; she told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the “burlap” the other girls had to wear. West got great mileage from this stint in jail. She served eight days with two days off for “good behavior”. Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career, by crowning her the darling “bad girl” who “had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”.
Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality, and was what West called one of her “comedy-dramas of life”. After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York. However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due to efforts by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban any attempt by West to stage it. West explained, “the city fathers begged me not to bring the show to New York because they were not equipped to handle the commotion it would cause.” West was an early supporter of the women’s liberation movement, but said she was not a “burn your bra” type feminist. From the 1920s, she was also an early supporter of gay rights.
West continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. Her productions aroused controversy, which ensured that she stayed in the news, which also often resulted in packed houses at her performances. Her 1928 play, Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing, and ultimately very smart lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit and cemented West’s image in the public’s eye. This show had an enduring popularity and West successfully revived it many times throughout the course of her career. With Diamond Lil being a hit show, Hollywood was next.
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures despite being close to 40. This was an unusually late age to begin a movie career, especially for women, but she was not playing an ingénue, and her characterization of a freewheeling, sexually secure, and liberated woman was ageless. She nonetheless managed to keep her age ambiguous for some years. She made her film debut in 1932’s Night After Night starring George Raft, who suggested her for the role. At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In West’s first scene, a hat-check girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”, and West replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, “She stole everything but the cameras.”
She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed “Lady Lou”, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). The film is also notable as one of Cary Grant’s first major roles, which boosted his career. West claimed she spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead. She claimed to have told a Paramount director “If he can talk, I’ll take him!” The film was a box-office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The success of the film saved Paramount from bankruptcy, grossing over $2 million, the equivalent of $140 million in today’s dollars. Paramount recognizes that debt of gratitude today, with a building on the lot named after her.
Her next release, I’m No Angel (1933), paired her with Grant again. I’m No Angel was also a financial success, and was the most successful film of her entire movie career. In the months that followed the release of this film, reference to Mae West could be found from the song lyrics of Cole Porter, to a WPA mural of San Francisco’s newly built Art-Deco Coit Tower, to “She Done Him Right”, a Betty Boop cartoon, to “My Dress Hangs There”, a painting by renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s equally famed muralist painter husband, Diego Rivera, paid his own tribute: “West is the most wonderful machine for living I have ever known – unfortunately on the screen only.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark.” As Variety put it, “Mae West’s films have made her the biggest conversation-provoker, free-space grabber, and all-around box-office bet in the country. She’s as hot an issue as Hitler.”
By 1933, West was one of the largest box office draws in the United States and, by 1935, West was also the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst). Hearst invited West to San Simeon, California. “I could’a married him,” West explained, “but I got no time for parties. I don’t like those big crowds.” On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. West would purposely place over-the-top lines in her scripts, knowing the censors would cut them out. She hoped they would then not object as much to her other lines. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). The original title, It Ain’t No Sin, was changed due to the censors’ objections. Despite Paramount’s early objections regarding costs, she insisted the studio hire Duke Ellington and his orchestra to accompany her in the film’s musical numbers. The classic “My Old Flame” (recorded by Duke Ellington) was introduced in this picture. Her next film, Goin’ to Town (1935), received mixed reviews, as censorship continued to take its toll in eroding West’s best lines.
Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1936) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy. Some critics called the film her screen masterpiece, but not everyone felt the same way. Press baron and would-be film mogul William Randolph Hearst, ostensibly offended by an offhanded remark West made about his mistress, Marion Davies, sent a private memo to all his editors stating, “That Mae West picture ‘Klondike Annie’ is a filthy picture… We should have editorials roasting that picture, Mae West, and Paramount… DO NOT ACCEPT ANY ADVERTISING OF THIS PICTURE.” At one point, Hearst asked aloud, “Isn’t it time Congress did something about the Mae West menace?” Paramount executives felt they had to tone down the West characterization, or face further recrimination. By today’s standards West’s films are tame: they contained no nudity, no profanity and very little violence. Though raised in an era when women held second-place roles in society, West portrayed confident women who were not afraid to use their sexuality to get what they wanted. “I was the first liberated woman, you know. No guy was going to get the best of me. That’s what I wrote all my scripts about.” That same year, 1936, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley’s Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Go West, Young Man is considered one of West’s weaker films of the era, due to the censors’ cuts.
West next starred in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. Again, due to censor cuts, the film performed below its goal. Censorship had made West’s sexually suggestive brand of humor impossible for the studios to distribute. West, along with other stellar performers, was put on a list of actors called “Box Office Poison” by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners Association. Others on the list were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn, and Kay Francis. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter and was taken seriously by the fearful studio executives. The association argued that these stars’ high salaries and extreme public popularity did not affect their ticket sales, but hurt the studios. This did not stop producer David O. Selznick, who next offered West the role of the sage madam, Belle Watling, the only woman ever to truly understand Rhett Butler, in his film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind after Tallulah Bankhead turned him down. West also declined the part, claiming that as it was, it was too small for an established star, and that she would need to rewrite her lines to suit her own persona. The role eventually went to Ona Munson.
In 1939, Universal Pictures approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. The studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart with a comic vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount 18 months earlier and looking for a new film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940). Despite the stars’ intense mutual dislike, Fields’s very real drinking problems, and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box-office success, outgrossing Fields’s previous film, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and the later The Bank Dick (1940). Religious leaders condemned West as a negative role model, taking offense at lines such as “Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven’t tried before” and “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
West’s next film was The Heat’s On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. She initially did not want to do the film, but after actor/producer/director and personal friend Gregory Ratoff (producer Max Fabian in All About Eve) pleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she could not help, West relented as a personal favor. The Heat’s On opened to poor reviews and weak performance at the box office because of severe censorship. West was so distraught after the experience, and by her years of struggling with the strict Hays censorship office, that she did not attempt another film role for the next quarter-century. Instead, she pursued a successful and record-breaking career in top nightclubs, Las Vegas, nationally in theater and on Broadway, where she was allowed, to be her uncensored self.
On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. By the second half of the 1930s, West’s popularity was affected by her dialogue being severely censored. She went on the show to promote her latest movie, Every Day’s a Holiday. Appearing as herself, West flirted with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen’s dummy, using her usual brand of wit and risqué sexual references. West referred to Charlie as “all wood and a yard long” and commented, “Charles, I remember our last date, and have the splinters to prove it!” West was on the verge of being banned from radio. She followed with a sketch written by Arch Oboler, starring Don Ameche and West as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden on NBC. She told Ameche in the show to “get me a big one… I feel like doin’ a big apple!” This ostensible reference to the then-current dance craze was one of the many double entendres in the dialogue. Days after the broadcast, the studio received letters calling the show “immoral” and “obscene” by societies for the protection of morals. Several conservative women’s clubs and religious groups admonished the show’s sponsor, Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company, for “prostituting” their services for allowing “impurity [to] invade the air”. Under pressure, the Federal Communications Commission later deemed the broadcast “vulgar and indecent” and “far below even the minimum standard which should control in the selection and production of broadcast programs”. Some debate ensued regarding the reaction to the skit. Conservative religious groups took umbrage far more swiftly than the mainstream. These groups found it easy to make West their target. They took exception to her outspoken use of sexuality and sexual imagery, which she had employed in her career since at least the Pre-Code films of the early 1930s and for decades before on Broadway, but which was now being broadcast into American living rooms on a popular family-friendly radio program. The groups reportedly warned the sponsor of the program they would protest her appearance.
NBC Radio scapegoated West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations. They claimed it was not the content of the skit, but West’s tonal inflections that gave it the controversial context, acting as though they had hired West knowing nothing of her previous work, nor had any idea of how she would deliver the lines written for her by Oboler. West did not perform on radio again until January 1950, in an episode of The Chesterfield Supper Club, which was hosted by Perry Como. Ameche’s career did not suffer any serious repercussions, however, as he was playing the straight guy. Nonetheless, Mae West went on to enjoy record-breaking success in Las Vegas, swank nightclubs such as Lou Walters’ The Latin Quarter, Broadway, and London.
In 1958, West appeared at the live televised Academy Awards and performed the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Rock Hudson, which brought a standing ovation. In 1959, she released an autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, which became a best seller and was reprinted with a new chapter in 1970. West guest-starred on television, including The Dean Martin Show in 1959 and The Red Skelton Show in 1960, to promote her autobiography, and a lengthy interview on Person to Person with Charles Collingwood, which was censored by CBS in 1959, and never aired. CBS executives felt members of the television audience were not ready to see a nude marble statue of West, which rested on her piano. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on the sitcom Mister Ed. Much later, in 1976, she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang two songs on his “Back Lot U.S.A.” special on CBS.
In August 1980, West tripped while getting out of bed. After the fall, West was unable to speak and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke. She died on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87. A private service was held in the Old North Church replica, in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, on November 25, 1980. Bishop Andre Penachio, a friend, officiated at the entombment in the family mausoleum at Cypress Hills Abbey, Brooklyn.
I found this in an article about a tea with Mae West in the Observer:
Tea came in a silver service on a tray: English tea and shop-bought shortbread, which I hogged much more of than she did. Although West was known for her curves, I got the impression she wasn’t much interested in food, and certainly not in cooking it, although she talked at length about the benefits of putting coconut oil on her face.
Not much to go on. You can do better than store-bought shortbread, however. It’s easy to make. I have Mrs Beeton’s recipe here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/september-equinox/ It’s perfectly serviceable, but I can also do a little chameleon cooking with the basic idea. A standard round shortbread should be made in a 9” round baking tin. Preheat your oven to 170°C/325°F. Mix together 200 grams of plain flour and 50 grams of caster sugar. Then cut in 125 grams of cold butter until the mix resembles wet sand. I do this step in a food processor. Pour the mix into the baking tin and press it down firmly. Then prick the top deeply with a fork to make the shortbread easy to break when it is cooked. Bake for between 20 to 30 minutes. Check assiduously after 20 minutes, and remove the shortbread as soon as it is light golden. Cool on a wire rack in the tin for about 20 minutes, then turn out. The shortbread will keep in an airtight tin for 2 to 3 days. Plain shortbread is just fine by me, but there are no end of flavorings you can add. The trick is not to add too much of any one flavoring, because homemade shortbread has a simple buttery flavor that can easily be overwhelmed. A little grated lemon zest works, and people often add caraway seeds. Slightly less conventional flavorings include orange flower water, lavender water, or rosewater. Just be sparing: a little goes a long way. Add the flavoring to the sugar and flour mix before adding the butter.