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When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West

Updated on March 25, 2016

Mae West

Mae West
Mae West | Source

I Used to Be Snow White, But I Drifted

When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West

Born August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, Mary Jane “Mae” West was made for entertaining. Starting from her first taste of the stage as a five year old entertaining adults at a church social and following a swift introduction to vaudeville by her encouraging mother, Mae could do just about anything: act, sing, direct, dance, tell jokes ,write and produce plays. She has been credited with inventing the dance style called the Shimmy, though Mae often denied it, saying, “Who wants to make a career out of the shakes anyway?” Indeed, her career was built on clever double-entendres that left the public shocked and delighted.

At seventeen, Mae ran off to marry her boyfriend, fellow vaudevillian Frank Szatkus and almost immediately regretted it. They lived separately for many years until they finally divorced in 1943. It was alleged that Mae married another man under a different name to avoid bigamy charges, but that relationship did not last long either. “Marriage is a great institution,” Mae would remark later, “but I’m not ready for an institution.”

Back in the early days of moving pictures and stage plays, there was no censorship code or ratings system, so entertainers were able to examine a wide range of stories and topics. Movies told sexy stories and women held such power that it would surprise modern viewers who look back at this era.

In 1925, Mae wrote a play entitled Sex, about prostitutes seeking a happier life, and it was a massive hit. There was nothing gratuitous in the play itself, but the title alone caused police—including many officers who had watched the play before—to raid the theater and arrest all of the performers, including Mae. When she was brought up before a judge, he warned her of being contempt of the court and she replied, “I’m doing my best to hide it, Your Honor.”

Mae, her director and producer were all found guilty of indecency and corrupting the values of the youth and sentenced to ten days in jail. Fortunately for Mae, the warden and his wife were huge fans. She ate dinner with them every night, the warden handled her mail, and he released her two days early for good behavior.

In 1932, a floundering Paramount Pictures offered forty year old Mae a small role in the movie Night After Night. Unhappy with her small role, Mae asked if she could rewrite a few scenes and the studios obliged. In her first scene, Mae, bedecked in diamonds, strides up to a hat-check girl. The girl looked at Mae’s jewelry and gasped, “My goodness, what lovely diamonds!” to which Mae replied, “’Goodness’ had nothing to do with it, dearie.” The American audience loved it.

In 1933, Mae took her play Diamond Lil and rewrote the script for the movies, calling it She Done Him Wrong. Set back in the Gay Nineties, one scene showed Mae’s character Lady Lou strolling through a men’s jail on her way to meet a former lover, only to be eagerly greeted by every male prisoner there. She also tempts a disguised Cary Grant with the immortal but misquoted line, “Why don’t you come upstairs and see me?”

The movie was a hit, and Mae was credited with saving Paramount. Mae became a superstar, and she had the second highest salary in the United States (following publisher William Randolph Hearst). She went on to star again with Cary Grant in I’m No Angel, her most lucrative film, still writing plays and novels and performing on stage.

Mae West, I'm No Angel

Unfortunately, Mae’s movie career was cut short; the Legion of Decency, a group of Catholic Americans, blasted Mae and other movie stars for their use of sex in movies. Once the Censorship Code was passed, it became harder for Mae to make movies and her films suffered. But censorship didn’t stop Mae. “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it,” she said, but after her film The Heat’s On did so poorly at the box office, Mae didn’t make another movie for almost twenty-five years.

But Mae couldn’t leave show business. She continued to act on stage, wrote novels and made rock and roll albums and guest-starred on TV sitcoms. She wrote her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, and continued to date a large selection of men. When her boxer boyfriend William “Gorilla” Jones was not allowed to move into the Ravesnwood apartment building where Mae lived because he was black, Mae herself settled the matter—by buying the building.

Mae was also an early champion of homosexual rights. In an essay recorded in The Mammoth Book of Heroic and Outrageous Women, Mae talks about how she met a large number of gay men in vaudeville and on Broadway. She wrote the play The Drag about gay men, but never got to perform it after the city of New York asked her bluntly not to produce it. Mae believed that a gay person was born gay, that they had no control over who they were. She often spoke of gay men as having women’s souls, and she was disgusted by the practice of conversion therapy (therapy used to “cure” gays of homosexuality).

Mae made another attempt at movies with first an appearance in Myra Beckinridge, 1970 and starring in Sextette, 1978. Unfortunately, both films did poorly and Mae largely retired from entertaining.

In 1980, Mae fell out of bed and was rushed to the hospital. She joked that she had been dreaming about Burt Reynolds, but the truth was much more serious; she had suffered a stroke. She suffered through a second stroke and pneumonia before finally passing away on November 22, 1980, at 87 years old.

Here are some of Mae’s best quips!:

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

It's not the men in my life that counts-- it's the life in my men.

Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

When I'm good I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.

I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.

I've been rich and I've been poor... Believe me, rich is better.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.

Mae West works referenced:

The Mammoth Book of Heroic & Outrageous Women, edited by Gemma Alexander

Cool Women, by Dawn Chipman et al

Mae West

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Mae West

Mae West

Best of Mae West


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