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Hollywood's Elite, part 10: Early Sex Symbol - Mae West

Updated on November 18, 2011

Mary Jane West aka Mae West

A Dame That Knows the Ropes Isn't Likely to Get Tied Up - Mae West

In winter I love snuggling with my throw, and a large cup of coffee on Saturday mornings, while treating myself to a good old black and white movie. This past Saturday I was obliged to feast my eyes on a vehicle of Mae West's; She Done Him Wrong , co-starring a very young, very handsome Cary Grant.

In 1893 an icon was born, Mary Jane West, to Brooklyn prizefighter Battlin' "Jack" West and homemaker Tillie. This "fighter" dad was known more for his KOs (knock outs) in street brawls than bouts in the ring. After marrying Tillie Battlin' Jack became a "special policeman", working as muscle for local businessmen and crime syndicates.

Mimicking friends and family members at age three it was locally known that Mae was proficient in the art of impersonation even though she didn't know what the word meant. West quickly learned how to command an audience during these impromptu family performances. Tillie ensured she learned her craft from the best by taking little Mae to vaudeville performances and plays.

One performer captured the attention of young Mae, Bert Williams, an African-American entertainer. Decades later she would credit him with teaching her the art of innuendo and delivery of flippant one liners, on which she built a career.

Ms. Mae West

He's the Kind of Man a Woman Would Have to Marry to Get Rid Of - Mae West

Mae's private life was advanced for the mores of 1910. During a vaudeville stint, a constant suitor, Frank Wallace, proposed several times to the under age performer, who preferred to . .  let's say share her affections with other males of the cast. A more worldly, older female cast member suggested to West that it would be in her best interest to enter into marriage to protect her reputation in case of pregnancy or to stave off loneliness.

At age 17 (legal age for marriage was 18 in Wisconsin at the time) the young actress took Mr. Wallace up on his proposal lying about her age. The union was kept secret from the public and co-workers until 1935 when it was accidentally uncovered. Soon after the couple arrived in New York Mae broke up the act and the marriage.

All Discarded Lovers Should be Given a Second Chance, but with Somebody Else - Mae West

Early Mae

Mae During "Sex" Trial

I Didn't Discover Curves; I Only Uncovered Them - Mae West

West's big break came when hired for the Shubert Brothers revue in 1918 called Sometime with co-star Ed Wynn. Her character was to dance a "shimmy". A very exotic dance which called for one to shake their shoulders back and forth while thrusting the chest forward. A dance right up the "shock value" alley of the brazen Mae.

Afterward Mae was given more parts. Parts which she molded to her character by rewriting scripts, changing character descriptions, and modifying dialogue to fit her personality. West also began writing her own pieces under the pseudonym Jane Mast.

The first play in 1926 was called Sex, written, produced, directed and starred in by West. A sensational box office hit, even though critics disliked the explicit sexual content. Box office hit maybe, but the vehicle bombed with law enforcement and city officials. West and many of her cast members were arrested during impromptu raids. Mae was sentenced to ten days in jail charged on a morals charge in April of 1927. Her incarceration was made easy since she frequently dined with the warden and his family. Serving only eight days of the ten, two off for good behavior.

Then, as today, when a media production receives this type of publicity it only increases popularity and ticket sales, thus escalating Ms. West's career.

Between Two Evils, I Always Pick the One I Never Tried Before - Mae West

Again Mae's avant-garde mindset landed her in hot water regarding Drag , a play she wrote and directed about, of all things, homosexuality. The piece did well in Paterson, Connecticut and New Jersey, but was not allowed on the Great White Way, Broadway. The Society for the Prevention of Vice, put an immediate stop to the proposed showing and banned it.

In 1932 Hollywood beckoned the thirty eight year old actress (ancient by Hollywood standards, even today) to share her talent with the world through film and she accepted. Her first film She Done Him Wrong , spotlighted West's character "Diamond Lil". This work was proclaimed to have saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, earning an Academy Award for Best Picture and co-starred newbie Cary Grant. Deemed a certified box office hit.

Next, I'm No Angel , another box office smash, giving Mae the honor of being the eighth largest box office draw in the U.S., and the second highest paid person in the nation next to publisher William Randolph Hearst in 1935.

Klondike Annie , released in 1936 dealt with hypocrisy of religion. The film disturbed William Randolph Hearst so much that he banned any film advertisement or stories to be published in any of the media outlets he owned. Which is funny since the uptight, married publisher had a lifetime shacking arrangement with actress Marion Davies. Building their own love nest in San Simeone, California named Hearst Castle talk about a hypocrite! Again bad publicity is better than no publicity, the film went on to become the highpoint of West's career.

His mother should have thrown him out and kept the stork - Mae West

So Many Men... So Little Time - Mae West

You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins - Mae West
You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins - Mae West
# I like my clothes to be tight enough to show I'm a woman... but loose enough to show I'm a lady - Mae West
# I like my clothes to be tight enough to show I'm a woman... but loose enough to show I'm a lady - Mae West

West DVD on Sale at Amazon

I Believe in Censorship. I Made a Fortune Out of It - Mae West

In 1937 after a radio broadcast between Mae West, playing herself, and ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, (actress Candice Bergen's father) and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy all hell broke loose. Days after the transmission heated letters of complaints were received calling the performance immoral and decadent.

She's the Kind of Girl Who Climbed the Ladder of Success . . Wrong By Wrong - Mae West

Threats were made by listeners and moral groups to chastise the sponsors of the show, Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company for allowing such immoral trash on the air. The FCC also agreed saying the show was "vulgar and indecent", below standards set aside by the broadcasting companies. Blame was set squarely on the shoulders of Mae by NBC and she was banned from any other broadcast by them and any of their affiliates.

With her career waning in 1939 West agreed to do two flicks one opposite funnyman W.C. Fields, another master of double speak, at Universal Studios. Both films were of the western genre.

One and one is two; two and two is four; and five will get you ten if you work it right! - My Little Chickadee - Mae West

Destry Rides Again , starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart and My Little Chickadee co-starring W.C.Fields. Determined to make a comeback West insisted on creative control over the films, and writing the screenplay for "Chickadee". Tempers were high on the set of My Little Chickadee , due to Fields love of drink and Mae a non drinker (who'd of thunk it). Both films smashed the box office, and performed better financially than Fields previous two films.

Personality is the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights and the orchestra pit into that big black space where the audience is - Mae West

From 1943 - late 1970s, Ms. West film attempts failed at the box-office society had grown tired of the burlesque / vaudeville fair and tastes had changed. Mae appeared in nightclub acts doing song and dance numbers with have naked muscular men. Authored a best selling autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It . Television guest appearances on Mister Ed, Red Skelton Show , and a rock and roll Christmas album kept the star busy.

Myra Breckenridge , Gore Vidal's dismal film starring a young Racquel Welsh and Mae, appearing in a small part, bombed at the box office. I remember the vehicle as a hot disjointed mess, it endured the test of time and has a large cult following.

1978s Sextette was a script written for the stage by Mae West then adapted for film. Problems in production arose from too many cooks spoiling the pot, which caused disagreements regarding creativity, daily script revisions and unfortunately, the elderly West had a problem with remembering set direction and her lines. The film survived due to the professionalism of Ms. West. This work was doomed to box office failure, but as with Breckenridge has also developed a cult following.

Diva West

# Good sex is like good Bridge... If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand - Mae West
# Good sex is like good Bridge... If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand - Mae West

He Who Hesitates is Last - Mae West

Mae West passed away in 1980, but her contribution to modern film as one of the first female stars who was a writer, director, producer of films and plays has yet to be surpassed. I laugh when I hear today's female artist whine about the struggles they endure in the male dominated industry.  If you want your story told sometimes you have to tell it yourself - my mother.  Mae lived in a time less forgiving of our sex and still persevered. Granted many may blame her for the loosening of morals in our nation through film, but you have to admit she never shied away from sticking her toe in the water.

Those who are easily shocked . . . should be shocked more often - Mae West


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    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      7 years ago from Summerland

      I'm a HUGE fan of Mae West...voluptuous and proud to be a REAL woman! Her quotes are absolutely fabulous, too. Voted up!

    • sunchild28 profile image


      7 years ago from Nigeria

      Great hub,the pictures are passing very sensitive message to my system, thanks a lot.

    • pmccray profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Utah

      All4Jesus - you are so right she was so far before her time that her quotes are timeless. Thank you for taking the time to read my piece.

      Micky Dee - Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and your kind compliment. Your so right this lady had a million quotes all great all timely. Peace bro'

      bkcreative - you are so right. Mae really took a career chance on the mention of a person of color, but "chance" was this diva's middle name. Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and leaving a comment.

      creative59 - your welcome my dear. Thank you for taking the time to read my hub.

      Cogerson - thanks for the voting!!! Thank you for taking the time to read my work and leaving a comment.

      Azure_sky: Your so right . . very glad you enjoyed the piece, I certainly enjoyed writing it. Mae West was an awesome, smart lady and should never be forgotten for her contribution to women rights and making a way for all females in the entertainment.

      And to all of you . . . you're the best audience a budding writer could have. I'm truly blessed to have found this site and found new friends. Much love to you all.

    • azure_sky profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere on the Beach, if I am lucky :)

      Thanks for this awesome hub pmccray! I love Mae West, and repeat several of her "sayings" on a weekly basis, even have some of them posted on my facebook page:) She was waaaaay before her time!!

    • Cogerson profile image


      7 years ago from Virginia

      A very informative hub....I have read lots about her..great hub...voted up

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 

      7 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you PMCC, for this great all american hub, I love Mae West,the way she spoke and her mannerisn. Thank for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

    • BkCreative profile image


      7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      I became a big fan of Mae West because my mother loved her. My mother felt all women should be foxy, glamorous, sassy, and above all rich and comfortable being a woman. Yet, there weren't too many woman like Mae West and that's true today. Sigh. I appreciate her giving credit to Bert Williams - even that was a step way out of line.

      Should have know she was born in Brooklyn. Fabulous hub with fabulous Mae West-isms! Yay and rated way up of course.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      7 years ago

      "All Discarded Lovers Should be Given a Second Chance, but with Somebody Else"- It's hard to pick the best quote from Mae West. Thank you dear pmccray! I really enjoyed this. I enjoy all your work though. Encore!

    • ALL4JESUS profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Mae was Scarlott O'Hara before the book was a movie - what a charming gal with tons of spunk!

      Her quotes are simply timeless.

      Thank you for this great tribute.


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