The Legendary Mae West
It Takes Guts to be an Entertainer
They Loved Her from Coast to Coast
Mae West was born in the Gay Nineties in Brooklyn. She was at first a Vaudeville entertainer, unknown to the public nationally, but later became a big hit on Broadway with her risque humor. During the 1920's when Americans relaxed after the First World War was over, Mae West performed plays that she herself had written. The conservative censorship organizations in New York had her arrested once for indecency in putting on daring plays. But she laughed it off and flourished in the publicity it brought.
One of the plays, "Diamond Lil" became so famous that Mae was considered for a Hollywood movie. But the extremely strict censors in California weren't as liberal as the audiences and most of the people back in New York. Although they didn't try to put Mae in jail out in California, they did cut most of the good lines out of her scripts, which disappointed her greatly from the time she arrived there in 1930. It took a little advocacy from a friend, actor George Raft, to get Hollywood to offer her a bit part in one of his movies.
By then, the Great Depression was getting started. But Mae West literally saved one of the greatest studios of its time, the Paramount movie studio, and became the single most famous woman in the United States, thrilling and entertaining audiences all over the country. In those days people longed for the escape of the movie theaters that existed all over the country in big and little towns everywhere. The financial hardships of everyday life were great, so the fun and laughter they had at a Mae West movie were just what the doctor might have ordered.
In her first movie, starring her dear friend George Raft, Mae rewrote the script to insert one of her famous lines into her bit part. That line came after someone exclaimed, "Goodness! Look at those diamonds!" Mae smiled and said, "Goodness had nothing to do with it." Although the serious censors might have had to think for a while to get the joke, the American public was on to it instantly and roared with laughter in theaters from coast to coast.
The battle with the Hollywood censors, so out of touch with the reality of average American citizen, still continued all the time Mae West bravely plowed forward against this conservative wall of humorless people, encouraged by her friends in the movie industry who loved her courage and integrity. Many of the greatest lines that Mae West wanted put into her parts in her movies were destroyed, however, by Hollywood's more conservative establishment.
Still, they couldn't take out everything. In "She Done Him Wrong" Mae made the most famous statement of all her movies when she tried to entice a wealthy businessman to visit her in her upstairs room at a bar. While many people misquote the line as simply, "Why don't you come up and see me sometime," the full context in the Thirties film involved a little more acting. It went more like, "Why don't you come up some time--you could see me," spoken brazenly as she obviously adjusted her bodice. In that same movie, Mae also sang the famous ballad of "Frankie and Johnny." Later Elvis Presley would record the song as well and sing it in his great shows in Las Vegas to audiences familiar with Mae West.
Fed up with Hollywood censors at last, Mae agreed to continue in her movie career for a short time only and made one more film with W.C. Fields ("My Little Chickadee") in 1940, after which she returned the focus of her acting career to New York plays on Broadway, although her permanent residence remained in California. Then as Las Vegas started up a few years later after the Second World War, Mae put on a fabulous show there that was a long-running success.
Later, in the wild and rebellious Sixties, Mae was rediscovered by a new generation. She made other movies including "Myra Breckinridge," a comedy about transgenders. Mae West was a supporter of the women's liberation and gay rights movements.
Mae West's humor has to be classed as highly risque because it contains obvious references to sexual relations, but it's so clever that it has universal appeal. She portrayed a woman on the make, but in real life she was extremely thoughtful and generous. She had great respect for people and religion, but didn't think much of those whose minds were too narrow to encompass the realities of humor based on the folly of human sexuality. Her IQ was considered on a level with some of the most brilliant people of her time. In one great line written by her with tremendous mirth and wit, she says, "I go for two kinds of men--the kind with muscles, and the kind without."
But was that true in reality? Yes and no. She argued with the closed-minded, stubborn censorship people, and with the alcoholic W.C. Fields. At the same time, she had many men in her life throughout a long career. She certainly was a liberal and gave generously to organizations of Catholic nuns. Proud of her family, she told of her father's fame in New York as a prize fighter and proclaimed her fine Jewish heritage on her mother's side.
Mae West married when she was very young to another Vaudeville performer, but they lived together only for a few weeks. Other than that, she was single the rest of her life. Mae loved many men very deeply, although she always passed it off as a physical affair.
She really only became nationally famous in her late thirties. As she aged, she became well liked for her intelligence and philosophical views of life. She wrote an autobiography and in it emphasized her view that each of us must love ourselves, and having that self-respect proceed to give happiness to others. Mae advised young Hollywood hopefuls against trying to make it in the industry by freely giving themselves to those who could help them up the ladder. Mae West was well aware of the subtleties that comprised a winning combination of talent and attractiveness. She advised young ladies that real attraction involved keeping themselves in reserve while showing only a little of their beauty.
In her movie career, Mae West appeared in films with Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Raquel Welch, Tony Curtis, and many more famous actors. She always was one of the big players in show business. She appeared on TV shows and, before that, was a radio star as well.
Mae's real name was Mary Jane West. She was only five feet one inch tall. She never did drink or smoke. During her life she was controversial, but most people loved her despite her very adult humor. Even those who were conservative in their personal lifestyles found Mae West's humor irresistible. She appealed to everyone, whether an urban sophisticate or a small-town wholesome, middle-American guy or gal.
Truly, Mae West has been missed and often mentioned dearly by many people since her passing in 1980. For the last fifty years of her life, her home had been in the same apartment in California that she moved into on arriving there in 1930. She lived in a penthouse and owned the whole building, which she bought after the previous owners objected to her having friends of different races visiting her there.
Within just three days of her death, Mae's lifelong friend and fellow actor George Raft also passed away. Although she made many jokes about being bad and loving it, the consensus of opinion is that Mae was good for America because so many people really identified with the very human, bedrock foundation of her truthful humor. She wasn't gross. Her jokes were delivered with class and style. She was a woman who upheld the common dignity of all people while finding a way to touch on one of mankind's most sensitive topics.