Can we start this week by saying: MAE WEST 4EVER. You’ve probably already heard of her, so I’m sure I don’t need to preface this by saying Mae was an American actress, playwright, screenwriter and famous wit whose sexy career lasted over 70 years.
She’s been the subject of countless books, films and magazine articles, and Salvador Dali made a surrealist sofa based on her lips. She was a worldwide sex symbol who today would wear a size 14/16 dress. Must I go on? This lady rules.
Mae was born at home in Brooklyn, NY in 1893, the oldest daughter of John Patrick West (aka Battlin’ Jack West the prizefighter) and Matilda Doelger, a corset model. Her parents were immigrants who had come to America from Bavaria years before, and both were encouraging of her dreams of stardom. West began performing at the age of five, dancing and singing at church socials, before moving to amateur shows and talent contests at the ripe old age of seven. This being the earliest bit of the 20th century, and child labour laws being more or less nonexistent, it’s unsurprising that she started properly working in vaudeville shows at fourteen, under the stage name Baby Mae. But before you think this is another Toddlers in Tiaras disaster, please know that Mae West had one of the most varied acts on the circuit, trying out different personas including, most interestingly, a male impersonator. (She also had a character that dressed in blackface, which is reprehensible but more a sign of the times than of any racist beliefs on Mae’s part… indeed in later life, when her apartment building wouldn’t allow her black boyfriend to visit her, she shoved their racist ways in their faces by buying the building and letting him move in. Take that, segregation!)
But Mae wasn’t just a pretty vaudeville face. She started writing saucy plays under the pen name Jane Mast and broke onto Broadway with a play simply titled Sex that she wrote, directed, produced and starred in, w/e. And which was subsequently kicked off broadway when the theatre was raided and the cast arrested. Mae spent eight days in prison for “corrupting the morals of the youth,” which, LOL guys, they knew what sex was before they went to see a BROADWAY PLAY about it, but anyway, whatever. Undaunted, she wrote many more plays that dealt frankly and bawdily with sex, gender, and sexuality, including The Drag, a play barred from performance for being pro-gay in message.
For those keeping score at home, that is five careers in, and we’re about to add a few more. After being given a bit part in a feature film in 1932, Mae was bummed out. Used to being the star, she insisted that they let her rewrite what few lines she had. Her little chunk of cinema stole the show. Said the director: ”She stole everything but the cameras.” God damn, everyone was so witty back then. Her movie career continued, and by 1935 she was the second-highest paid person in the United States (!!!!).
When her film fame had abated slightly she returned to Broadway, writing three consecutive shows that involved her performing surrounded by young male body buliders. Still later, she recorded multiple “rock and roll” albums, including one called “Wild Christmas” … are we all in agreement yet that this woman is perfect? Her last film was written by her in 1978, and because she was constantly changing the script, her lines were FED TO HER THROUGH A TINY SPEAKER CONCEALED IN HER WIG. She’s perfect.
West did a few more live shows in Vegas in her later years, all of which also featured important roles for muscled men, including Chester Rybonski, a former Mr. California 30 years her junior whom she lived with from age 61 until her death on November 22, 1980, at age 87. In addition to this long-term love affair, she had at least two secret marriages and numerous other romantic involvements in her day. But aside from the men and the dresses and the signature walk based on drag queens of the early 1900s (I know, right?), she’s probably best known for her aphorisms, so I thought I’d leave you with some of the sauciest, snarkiest, most badass things she is quoted as saying:
- To err is human — but it feels divine
- I don’t like myself, I’m crazy about myself.
- Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? (SHE INVENTED THIS GUYYYYS)
- You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins.
Like I said, MAE WEST 4EVER!