Mae West (Mary Jane West) – Born August 17th 1893 to Bavarian parents ans began performing professionally for the popular vaudeville shows of the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of fourteen. Becoming a popular face, Mae’s over exaggerated swagger, reportedly inspired by the female impersonators of the time, caught the attention of The New York Time in 1911 Times.
She would often go to the black clubs in Harlem, where dancing & music was looser & more energised. She was a key figure in introducing the ‘Shimmy’ to shocked white audiences. Her appearance on the music sheet cover for ‘Ev’body Shimmy Now’ (1918) placed her close to the centre of the controversial dance craze.
Mae felt, after a spell of successful shows, that her characters were not representing her in a way, she felt, she could only do herself. The writers of the plays she starred in often asked her to add her own wise cracks & change the parts to give them what they knew only she was capable of. One night, she walked along the Boardwalk & saw a Prostitute with thickly applied lipstick, her hair was blonde & frizzy, stockings laddered. This, she thought, was not an uncommon sight but the image of her ’Lady of the night’ stuck with Mae for the next few days and eventually she began to write down her own stories & plays. In the early 1920’s she wrote, produced & directed ‘Sex’ which, although was not the biggest selling play, it was a slap in the face of the gathering momentum of censorship on the stage and built Mae West’s reputation for doing what she please whilst keeping male favour.
Not everyone looked kindly on her lax attitude & Mae was sent to jail for 10 days charged with ‘’corrupting the morals of youth’. She was released in 8 for good behaviour & also dined with the warden & his wife several times during her stay! Her brief stint in jail did nothing but fan the flames of the media attention & she continued to write sexually aggressive plays on Homosexuality, relationships, Women’s Rights & life in show business.
She continued to craft her public persona – bold & brassy with masses of extravagant showmanship. She remained sexually charged & quick witted at all times. Mae was signed to Paramount in 1932, at the grand age of 38, she stayed heavily involved in casting & script writing.
She gave Cary Grant his first role major break into film, she is said to have requested he play the lead role in her film of 1933 ‘She done him wrong’, after seeing him wandering around the film studio. The film was a hit for Mae West gaining an Academy Award Nomination & saving paramount Pictures from bankruptcy.
In most of her movies, her gowns & bleach blond finger waved hair mirrors the Hollywood glamour of the time, many designed by Edith Head. Despite her age at the time, she was never without male company and was a constant feature of the celebrity gossip columns. Which, to be honest, is probably the only way she wanted it to be.
Her ability to engage both female & male audiences with her sassy quick fire wit & clever one-liners made her one of the biggest grossing actors of the 1930’s. With more than 9 films under her belt at the beginning of the 1940’s, some not so successful as others, Mae was, for a spell, shelved by producers & film executives. Perhaps more for the reason that her acting style became a little tiresome over the decade & offers of suitable roles dried up. In one last film for Columbia Picture, in which she was begged to star in, ’The Heat is on’ (1943) was a box office flop. She was not to appear in another movie until the 1970’s. In her later career the Blonde Bombshell became an icon of her age & also found popularity within the gay community. Mae West died on November 25th 1980
For me she really stands out as a Hollywood icon, not only as a strong, sexually liberated female but because she did it all with unprecedented style & class. You see her pictures and you are seduced by the glamour but if you scratch a little deeper more often than not, you find that her inspiring life transcends the ages & I was compelled to write about her, as many others have and will in years to follow.
“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
– Mae West (source)
Love VV x