11-22-1980

The One. The Only...Mae West

MAE WEST, American actress and writer died (b. 1893); Famous for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become a comedian, actress and writer in the motion picture industry. One of the most controversial stars of her day, West encountered many problems including censorship. When her cinematic career ended, she continued to perform on stage, in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, on radio and television,and recorded rock albums. Reinvention, sex, breaking boundaries…Mae West did it all first, before there were Madonnas or Kardasians. It boggles the mind to imagine what West could have done with the internet and a smartphone.

Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a stage actress after she saw female impersonator Bert Savoy perform. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence.

Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name “Jane Mast.” Her first starring role on Braodway was in a play she neatly titled Sex, which she also wrote, produced and directed. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials and the theater was raided with West arrested along with the cast.

She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island, she was allowed to wear her silk underpants instead of the scratchy prison issue and the warden reportedly took her to dinner every night. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior. Media attention to the case enhanced her career.

Her next play, The Drag, was about homosexuality and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box office success but it played in New Jersey because it was banned from Broadway. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue and was also an early advocate of Gay and Transgender rights. She famously told policemen who were raiding a Gay bar, “Don’t you know you’re hitting a woman in a man’s body?”, a daring statement at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. During her entire lifetime she surrounded herself with Gay men and stood up for Gay rights at any and every opportunity.

In the 1950’s, Mae West rented a rather lavish apartment at The Ravenswood, one of Los Angeles’s most prestigious apartment houses. When she discovered that one of her male employees had been refused admittance to the building because he was black, she bought the entire building.

West continued to surround herself with virile muscle men for the rest of her life, employing companions, bodyguards and chauffeurs. She would occasionally make appearances at Hollywood parties and have luminaries and friends in to visit at her apartment in the Ravenswood. At one such party West astonished guests when she got up and performed a belly dance. They were amazed at her youthful appearance and incredible charisma. It became very fashionable to have West attend a party.

This writer encountered Ms. West on two separate occasions in Los Angeles. Once at a dinner where she was being honored by After Dark Magazine as “Star of the Year” for her final performance in Sextette (the movie posters proclaimed “Mae West is Coming!”) and her role as Leticia Van Allen , in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. 

The other time was in the waiting room of my dentist.

Turns out Mae and I went to the same dentist. I had an appointment and was sitting in the waiting room writing in a journal I was keeping. I heard the door to the exam rooms open, and thinking I was being called in, looked up to see none other than Mae West, dressed to the nines, and escorted by an elderly (all of 50 years old, I imagine now) coming out. I stood and extended my hand, saying something like “Ms. West, I have been a fan all my life!” She took my hand, and didn’t let go. In fact she pulled me closer and stroked my cheek with the back of her hand, responding, “Oooohh…that’s so sweet. Mmmmm….you’re very cute.” I had my journal in my hand so I quickly asked if she would give me an autograph. “Ya gotta pen?” Of course I did, and I handed the journal and the pen to her. She was so short!

She then proceeded to leaf through my journal, turning a page at a time, pausing at sketches I had made, and reading my scratchings here and there. She found a blank page and signed her name with great flourish, handed both the pen and the book back to me, and, as she moved to leave, turned to me and said, “You should come up and see me sometime.” It was all I could do not to swoon right there.