Mae West: Unapologetic Sex Symbol
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
—Mae West (1893 – 1980)
Mae West was an actress, writer, comic, and unapologetic sex symbol for the masses. She started self producing shows and enchanting audiences from a stage in her own backyard at the age of 5. She dominated every facet of performing arts for eight decades, from vaudeville to Broadway, Hollywood to the Vegas Strip. Mae West left an indelible mark on this nation’s imagination, carving out a space for sex workers through the characters she wrote and performed.
Mae West made her vaudeville debut at 7 years old. She began singing and tap dancing at the Brooklyn Elk’s Club, and by age nine, she debuted at the Brooklyn Royal Theater as “Baby Mae,” with her rendition of the song, “Movin Day.” Legend has it that Baby Mae demanded, and received, a spotlight before she would begin her number. The audience reportedly roared with applause.
Mae West spent her teenage years performing with a Brooklyn stock company, and at age 18, she stepped onto Broadway. In 1918, she stole the show in Sometime, a Broadway revue, with a dance known as the “Shimmy.” Her style of song and dance was undoubtedly influenced by Black vaudeville performers like Bert Williams. Historian Jill watts argues that Mae West always gave credit to and acknowledged Black culture and its influence on her work.
Hitting somewhat of a lull in her career, Mae’s mother encouraged her to write her own plays. In 1926, Mae’s first and perhaps most controversial play, Sex, debuted at Daly’s Theatre in Manhattan. Mae West starred in her show as Margy LaMont, a sex worker who wanted more in life. Newspapers refused to promote the show, but each performance — more than 300 shows — sold out. The play’s success raged on until the moral reformers had Mae West arrested in 1927 on charges of moral corruption and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.
Mae West only served eight days and, upon release, began working on her second play, The Drag, which centered on ballroom culture in New York City. Her third play, Pleasure Man, led to her second moral corruption arrest, but this time she was acquitted. Her fourth play, Diamond Lil, exploded. Wholly financed by the sale of her diamond collection, she was able to take this play on a national tour. Mae West was now ready for the silver screen, and in the 1930s, Hollywood called.
In 1932, Mae West starred in Night After Night with a weekly salary of $5,000. Paramount studios purchased Diamond Lil, changed the title to She Done Him Wrong, and toned down some of the sex worker themes. Mae West snagged Cary Grant for the leading part, which proved to be a breakout role for him. She Done Him Wrong remains the shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar.
For the next fifty years, Mae West remained in the public eye, fighting against censorship and for women’s rights. Her final film, Sextette, featured stars including Alice Cooper and Ringo Starr. The film received poor reviews, but served as her last battle in a long war against censorship.
Mae West continued to turn heads until she died in 1980. She is buried in her family mausoleum in Brooklyn Forest Lawn Cemetery. Mae West is remembered by generations of comics, actresses, and sex workers. The character she created became an icon who continues to inspire people to live their sexiest life today, without shame.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
West, Mae. Mae West play scripts, 1921-1964. Library of Congress. 14 items.2 containers.1 microfilm reel.0.6 linear feet. Local shelving no.: MMC-3280Microfilm 19,757-1N-1P. Link to Source.
Unpublished plays by Mae West, including “The Ruby Ring” (1921), “The Hussy” (1922), “Chick” (1924), “Sex” (1926), “The Wicked Age” (1927), “The Drag” (1927), “The Pleasure Man” (1928), “Diamond Lil” (1928), “Frisco Kate” (1930), “Catherine Was Great” (1944), “Come on Over, or Embassy Row” (1946), “Sextette” (two versions, 1952 and 1961), and “Diamond Lil” (two versions, 1928 and 1964).
West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It.
Mae’s 1959 autobiography
West, Mae and Lillian Schlissel. 1997. Three Plays by Mae West. New York: Routledge.
Three original, early plays written by Mae West – Sex, The Drag, and Pleasure Man, with an introduction and analysis by Lillian Schlissel.
Filmography (courtesy of IMDb)
Bailey, Jason. “Mae West Vamped and Winked. She Also Blazed a Trail We’re Still Following,” in New York Times, June 30, 2021, Link to Source.
Bailey provides a review of West’s work and influence citing new editions of her earliest works.
Collins, Jan Mackell. “The Untold Truth of Mae West,” in Grunge, July 5, 2022, Link to Source.
Collins provides an overview of Mae West’s life with links to additional sources, including the Library of Congress.
Meares, Hadley Hall. “’When I’m Bad, I’m Better’: Mae West’s Sensational Life, in Her Own Words,” in Vanity Fair, June 16, 2020. Link to Source.
Mears’s article provides a review of the PBS documentary Mae West: Dirty Blonde and a contrast to West’s 1959 autobiography.
Nehme, Farran Smith. “The Self-Created Immortality of Mae West,” in The Criterion Collection, December 4, 2020, Link to Source.
Nehme analyzes the legacy of Mae West’s career on stage and screen.
Chandler, Charlotte. She Always Knew How: Mae West a Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Chandler’s biography is based on a series of interviews she conducted with Mae West prior to her death.
Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing : Mae West As Cultural Icon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Jordan, Jessica Hope. The Sex Goddess in American Film 1930-1965 : Jean Harlow Mae West Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield. Amherst NY: Cambria Press, 2010.
A critical review of the “sex goddess” in film. The text centers on several American actresses including Mae West.
Michaud, Michael Gregg. Mae West : Between the Covers. Albany Georgia: BearManor Media, 2018.
A Mae West biography with details and anecdotes gleans from a multitude of interviews collected over the span of West’s career.
Sochen, June. From Mae to Madonna : Women Entertainers in Twentieth-Century America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
Sochen’s work analyzes the role of women entertainers in American culture, beginning with Mae West and her legacy.
Watts, Jill. Mae West : An Icon in Black and White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Biography of Mae West and her impact as an actress and sex symbol.
Mae West: Dirty Blonde
Link to Source.
The first major documentary about Mae West’s life and influence on American history and culture. This film is part of the American Masters series presented by PBS.
Link to Source.
Turner Classic Movies page offers a full filmography for Mae West as well as clips, links to full films, and other biographical information.