By Kendahl Cruver
West began her life in middle-class comfort in Brooklyn, New York, August 17,
1895 (some sources say 1893). A seductress from the start, she was called the
"Baby Vamp" when she began performing at age five. As a teen, she developed her
sensual and slow-paced style in a series of vaudeville acts. Though she had not
yet grown into her generous curves, slinky, dark-haired Mae was already raising
eyebrows with her "shimmy" dance.
When vaudeville became less lucrative, Mae wrote her first play, under the pen
name Jane Mast, and starred herself. From the moment it opened, "Sex" was
notorious. The critics despised it, but ticket sales were good enough to
threaten the deputy mayor. A year into its run, he had the production raided for
Along with the principal cast and producers, Mae was sentenced to ten days in
jail. She served eight, with two days off for good behavior. She spent a
comfortable conviction, even convincing the warden to let her wear silk
underwear instead of the scratchy prison issue variety.
Mae continued to write plays. With salacious titles such as "The Wicked Age",
"Pleasure Man", and "The Constant Sinner", they were plagued by controversy and
production difficulties. If indecency didn't shut down a play, slow ticket sales
Mae found the role of her career in 1928 when she wrote and starred in "Diamond
Lil". Lil was the racy, easy-going kind of lady who she would play for the rest
of her career. The play enjoyed enduring popularity and Mae would successfully
revive it many times.
Now Hollywood noticed Mae. She was recruited by Paramount to appear in the new
talking films, where strong performers were desperately needed. Mae moved to
California to become a movie star.
first, Mae didn't like her small role in the George Raft vehicle "Night After
Night" (1932). She accepted the part only when she was allowed to rewrite her
lines. She stole the film from Raft. In her first scene, a coat check girl
exclaimed, "goodness, what lovely diamonds". Mae became an instant sensation
when she replied, "goodness had nothing to do with it dearie".
Paramount executives had hoped to avoid bankruptcy with a vehicle for radio star
Kate Smith. They changed their plans when fans asked for more Mae West. Mae
brought Diamond Lil' (now Lady Lou), to the screen in "She Done Him Wrong". The
huge hit saved Paramount, earned an Oscar nomination for best picture, and made
male lead Cary Grant a star.
On the heels of this success, Mae played a lion tamer in "I'm No Angel". She
refused a stunt double for the scenes in the lion cage. Mae didn't learn until
later that nervous studio executives had stationed men with guns out of sight
with orders to shoot if it looked like a lion would attack. The picture was
Unfortunately, because of Mae's success, the Hays Office started to object to
her racy material. She starred in ten movies during the studio age, but with
each film, it became increasingly more difficult to keep her sexy style intact.
Audiences were less interested in a censored Mae West.
Not that Mae needed to work. By the late thirties she had invested well, mostly
in real estate. She even owned the building where she lived in a plush white and
gold apartment. Still, she was not content to settle into comfortable
In 1940, Mae costarred with W.C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee". She refused to
let Fields drink during production, which distressed the alcoholic comic. He
complied as much as he could and only got caught with his liquid lunch a few
Mae followed her comeback success with "The Heat's On". It was the first film
she didn't oversee to the smallest detail and her first flop. She decided never
to star in a movie again unless she had total control.
Even without movie roles, Mae was active. She starred on Broadway in "Catherine
Was Great", appeared on television talk shows and guest starred on the Mr. Ed
show. She also shocked the Sunday night listeners of ventriloquist Charlie
McCarthy's radio show. Mae's sexy sketch with Edgar the dummy ended up getting
her banned from radio for years.
In order to keep her appeal fresh, Mae recorded a rock album called "Great Balls
of Fire". She was later approached near the end of the seventies to do disco
versions of her old movie songs, but she correctly guessed that disco had
reached its peak and declined. In 1958, she wrote her autobiography, in which
she only included her successes, supposedly for the sake of her loving fans.
Also in the fifties, Mae starred in her own Las Vegas stage show. Surrounded by
muscle men, she sang to delighted crowds. One of those men became her lifelong
companion. Though he was decades younger than her, Paul Novak was devoted to
Mae. He became her lover, nurse, cook, trainer, and a buffer from anyone who
didn't appreciate the Mae West persona.
ended her career with two amusingly bad films. She was over eighty years old
when she made "Myra Breckenridge" and "Sexette" and though she walked with a
cane and often forgot her lines, many agreed that she looked half her age.
Still, it was unsettling to see her seduce twenty-something Timothy Dalton in "Sexette".
In November 1980, Mae was finally forced to retire when she was hospitalized
following a stroke. The president of her fan club nursed her, and as always,
Paul was at her side. She spent her last days at home.
At the time of her death, Mae West was still a star. She attracted everyone from
nostalgic older fans to teenagers who had seen her movies on television. Mae
enjoyed being an icon and she seemed to accept the attention as her due. She
delighted audiences with the very traits that ensured her long career,
unwavering belief in herself and a sensual joy of life.
Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about
classic actresses for
Suite101.com. Mae West is her third submission to
The Movie Profiles &
Premiums Newsletter, following excellent
submissions on Fay Wray
and Theda Bara.
Other Mae West Pages:
Jackson's Mae West Page -- The Actress Who Was Way Ahead Of Her