- Historic Sites
The Immortality Of Mae West
Nearly a century after she came on the scene, her wit, bravado, and sexuality are a bigger presence than ever
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
He is a fan not only of her music but of West herself. “I don’t know if there has ever been a stronger woman in Hollywood,” he says. “Her message was clear: Women are strong, sex is fun. She had the guts to fight the establishment and break down a door for other people to eo through.The very fact that we’re talking about this and trying to analyze it 70 years later shows how great her impact still is.”
Born Mary Jane West in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on August 17, 1893, she was the first of three children of John (“Battlin’ Jack”) West, an Irish-American, and Matilda Delker West, a German-American. According to Carol Ward’s Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography, Matilda realized early that her daughter was “different” and encouraged her to be herself, even when she was willful, disobedient, and brazen with boys. Her father worked at various jobs, including bridle maker, night watchman, and bartender; a fighter and boxer, he spent his spare time in gyms and underworld hangouts. Though she was much closer to her mother, she realized in later years that her personality was more like his, and she came to value the “buccaneering spirit and the refusal to conform” that he had passed on to her. Time she spent with him as a child shaped her in a number of important ways. Her lifelong love of animals began with their visits to Frank Bostock’s trained lion show in Coney Island. Her obsession with health and fitness (and with boxers, wrestlers, and bodybuilders as friends, employees, and lovers) began when she trained with him, lifting weights and learning gymnastics and acrobatics. She spent many hours in her father’s racially mixed world at the gym and later insisted on integrated casts in her plays and films.
After she scored in local talent contests as “Baby Mae—Song and Dance,” her parents let her drop out of school—in the fourth grade—to concentrate on her career. “I had a deep, rough voice for a child,” she recalled later. “The audience started laughing when they heard my first powerful tones… I fell in love on that stage.” She did the era’s “coon songs” with a ragtime beat, comic novelty numbers, and impressions of Eddie Foy, George M. Cohan, Bert Williams, and Eva Tanguay. At 13 she joined a local stock company, playing juvenile parts: the prince in Richard III, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Meanwhile, she had discovered something that would be as important to her career as stage experience: sex. In her 1995 book When I’m Bad I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, Marybeth Hamilton writes that Mae’s first sexual experience happened at the age of 12 in the basement of her home, with a dance teacher. Her mother, who had shelved her own dream of a stage career for marriage and motherhood, advised her to enjoy boys without getting too involved with anyone. She encouraged and exploited Mae’s sexual precocity, putting her onstage in a new “adult” act, a naked dance behind a huge red fan.
Mae teamed with Frank Wallace to play burlesque houses with a sexy song-and-dance act based on the work of black performers, married him in April 1911—she was 17—and left him a few months later. In her autobiography she scorns romance: “It is this device of romantic personal love (an invention, by the way, of the early Renaissance) that is causing all the trouble.” She later told an interviewer that “women depend too much on one single man to give meaning to their lives and create happiness.” She also said, “I saw what it did to other people when they loved another person the way I loved myself, and I didn’t want that problem,” and “I was born to be a solo performer, on and off stage.” She didn’t want kids either: “I never wanted motherhood, because you have to think about the child and I only had time for me. Just the way I didn’t want no husband because he’d of interfered with my hobby and my career.” (Her hobby, presumably, was sex.)
Her pre-Hollywood career was characterized by brief successes and long periods of failure as she struggled to create a persona that would distinguish her from the many talented performers vying for top bookings. Her greatest gift in the early years was her instinct for choosing material that suited her. In Chicago she haunted black nightclubs after hours. Sure that the energy, hot rhythms, and moaning blues inflections of Chicago jazz could intensify her impact, she became one of the first performers in white vaudeville to employ a jazz band. Dazzled by the shimmy late one night, she put it in her own show the next day. In New York her shimmying stopped the show, but she balked at becoming famous as a mere shimmy dancer. bserving the phenomenal success of the female impersonator Bert Savoy, she blatantly copied his act, from his wardrobe (sweeping gowns, huge picture hats) to his trademark lines and gestures: double-entendres, suggestive glances, and the catch phrase “You must come over.” She bounced back and forth between Broadway and the vaudeville stage, fired again and again for her failure to tone down the risqu» material and delivery she knew would someday be the key to her success.