September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Nearly a century after she came on the scene, her wit, bravado, and sexuality are a bigger presence than ever
And so she does. Embraced by the public the moment she hit the movie screen in 1933 at the amazingly advanced age of 40, she still hasn’t lost her grip on the American consciousness. Two decades after her death, she continues to be a source of fascination and controversy, one of the most powerful sexual and cultural figures of our— as well as our grandparents’—time.
Her impact was immediate. She cropped up in Betty Boop and Walt Disney cartoons and in Cole Porter’s song lyrics. She came in for some ridicule—critics called her “the first female leading man,” “the greatest female impersonator”—but major writers championed her. F. Scott Fitzgerald thought her “the only Hollywood actress with an ironic edge and comic spark,” and the immensely popular British novelist Hugh Walpole wrote that only she and Charlie Chaplin “dare to directly attack with their mockery the fraying morals and manners of a dreary world.” Colette praised her independent spirit: “She alone, out of an enormous and dull catalogue of heroines, does not get married at the end of the film, does not gaze sadly at her declining youth … does not experience the bitterness of the abandoned ‘older woman.’… She alone has no parents, no children, no husband.” Nine of her witticisms appear in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and she herself has been a dictionary entry since World War II, when RAF pilots named their full-chested, inflatable life preservers after her.
A new generation discovered her when her two first—and best—films, sequestered since the 1930s after a censorship crackdown largely provoked by her sexual humor, were finally re-released in the 1960s. In the 1970s, feminists reviled her as a “reverse sexist,” yet she was voted Woman of the Century in 1971 by UCLA students, “in honor of her pioneering influence on sexual mores …as a pathbreaking advocate of sexual frankness, a courageous crusader against censorship.” The collage cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band features her haughty, masklike face. Her influence is clearly discernible in the look and work of performers from Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, and Jayne Mansfield to Dolly Parton, Bette Midier, Patti LaBeIIe, Madonna, RuPaul, Fran Drescher, and a host of fleeting pop stars of both sexes. Her films are still shown on cable TV and stocked by your neighborhood video store.
A 1999 play about her, Dirty Blonde, was a solid Broadway hit, a celebration both of Mae herself and of what might be a legacy much greater than her movies: her power to inspire fans to tackle life with confidence, humor, and attitude, the way she did. More books have been written about her in the last io years than were in the preceding 50, and the turn of the millennium has brought us a flood of feminist studies, some condemning her as a female chauvinist pig (which she was) and others praising her as a groundbreaking pioneer in the cause of sexual freedom (which she also was).
Where were you when you first saw her onscreen? When you laughed at her showy gowns, stilted walk, and sexy wise-cracks, did you ever imagine that she would swagger along-side us into the twenty-first century?
I didn’t. When I discovered her in a Mae West marathon 2.7 years ago at a London art cinema, I thought her hopelessly dated and utterly ridiculous. For all her platinum-blonde wigs and glittering wardrobe, she was just a plump, double-chinned,middle-aged woman with a tight corset and a lot of chutzpah. It was only her singing that made me sit up and take notice. I had just begun my own career as a singer and was steeped in vintage jazz. Once I got beyond her voice—strident and nasal, with a vibrato like a whinnying horse—I realized she had great feeling for the music I loved most—jazz, swing, and the blues.
I watched her films again recently. She Done Hint Wrong and I’m No Angel (both 1933) hold up well, but the others had me riding the fast-forward button. I quickly tired of her unvarying character, a wisecracking, street-smart, gold-digging performer/hustler with an iron code of ethics. The salty oneliners are still funny, but the plots, which all revolve around her supposedly stupefying beauty, charm, and sexual magnetism, are woefully contrived and thin. It was only the song numbers that kept me watching. She may have been a one-note actress, but she was consistently adventurous in her use of music.
In She Done Him Wrong she soars on two earthy blues numbers previously associated with black performers—“Frankie and Johnny,” a tale of jealousy and murder, and the sexual lament “Easy Rider”—and has fun with Robin and Rainger’s cheeky new song “I Like a Guy What Takes His Time.” In I’m No Angel she suddenly tosses off a bit of Louis Armstrong-style scat singing on “I Want You, I Need You.” Early studio recordings of her movie songs feature a stellar jazz band that includes Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti.
At a time when Paramount balked at putting black musicians on the screen, she insisted on the new sensation Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Belle of the Nineties (1934). His soulful, sonorous musical background segments and interludes are the only respite from the lumbering story line. Her rendition of the spiritual “Troubled Waters” is a misfire —she’s a mighty unconvincing penitent—but the exuberant up-tempo “Memphis Blues” really swings and allows us a glimpse of the handsome, happy Ellington band in action. In Belle she also introduces the beautiful Coslow-Johnston torch song “My Old Flame,” written specially for her. She later admitted she didn’t like torch songs—not surprising for a woman notorious for her many lovers—but she puts the number over anyway, conveying sexual rather than romantic longing.
She toughs it out with the Saint Saëns aria “Mon Cœur S’Ouvre à Ta Voix” in a Samson and Delilah parody in Goin’ to Town (1935), eking out the high notes and emitting guttural and nasal sounds and rolled r ’s in her own incomprehensible version of French. When she pouts through “I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love” in Klondike Annie (1936), she strums a sort of mandolin that produces the soulful blues guitar sounds of Gene Austin, whose sagging career she revived with that film. Xavier Cugat and his band supply sensual Latin rhythms for “On a Typical Tropical Night” in Go West, Young Man (1936). Louis Armstrong shows up in Every Day’s a Holiday (1938) to lead a parade and perform the best song in the movie, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee.” Even The Heat’s On (1943), her worst film, featured some of the best song-writers in Hollywood: Jay Gorney, Edward Eliscu, JuIe Styne, and Sammy Cahn.
I came to think of her as a hip music-lover bent on bringing jazz to a wider audience, but reading about her killed that illusion. She used jazz the way she did everything and everybody else: to make herself shine. Still, she had the ears to discern superb players, the clout to get them hired, and the nerve to chime in with them. She sought and won international recognition as a “sex pioneer” (she said of Havelock Ellis, Freud, Adler, Jung, and Kinsey, “They may have been the generals, but I was in the front lines”), but I’ve never seen her cited as the music pioneer she unquestionably was. I asked some jazz writers about her.
“Her reputation as a sex symbol and icon has completely obscured her musical side, but she far outswings every moviestar and vaudeville sex symbol on record,” the musician and musicologist Brad Kay told me. Scott Yanow, the author of Swing , describes her as “an underrated singer who had a real feeling for the blues and swinging jazz. If she hadn’t become famous in other areas, she could have made a living as a singer in the 19305.” James Gavin, an authority on classic pop vocalists, is impressed by “how hip she was and how musical she was, for a nonsinger. She had a great understanding of jazz and blues and how they worked for her to get herself across.” He admires “the blues and jazz in her singing, the slides and the slurs and the wailing quality, so much like a hot muted trumpet” and describes her style as “an offshoot of Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox—strong, sexually assertive women who took control. She had to have been aware of that music and attracted to those take-charee women.”
She performed until the end. Her late films, Myra Breckin (1970) and Sextette (1978), are unwatchable, but her rock ‘n’ roll records are worth a listen. Her strident, shouting style works amazingly well on rock classics like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Coin’ On.” She rides over the charging rhythm-and-blues band with remarkable vocal power, her ability to put over a lyric undiminished and her suggestive moans and off-color asides summoning up memories of her best movie moments. “She saw the lascivious content in rock ‘n’ roll just as she did in jazz,” Gavin says.
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.
Her mother encouraged her to try a new tactic: write, produce, and star in her own plays. In 1926 she came up with Sex. (There were disputes, lawsuits, and oddly worded credits for so many of her plays and film scripts that it’s hard to know how much writing she actually did, but she certainly suggested themes, added dialogue, and had final control.) A melodrama featuring foreign settings, prostitution, and drugs, Sex created a scandal that landed her in jail. Thrilled at the publicity, she continued to churn out plays with shocking themes.
In 1928 she hit on the role that would make her Broadway and movie career, Diamond Lil, described by Emily Words Leider in her book Becoming Mae West as an “insouciant, insinuating, sashaying, tough-talking, sultry-voiced, golden-wigged, diamond-encrusted, bone-corseted, wasp-waisted, flaringhipped, and balloon-bosomed 18905 Bowery saloon hostess and singer.” The Gay Nineties atmosphere, costumes, and music delighted audiences, and Mae, dressed in flattering period gowns, looked a part of that era but put herself across as a contemporary woman by singing the new blues songs and openly expressing her sexual interest in men. The show ran nearly a year on Broadway and toured the country.
When she got word on the road that her mother was dying, she canceled all bookings, rushed home, and went into seclusion, emerging only to testify in a court case brought against her play Pleasure Man. The case was dismissed, but Mae shut down production anyway. Her best friend was gone, she was exhausted from touring and fighting legal battles, and she was broke. After three decades, she had still failed to achieve the stage success she craved.
The new talking pictures were a lucrative source of work for performers with strong personalities and good voices, but Hollywood had already rejected her both as a performer and as a writer. Top studio executives concluded in I9z8 that her stage persona would never work in movies. Her plays Sex, Pleasure Man, and Diamond LiI had been deemed “unsuitable for adaptation to the screen” by the Hays Office, the enforcer of motion-picture morality.
When she headed for Hollywood in 193z, it was not as a star but as a woman who desperately needed a job. Her former lover George Raft had wangled a small part for her in his new film, Night After Night. She insisted on rewriting her own lines for the scene that launched her film career. When she sweeps into Raft’s speakeasy, the check-room girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” Mae replies: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” She was a sensation in her bit part. “She stole everything but the cameras,” said Raft. She was offered her own film, with total script control.
Determined to sneak Diamond LiI past censors who had already rejected it, she retitled it She Done Him Wrong, renamed her character Lady Lou, and had Paramount screen-writers cut out the most objectionable lines and situations. Censorship proved to be the undoing of Mae West, but it was the making of her too. Her sharp wit might never have surfaced in her movies if it hadn’t been for the Hays Office: “I didn’t start putting in all the wisecracks till I started pictures… the studios and the censors wouldn’t let me do certain things … and so with everybody weakening my drama, I figured I had to put some other element in.”
The film broke box-office records, earning more than two million dollars in three months and helping bring Paramount back from the brink of Depression bankruptcy. Sensing an imminent censorship crackdown, the studio rushed her second film, I’m No Angel, into production.
I’m No Angel is my favorite Mae West movie, not just for the amusing parallels between the real-life Mae and her character, Tira the Lion Tamer, but for her wonderfully skillful use of everything she had learned in 30 years on the stage. The long, anticipatory buildup for her entrance. The lavish costumes: elaborate evening gowns, voluminous furs, clouds of feathers, gigantic hats. The artful movements with props-folding screens, mirrors, canes, parasols, perfume bottles, necklaces, cigarettes. The languid draping of the body on banisters, balconies, columns, couches, chairs, and chaise longues. The hyperfeminine gestures that draw constant attention to her best assets: face, hands, hips. The odd, swaying walk, described by one writer as “a shuffle on stilts”; it was necessitated by the nine-inch platform heels she wore to make her five-foot, i3O-pound body appear taller and slimmer. The molasses-and-vinegar voice with its unregenerate Brooklyn accent. The unique fusion of street slang and attitude (“I’ll trouble you to scram”). The immaculate phrasing and timing of comedy lines. The trademark “ohhh,” uttered in three syllables and on two notes. Now completely in command of her new medium, she takes advantage of every resource the movie industry offers to enhance her appearance and emphasize her importance: gowns by the finest Hollywood designers, makeup by the best cosmeticians, the handsomest leading men, the hottest musicians, the most flattering possible lighting and camera angles. The bejeweled hands planted resolutely on her busy hips, the insinuating smirks that twist her painted mouth, the big, bright eyes rolling to the heavens and back are meticulously captured by her ally the camera as she lures her prey and lets us in on the joke.
She loved ordering lions around and performed every trick herself except putting her head in the lion’s mouth, a shot the studio insisted on faking. Her love scenes with her discovery Gary Grant (she had spotted him on the studio lot and declared, “If he can talk, I’ll take him”) were less exciting to her. She had their intimate moments filmed in two parts, each actor playing to an empty chair, then spliced together just before they actually kissed. Filmed alone, she could be specially lit to look radiantly beautiful without sharing the spotlight.
The public took to her immediately, but Hollywood royalty cut her dead. “She was a trashy dame. You could tell it from her pictures,” the 94-year-old actress Fay Wray told me recently. Mae didn’t care. She preferred her usual haunts: the fights, the races. She didn’t drink, smoke, or swear, and she considered her life quiet. The constant stream of white, black, and Latino fighters who visited her at home were, she claimed, “the one departure I have made from the average citizen’s way of life.”
I’m No Angel cost $2.2.5,000 and earned $3,000,000. A review in Variety concluded that Mae was now “the biggest conversation-provoker, free-speech grabber and all-around box office bet in the country.” In 1934 she earned more money than any other woman in America. She paid off debts from her plays and her lavish wardrobe, sent for her father, brother, and sister, and made shrewd investments in local real estate that would later make her a multimillionaire.
Yet, by 1937, censorship, a newspaper boycott by William Randolph Hearst, and the public’s changing taste had seriously diminished her star power. She made a few more movies, including her best known, My Little Chickadee, with W. C. Fields, whom she loathed, and she kept active in stage shows. In 1941 she turned to spiritualism, consorting with religious leaders of wildly varying repute. She went on to decline two Cole Porter musicals, the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the older female lead in the film version of Pal Joey, a television detective series, an Elvis Presley movie, and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. She had achieved legend status with her own carefully devised character and had no interest in playing anyone else.
Paul Novak, one of the bodybuilders in her 1950s nightclub act, became her devoted companion, and the woman who had once told an interviewer that “one man was about the same as another… I learned to take ’em for what they were—stepping stones,” spent the last 27 years of her life in a loving and monogamous relationship. Novak served not only as her friend and lover but as her secretary, chauffeur, exercise coach, dietician, bodyguard, public relations man, buffer, and nurse, and he told friends that he believed he had been “put on this earth to take care of Mae West.” He discreetly arranged for treatment of the medical problems of her final years, diabetes and cataracts, and protected and reassured her as she became remote, defensive, and increasingly paranoid. She was convinced that “the forces” that had once protected her health and career had abandoned her, that the sun was her enemy, that Tennessee Williams, Mart Crowley, and Warren Beatty had stolen ideas from her early plays for Suddenly Last Summer, The Boys in the Band, and Shampoo.
Her death from a stroke at 87 on November 2.2., 1980, was front-page news. The embalmer made her look half her age.
Mae West invented her persona so early and stuck to it so rigorously that no study of her penetrates the woman behind the permanently closed Venetian blinds. But I knew from experience that singers can’t keep their accompanists from seeing them at unguarded moments, so I found a couple of musicians who had worked with her.
Lennie Marvin was her pianist in the late forties and early fifties, when she toured with the play Come On Up, Ring Twice. She included him in her entourage when she went out for dinner after her shows. “She knew everybody in every town—judges, mayors, gangsters,” he says. He describes her as “quiet offstage, but when she got onstage, she lit up. It was an amazing transformation.” She went to her dressing room an hour early, “for solitude.” Marvin regarded her as an extremely intelligent woman who never missed a trick. “She was buying diamonds from everybody,” he relates. “I saw one guy, a dealer, palm a stone from her safe-deposit box and slip it in his dog’s mouth. She didn’t say anything, but when he was leaving, she said real quiet and polite, ’Give the stone back now,’ and he did.” Marvin drove her Cadillac to Boston. “I was a kid, and I learned so much. She taught me about smooth driving, and to wait for a question, don’t volunteer the answer.”
Ian Whitcomb, the musician and writer, produced two of her last records and was friends with her from 1966 to 1976. Recording new songs was her idea, he told me. Whitcomb placed West musically in the “coon shouting” school of white singers like Sophie Tucker and Beatrice Kay, and he had suggested red-hot-mama material. “No, we ought to be modernistic,” she told him. “Maybe a tune by this new girl. Rita Frankel?” She meant Aretha Franklin. When he brought her a batch of rock hits, she read through them carefully and rewrote lines that didn’t suit her. “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” became “Happy Birthday, Twenty-one.”
Whitcomb called working with her “one of the most meaningful things in my life.” He told me that “she knew nothing about music,” and that at her advanced age “she needed a cue to come in at the right place on every line. But then she’d take it and do something great with it. The greatest performers have an instinct. They shouldn’t be analyzed.”
When he went to her apartment, “there was invariably a 10-minute wait for her grand entrance from the bedroom.” Dressed in a negligee, with a towering wig and full makeup, she always sat facing a mirror. Whitcomb found her apartment “a little shabby, the white walls dirty, a really old TV. The furniture looked as if it was coming apart. If she was well off, she didn’t live ostentatiously.” His lunch was always prepared and waiting for him, “tuna salad under Saran wrap and a dessert like carrot cake.” In her book Sex, Health, and ESP she condemned sugar, but he often spotted her sneaking sweets. He speaks of her with genuine affection: “She was like an aunt to me. She took a real interest in my career. She’d adjust my tie or pull up my shirt if I was going to an audition. She came to my show, sat in the back row, laughed at my jokes.” Whitcomb found aspects of her “mysterious—all her talk about ’the forces.’ She attracted some charlatans with that ESP.” But he admired her greatly. “She had her life completely under control, and she always knew Mae West the public figure from Mae West the private person. The private person was very considerate, keen to push other people to the front, to further their careers.” He adds that “she lived in her own world” and “she had a completely instinctive way of thinking of life. She had collaborators sit with her, throw out ideas, and she’d say, ‘Miss West wouldn’t do that.’ When she was more relaxed, she was another Mae West, sweet, demure. She had a sensitive side, a retiring side. She’d say, ‘The world is about spiritual power, it’s about feeling.’”
Through Whitcomb I met Dan Price, a film archivist who dined with her once a week during the 1970s. “Her favorite movie was a two-and-a-half-hour composite I made of her best scenes,” he told me. She would pick him up in her limousine. “Whenever she got a new limo, she’d always give her old one to nuns. ‘I can’t stand to see a nun riding on a bus,’ she’d say.” She favored a Chinese restaurant in the seedy section of downtown Los Angeles, and “she’d make her entrance through the kitchen. It was funny to watch her with people. Walking across a room, she’d realize halfway there that she was being watched and go into her Mae West walk. She really didn’t like women, but she flirted with men right up to the end. If a handsome guy was around, she’d act all interested in him, and lie to him about her age, tell him, Tm 82,’ when she was 86.”
For the 47 years she lived in her apartment, she conducted all her interviews in her bedroom, with its imitation Louis XIV furniture, polar bear rugs, sprays of artificial flowers, nude paintings and statues of herself, and mirrored ceiling. She received journalists sitting up in bed in a glamour wig, stage makeup, and a filmy negligee, enjoying the psychological advantage it gave her. “You’re lyin’ there perfectly comfortable, and the guys are fidgetin’,” she said. In later years she criticized the graphic sex scenes in contemporary cinema. “The sex organs ain’t got no personality.”
She rejected anything negative about herself, always expressing complete confidence in her professional future. A boastful prediction she made in the 1970s sounds remarkably prescient in the year 2.001, now that we know how enduring a presence in our lives she is. “I will always be where the action is,” she proclaimed from her canopied bed. “You can count on that.”