Mae West was only 5 years old when she started appearing in amateur
shows and many times she won prizes for her performances. West began
performing professionally in vaudeville in 1905 at the age of twelve.
She performed at that time under the name The Baby Vamp, after trying
out various personas as a male impersonator, Sis Hopkins, and blackface
coon shouter unsuccessfully. In 1913, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was
performing a lascivious "shimmy" dance and was photographed for a
song-sheet for the song "Everybody Shimmies Now" She was encouraged as a
performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that
whatever her daughter did was fantastic.
Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a
stage actress after she saw female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian
Eltinge perform. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her
shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence.
Mae's first appearance in a legitimate Broadway show (after toiling with
Ned Wayburn's "beef trust chorus") was in the 1911 revue A La Broadway.
Appearing with West in the cast was another newcomer: Al Jolson. After a
week's worth of performances, Mae left the cast. In 1918, after exiting
several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert
Brothers revue Sometime opposite Ed Wynn. As La Petite Daffy, she
appeared in a 'shimmy courtroom' skit.
Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name
"Jane Mast." Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play she
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 10 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 trans gender rights. West's theatrical treatments of gender
and gender performativity were advanced, considering the times, and she
deftly poked fun at society's strictures. But while gays and lesbians
began a decades-long embrace of West, or at least West's public persona,
the love affair wasn't exactly mutual. Every reputable biography of West
has her believing that a gay man was actually a female soul housed in a
male body, equating transvestism with homosexuality, and referring to
gays and lesbians in the long-defunct pathological term "inverts." (West
once admonished policemen who raided a gay bar and beat up its male
patrons, "Remember, you're hittin' a woman.") Although during her entire
lifetime, she surrounded herself with gay men and was appreciative that
they comprised her hardcore fan base, Mae's concept of homosexuality as
illness was in keeping with the popular notions of the early twentieth
century. A feminist long before the term was coined, Mae took marching
orders from no one, in her career or in her personal life.
She continued to write plays including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and
The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and
other problems. The controversy ensured that Mae stayed in the news and
most of the time resulted in packed performances.
"Diamond Lil" returning to New York from Hollywood, 1933Her 1928 play,
Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s, became a
Broadway hit. This show enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would
successfully revive it many times throughout the course of her career.
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount
Pictures. She was 38, unusually advanced for a first movie, especially
for a sex symbol (though she kept her age ambiguous for several more
years); her much younger appearance would be a notable feature for the
rest of her life. She signed and went to Hollywood to appear in Night
After Night starring George Raft. Upon her arrival, she moved into an
apartment in the Ravenswood at 570 North Rossmore Avenue, not far from
the studio on Melrose. She maintained a residence at the Ravenswood, her
preferred abode, for the rest of her life, although she also owned a
beach house and a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. At first, she did
not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she
was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In West's first scene, a hat check
girl exclaims, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West crisply replies,
"Goodness had nothing to do with it, deary." Reflecting on the overall
result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, "She
stole everything but the cameras."
She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed Lady Lou, to the
screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). The film is also notable for one of
Cary Grant's first major roles, which boosted his career. West had
spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male
lead. The movie was a huge financial success, and earned an Academy
Award nomination for Best Picture.
Her next release I'm No Angel (1933) paired her with Grant again. I'm No
Angel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a
tremendous financial blockbuster and, along with She Done Him Wrong,
saved Paramount from bankruptcy. West was the largest box office draw in
the United States at the time, and the second highest paid person in the
US (after William Randolph Hearst). However, the frank sexuality and
steamy settings of her films aroused the wrath of moralists. On July 1,
1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and
meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. Her
tactical response was to increase the number of double entendres in her
films, expecting the censors to delete the obvious lines and overlook
the subtle ones.
West's next movie was Belle of the Nineties (1934). It was originally
titled It Ain't No Sin but the title was changed due to the censor's
objection. Other tentative working titles were That St. Louis Woman,
Belle of St. Louis, and Belle of New Orleans. Her next film, Goin' To
Town (1935) delighted her fans and this film remains a favorite for
many. The film revealed the hypocrisy of the privileged rich class and
Mae's fans were delighted with the finished product. It was another big
financial hit for West.
Mae's next film was Klondike Annie (1936) which was very controversial.
Many critics have called this film her screen masterpiece. It concerned
religion and hypocrisy and created a storm of controversy.
Go West, Young Man (1936) had West playing opposite Randolph Scott. In
this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance
into a screenplay. The film, directed by Henry Hathaway, was one of the
rare times when West starred in a role not originally conceived for her.
This was another financial success for West. After this film, West
starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their
association came to an end.
Two years later, she starred opposite W. C. Fields in My Little
Chickadee (1940) for Universal Studios. West and Fields, who were both
accustomed to working with supporting players and not as co-stars, did
not get along and she would not tolerate his drinking. Both have
extended scenes that showcase their trademarked personae without the
other, and without reference to the plot. According to legend, the only
way Fields and West could be in the same scene was to film them
separately and then splice the film together. My Little Chickadee was a
huge box office success and outgrossed all other W.C. Fields movies.
Universal was delighted with its success and offered West two more
movies to star with Fields, but she refused, citing the difficulty of
working with Fields.
Mae's next film was The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. Mae
hated the film but she did it anyway to keep the producer from
bankruptcy. The film initially did not work so well, but it has also
became a cult favorite. Mae's performance in it did attract some good
reviews one of which said she was still "the freshest thing on the
screen". In this film, Mae appeared at her thinnest. She looked
astonishingly youthful and the film has become a late night favorite.
The Disney Channel even had a special concerning Mae West on their
channel and showed many scenes from this film. This film was a
forerunner of what would happen in her movies from the 1970s (Myra
Breckinridge and Sextette) in which West would emerge as an actress who
triumphed with personality over art.
Mae West remains notable for a large number of quips, some firmly tied
to herself and her characters, and others widely borrowed for very
different settings. A famous Mae West quip, “Is that a pistol in your
pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, is often varied to “Is that a
banana in your pocket…” She made this remark in February 1936, at the
train station in Los Angeles upon her return from Chicago, when a Los
Angeles police officer was assigned to escort her home. She first
delivered the line on film in She Done Him Wrong, and again to George
Hamilton in her last movie, Sextette. It is one of the most quoted lines
in movie history.
Another line allegedly seducing a prospective boyfriend: "My left leg is
Christmas; my right leg is Easter; why don't you come up and visit me
between the holidays?"
Likewise, “When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better”, from
I'm No Angel, is generally quoted with its original, faintly
disreputable meaning. Conversely, however, some quips have been widely
adapted to very different settings and meanings. For example, "Too much
of a good thing can be wonderful" has been applied to many settings,
including Warren Buffett (as a sound principle of informed financial
On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on
ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show that surprised both the
listening audience and NBC executives. She appeared as herself, flirting
excitedly with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's dummy, utilizing her usual
brand of sexy wit and risqué sexual references. Lines such as "Charles,
I remember our date and have the splinters to prove it" and "Hello,
long, dark, and slinky" drove the NBC censors and the FCC into panic.
Even more outrageous was a sketch earlier in the show, written by Arch
Oboler, that starred West and Don Ameche as Adam and Eve in the Garden
Of Eden. She told Ameche in the show to "get me a big one...I feel like
doing a big apple!" The conversation between the two was considered so
risqué, bordering on blasphemous, she was banned from being featured, or
even mentioned, on the NBC network. She did not perform again on radio
until 1949 on The Perry Como Show.
Marriage and divorce
West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank
Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17,
he was 21. In 1935, Wallace showed up in Hollywood with a marriage
certificate seeking a share of "their" community property. An affidavit
was also uncovered that West gave in 1927, during the Sex trial, in
which she had declared herself married.
West at first denied ever marrying Wallace. She finally admitted in July
1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, that they had been married.
Even though the marriage was a reality, she never lived with Wallace as
man and wife. She insisted they have separate bedrooms and she soon sent
him away in a show of his own in order to get rid of him. She obtained a
legal divorce on July 21, 1942, during which Wallace withdrew his
request for separate maintenance, and West testified that she and
Wallace had lived together for only "several weeks." The final divorce
decree was granted on May 7, 1943.
West also had a secret marriage. In August 1913, she met a Vaudeville
headliner who captured her heart, the Italian-born star of the
piano-accordion: Guido Deiro. Her affair went "very deep, hittin' on all
the emotions. You can't get too hot over anybody unless there's somethin'
that goes along with the sex act, can you?" 
Deiro fell passionately in love with West and arranged his bookings so
that the two traveled together. They became engaged in early 1914 
and were married  probably later that year after his divorce from his
first wife  was finalized. West never mentioned that she had been
married to Deiro,  undoubtedly because she was still legally married
to Frank Wallace. After the couple split up, West filed for divorce from
Guido Deiro on the grounds of adultery on July 14, 1920. The divorce was
granted by the Supreme Court of the State of New York on November 9th of
that year. 
West appeared in her last movie during the studio age with The Heat's On
(1943) for Columbia. She remained active during the ensuing years. Among
her stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great (1944)
on Broadway, in which she spoofed the story of Catherine the Great of
Russia, surrounding herself with an "imperial guard" of muscular young
actors, all over six feet tall. The play was produced by Mike Todd and
went on a long national tour in 1945.
She also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show, singing while
surrounded by bodybuilders. Jayne Mansfield met, and later married, one
of West's muscle men, Mickey Hargitay, after which he was fired by West.
When Billy Wilder offered West the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset
Boulevard, she refused and pronounced herself offended at being asked to
play a "has-been," similar to the responses he received from Mary
Pickford, Greta Garbo, and Pola Negri. Ultimately the more amenable
Gloria Swanson was cast in the role.
In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson.
Her autobiography, titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was
published by Prentice-Hall in 1959, and was published again in an
updated version in the 1970s. It was again a financial success.
West also made some rare appearances on television, including The Red
Skelton Show in 1960. She did a comedy sketch with Skelton regarding her
recently published autobiography. Viewers reported astonishment at her
youthful appearance and energy. In 1964, she guest starred as herself on
the popular sitcom Mister Ed. The episode's ratings were well above
usual for the series.
In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded
two Rock and Roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas in the late
1960s. The single "Treat Him Right," from Way Out West, made the album a
financial success. She also recorded a number of parody songs including
"Santa, Come Up and See Me Sometime," on the album Wild Christmas.
After a 26-year absence from motion pictures, she appeared in the role
as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with
Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part.
This movie failed at the box office, despite the popularity of both
Vidal's original satirical novel and the presence of Raquel Welch in the
title role. Vidal and co-star Rex Reed publicly disavowed the film and
the director, Michael Sarne. The devastating critical responses damaged
Sarne's then-hot career. Some regard the film as a camp classic,
however, due to its sex change theme. It has had multiple releases on
DVD and VHS. The film has also been released several times to theatres
and has found a cult following. The DVD release features an alternate
ending filmed, but not used, that explains Myra's sex change.
This film generated a storm of publicity for West and she became a camp
icon of the 70's. Her astonishing performance was documented in many fan
magazines of the 1970s and boosted West's career considerably. Magazines
of the 70's are full of praise for her performance in the film and West
gained many new young fans because of this. It was suddenly the "in
thing" to invite Mae West to a party and again, as in the past, her fans
cheered her on.
To promote the film, West made many personal appearances to enthusiastic
audiences. In New York, fans were held back by a large number of
policemen, including those on horseback, who were there to control the
crowd. College students held up signs saying "Mae West Fan Club." Raquel
Welch, then one of the most popular stars in Hollywood, was hardly
noticed in the frenzy over Mae at the premiere.
West recorded another album in the 1970s on MGM Records titled Great
Balls of Fire, which covered songs by Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and
The Rolling Stones, among others, and her autobiography, Goodness Had
Nothing To Do With It, was updated in a new version and republished.
In 1976, she appeared on the The Dick Cavett Show and gave an exclusive
interview about her life and career along with insights into her
proclivity toward bawdy humor and her battle with censorship. Her
appearance on the Dick Cavett special generated great excitement and led
to her next movie Sextette. Dick Cavett said Mae was so fantastic that
she only had to extend her hand, "to give you a jolt that could be felt
in the floorboards. She is the eighth wonder of the world!" This was a
statement that Rona Barrett also attributed to Miss West in her widely
popular magazines in the 1970s. Other magazines of the 70's followed
suit and West found herself wildly popular, especially with the younger
At age 85, she returned to the screen for a final time as Marlo Manners
in Sextette (1978) with an all-star cast including a cameo by George
Raft which provided a touching tribute to both their long careers.
Doctors for the insurance company that insured the film, reported that
Mae West had "the health and the body of a 35 year old." Many magazines
reported this appraisal and it also was noted in one of the many
biographies written about West in recent years.
Sextette premiered in Los Angeles and San Francisco (Mae attended both
to packed houses) and the film did quite well initially in its limited
engagement. Reviews were mixed and some were excoriating. Attendance
fell off considerably. Some latter day critics have still remained
brutal, but many have called for a re-evaluation of the film citing
"unfairness" in the reviews.
Warner Brothers considered releasing the film but finally declined and
then Crown International, a small, but ambitious company finally picked
it up for general release in the US, but it attracted few paying
viewers. New World Pictures released the film internationally, and the
film did fairly well on the international market. In publicity releases,
co-star Ringo Starr said that "Mae is so fan-bloody-tastic that she just
wipes us out," referring to the rest of the actors in the movie. TV
Guide magazine quoted Tony Curtis as saying that "Mae never missed a
Although the movie was blistered by some critics and avoided by the
public, After Dark magazine awarded West the "Star of the World" award
for her performance in what became her final screen appearance. Sextette
has become a cult classic and has done well on cable movie channels as
well as VHS and DVD releases. In fact, Time proclaimed Sextette an
"instant classic, sure to be loved by her many fans."
Allegedly, fans crawled up telephone poles in order to get a better view
of the star at the premiere. Many drag queens also came to the premiere
dressed as Mae West. West even had to be escorted out of the theatre at
the premiere because of the pandemonium of the fans.
Near the end of her life, she was known for maintaining a surprisingly
youthful appearance. She stated in her autobiography that she spent two
hours every day massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them
youthful. West continued to surround herself with virile men for the
rest of her life, employing companions, bodyguards and chauffeurs.
In the 1970s she was the only star in Hollywood who would allow
reporters to search through her hair for signs of cosmetic surgery. They
found no signs of this and this forever put to rest rumors of wigs and
plastic surgery. May Mann, a popular author and magazine writer at the
time, published stories telling of how she checked Mae's hair and teeth
and had to admit that they were real. James Bacon, the writer and
author, reported how surprised he was at her incredible skin and
stamina. These were only two reporters of very many of the time that
reported their astonishment at her preservation. Even a writer from the
notorious magazines Whisper and Confidential reported astonishment on
meeting Mae West at a Hollywood event, and printed in the magazines, "I
had to fight my way to her because of people swarming around her like
bees. I could not believe how young she looked". This was a theme that
was repeated time and time again in fan magazines from the 1970s.
After making Sextette, West did some radio commercials for Poland
Springs Drinking Water saying she had been drinking Poland Springs water
for 20 years, "...ever since I was six!"
Miss West continued seeing personally to her fan mail and actually
corresponded with many of her fans. She listed her phone number in the
Los Angeles directory and "Rona Barrett's Hollywood" magazine published
her number so her fans could "call her up and see her sometime!"
In the late summer of 1980, she tripped on a rug after getting out of
bed, falling and hitting her head. She had a concussion and stroke.
Doctors were evenly divided on whether the concussion caused the stroke
or she had a stroke which caused her to suffer the fall and concussion.
She was rushed to the hospital and rallied. Later Mae would claim she
"fell out of bed dreaming about Burt Reynolds." In November, she
suffered yet another stroke. The prognosis was not good and she was sent
home. She died at her apartment on North Rossmore Avenue in Hollywood at
age 87. Many fans cried openly over her death and it was reported hourly
on national television.
Mae West is entombed with her family in Cypress Hills Cemetery,
Brooklyn, New York City. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at
1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.
Popular culture references
During World War II, Allied soldiers called their yellow inflatable,
vest-like life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" partly from Cockney rhyming
slang for "life vest" and partly because of the resemblance to her
curvaceous torso. A "Mae West" is also a type of round parachute
malfunction which contorts the shape of the canopy into the appearance
of an extraordinarily large brassiere, presumably one suitable for a
woman of Mae West's generous (though in truth not extraordinary)
West is referenced in the title song of Cole Porter's Broadway musical
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose!
West is also referenced in JG Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition a
chapter dedicated to her called "The Mae West Mammoplasty."
West is also referenced in You're The Top, also of Anything Goes
You're a boon,
You're the dam at Boulder,
You're the moon,
Over Mae West's shoulder
In the PC game Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, in which the
protagonist searches for an ancient sarcophagus which frequently
switches hands, one character, a Nosferatu who was a movie star in life,
remarks that the sarcophagus "gets around more than Mae West".
A Mae West slot canyon is one that is too narrow at the bottom to
traverse on foot. Instead, one uses chimneying techniques to negotiate
above the floor.
"Not feeling the Mae West" is Cockney rhyming slang for "not feeling the
In nuclear physics, the graph of nuclear fission nuclide production
versus atomic weight is called a Mae West diagram. The graph has two
peaks, one near atomic weight 90 and the other near atomic weight 130,
with a valley in between.
In Canada, a May West (by Vachon) is a popular round dessert cake with
cream filling and a thin shell of dark chocolate.
A "Mae West Hold" is a term used to describe a United States Senate
procedure that in effect stops a bill dead in its tracks, usually in
secret. The Mae West version of the Senate hold occurs when the senator
behind the objection is open to negotiation, inviting the author to
“come up and see me sometime.”
On the Dubuque District of the Iowa Division of the Illinois Central
Railroad, freight train number 78 was known as the Mae West from the
late 1930s until the train number was abolished. Number 78 was a hot
meat train out of Waterloo, Iowa, and since Mae West was very hot at
this time the train was named after her. In later years the meat train
ran as number 76 but the name stuck with number 78. The crew was always
referred to as the Mae West crew even coming west out of Freeport,
Illinois, on the westbound counterpart of number 78--number 77. Number
78 usually moved between Waterloo and Freeport on the 3rd trick, that
is, between 1201 AM and 801 AM.
MAE-West was also the name of the Metropolitan Area Exchange West, one
of the first Internet tier-one hubs to connect all the major TCP/IP
networks that made up the Internet back in 1992. It is not documented
whether the founders of MAE-West named this early Internet Exchange
after the actress.
Mae West is one of the people to appear on the famous cover of the
Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When
permission to use her likeness was requested, she refused. "No, I won't
be on it. What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" In response,
the Beatles personally wrote a letter asking her to reconsider. She
changed her mind.
One of the most popular objects of the surrealist movement was the Mae
West Lips Sofa, which was completed by artist Salvador Dalí in 1937 for
In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry likens Elaine to Mae West because she
asked the dentist Tim Watley if he wanted to go upstairs, without
offering an explanation as to why they should go upstairs.
In the 1999 film The Green Mile a kooky janitor, played by Harry Dean
Stanton, who is staging an execution states, as his 'final words', "I
want the fried chicken with gravy on the tators and have Mae West sit on
my face 'cos I'm one horny motherfucker".
In the original stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch has
a Mae West doll in his hands at the beginning of Scene Six.
Night After Night (1932)
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
I'm No Angel (1933)
Belle of the Nineties (1934)
Goin' To Town (1935)
Klondike Annie (1936)
Go West Young Man (1936)
Every Day's a Holiday (1937)
My Little Chickadee (1940)
The Heat's On (1943)
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935)
A La Broadway (September 22 - September 30, 1911) (Broadway)
Vera Violetta (November 20, 1911 - February 24, 1912) (Mae left show
during previews) (Broadway)
A Wisome Widow (April 11 - September 7, 1912) (Mae left show after
opening night) (Broadway)
Sometime (October 4, 1918 - June 1919) (Broadway)
The Mimic World of 1921 (August 17 - September 10, 1921) (Broadway)
Sex (April 26, 1926 - March 1927) (Broadway)
The Drag (January 1927) (closed during out-of-town tryouts) (Bridgeport,
Connecticut) (credited only as writer)
The Wicked Age (November 1927) (Broadway)
Diamond Lil (April 9 - September 1928) (Broadway)
The Pleasure Man (October 1 - October 2, 1928) (Broadway) (credited only
The Constant Sinner (September 14 - November 1931) (Broadway)
Catherine Was Great (August 2, 1944 - January 13, 1945) (Broadway)
Come On Up (1945 - 1946) (Tour)
Diamond Lil (Revival) (September 1947 - May 1948) (United Kingdom and
Diamond Lil (2nd Revival) (February 5 - February 26, 1949, until Mae
broke her ankle on the latter date. The play resumed as a "return
engagement" from September 7, 1949 - January 21, 1950) (Broadway)
Diamond Lil (3rd Revival) (September 14 - November 10, 1951) (Broadway)
Sextette (July 7, 1961 - closing date unknown) (Edgewater Beach
Other Plays As Writer:
The Ruby Ring (1921) (Vaudeville playlet)
The Hussy (1922) (Unproduced)
Frisco Kate (1930) (Unproduced)
Loose Women (1933) (Performed in 1935 under title Ladies By Request)
Clean Beds (1936) (Sold treatment to George S. George, who produced an
unsuccessful Broadway play of West's treatment)
Books by West
Babe Gordon (1930) (novelization of The Constant Sinner)
Diamond Lil (1932) (novelization of play)
Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It (1959, revised 1970)
Mae West On Sex, Health and ESP (1975)
Pleasure Man (1975)