Mae West

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West, Mae (1893-1980), American actress who came to Hollywood at the height of the Depression and, refusing to kowtow, cut a swath through the hypocritical facade she found there, until the sheer weight of her critics brought down her Hollywood career. When that happened, she blithely continued on her way, the center of a universe around which revolved everything of importance (as far as she was concerned). Famous, or notorious, for her frank enjoyment of sex in a culture that pretended it did not exist, Mae West was an exceptionally witty, distinctive, and independent woman with that elusive but real quality: star.

West claimed she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 17, 1893, although other sources list the year as 1892. Close to her heavyweight boxer father, "Battling Jack" West, and adored (if pushy) corsetry-model mother, Matilda ("Tillie") Doelger, she was self-centered from childhood, relishing performing from the time she was a toddler. In burlesque as the "Baby Vamp," she originated the shimmy before even entering the legitimate theater.

Then, as always, writing her own material, West starred in, wrote, produced, and directed the stage show Sex (1926) in New York City. It was closed by the police for obscenity, and West was fined and sent briefly to jail. Her next plays, The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928), the latter of which she wrote but did not appear in, dealt with homosexuality and cross-dressing. In 1928 her Diamond Lil, in which she played a Gay Nineties Bowery saloon siren, was an enormous success.

Hollywood had not previously been interested in her. Although at 5 feet 2 inches (1.6 meters) in height she was no shorter than many other stars, she was much older and had an inclination to stoutness. Then, too, her incendiary subject matter and insistence on controlling her own career also militated against her. But in 1932 her fellow New Yorker George Raft requested her for a supporting role in Night after Night (1932), and, as Raft affectionately said, "In this picture, Mae West stole everything but the cameras."

Her starring career was at Paramount, the most elegant of studios. They provided her with a series of sumptuous productions in which she was exquisitely, floridly gowned by the great Travis Banton. She Done Him Wrong (1933), her screen version of Diamond Lil, was an enormous success, as was I'm No Angel (1933) and, perhaps the best of her movies, Belle of the Nineties (1934), directed by Leo McCarey. West was voted the eighth biggest draw in pictures for 1933 and fifth for 1934, second (for a woman) only to Janet Gaynor.

By 1934 West's opposition had had time to regroup, and they set about muzzling her. The powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst detested her and made his views known through his movie gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, who wrote condescendingly about West on her arrival in Hollywood. The draconian censorship that ruled American filmmaking from late 1934 through the early 1950s—which was manifested in the Hays Code—is in large part due to the perceived necessity of combating the sexuality of Mae West.

West was paid enormous amounts of money for her film work (she was one of the highest paid women in the United States in 1935), but her career continued with diminishing results, mostly due to the crippling censorship to which her movies were subjected. Raoul Walsh, a kindred bawdy spirit, directed her in Klondike Annie (1936), which might well have been wonderful if it had not been left virtually incomprehensible owing to heavy cutting by the censors throughout. West left Paramount in 1938, transferring over to the smaller Universal for the indifferent My Little Chickadee (1939), with W. C. Fields. In 1943 she finished her Hollywood career with a cheap, bad movie at Columbia, The Heat's On.

West went back to the stage with Catherine Was Great (which Paramount had refused to film) and triumphant revivals of Diamond Lil. Following that, she toured extensively with a revue featuring an all-male chorus line. West returned to film in Myra Breckinridge (1970), earning her high salary many times over in the avalanche of free publicity her presence brought to the picture, which was based on a Gore Vidal novel. At the age of 85 she appeared on-screen one last time, in Sextette (1978). As superb a businesswoman as she was a performer, West owned huge chunks of downtown Los Angeles, where she died, in Hollywood, on Nov. 22, 1980.

Several West-authored books, including novels, autobiographical works, and compilations of her witty, memorable, and usually innuendo-rich one-liners and wisecracks, have been published. In addition, her name appears in dictionaries, having entered the language as a nickname used by World War II fliers for their government-issue inflatable life jackets.

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