Her career started in 1907 and her last public appearance was in 1978; that’s a long run.
Gay Icon Mae West (1893 – 1980) worked in vaudeville, radio, on stage, on Broadway, in Las Vegas, and, of course, in films. In 1927, her Broadway play Sex opened to bad reviews and boffo box office, and was ultimately closed down by the police. West was charged with, and served time for, “corrupting the morals of the youth”. While incarcerated, she took her meals with the prison warden and his wife while entertaining them with her shtick. She told the press that she wore her silk panties under her prison uniform.
Early in her Broadway career, West was already aware of her sweet spot as a Gay Icon. The gays had been her most ardent fans from the very start. Her brilliant, bodacious, blunt expressions of sexuality were celebrated by queer people during her lifetime and beyond. In the early part of the 20th century, West cultivated a strong following with the female impersonators of the era; before drag queens were inspired to parody Joan Crawford, Cher, or Diana Ross, they were doing Mae West.
Her play The Drag (1927) had as its theme gay male’s place in modern American society. Sex brought her notoriety and stardom on Broadway, but with The Drag, West did not even write a role for herself. The Drag was her gift to a brief period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and even the uptown crowed slummed in gay bars and at drag balls. When the casting call for The Drag was posted, plenty of pansies, fairies, and queens showed up to read for it. The play featured a parade of queer characters of all types, and it ended with a 20-minute sparkling, spectacular drag extravaganza.
West was an earliest public advocate for sexual equality in all its many incarnations. A personal hero to me, West spent her long lifetime fighting against censorship. West:
“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
West didn’t just write about the roles of women and gays in our society, she also took on racism. She included Black and Latin characters in her plays and in her nightclub act. Among West’s many boyfriends was boxing champion Gorilla Jones. When the management at her apartment building barred the Black boxer from entering the premises, West simply bought the building and then lifted the ban.
She appeared in ten films from 1933-1943; a rather small body of work considering that during the same era Mickey Rooney appeared in more than 50 movies. But West’s films were still major cultural events. But sadly, by the end of the 1940s, a new puritanism was sweeping in the USA. The Hays Production Code severely limited West’s career in film. After making The Heat Is On (1943), West retired from films and she returned to the Broadway stage,
In the early 1940s, West was a guest on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen‘s radio show. The dialogue between West and the show’s hosts, Bergen and the popular dummy Charlie McCarthy, contained West’s usual risqué wit. After the broadcast, NBC received letters calling the show “immoral” and “obscene”. Conservative groups went after the show’s sponsors. The FCC called the broadcast “vulgar and indecent”. NBC banned West from ever appearing on any of their broadcasts again.
In 1954, when she was 62 years old, West started a stage act where she was surrounded by hot musclemen as her chorus boys. She toured it for the next three years and it was a surprise success.
I find West to be an unnecessarily neglected writer. If you her collected plays, you will be surprised at the skill, originality, and cleverness in her daring theatre pieces, and they are still rather shocking today. She is also produced a highly readable memoir, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It (1959). You can borrow my well-read, dog-eared copy if you promise to return it. In it, West writes:
“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.“
At 77-years-old, West appeared in the demented film version of Gore Vidal‘s satiric bestselling novel Myra Breckinridge (1970) along with the up-and-comers Farrah Fawcett, Tom Selleck and Raquel Welch.
At 85 years old, West made Sextette (1978) with a screenplay written by West, starring Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, Ringo Starr and Tony Curtis as her love interests. Sextette reunited West with Edith Head, her costume designer from She Done Him Wrong (1933).
In her long career, West came out with 12 albums, including a collection of Christmas songs, plus she had 12 Top Ten singles! She released an album of rock ‘n’ roll covers, Great Balls Of Fire, in 1972, when she was 80 years old.
In the summer of 1980, West was still working on her stage act when she suffered a series of strokes. At the time, her boyfriend was one of the musclemen from the act and 30 years younger than West. His name was Paul Novak and they had been a couple during her last 27 years. Novak stated:
“I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West.“
West’s private memorial service was in Hollywood, but she is buried in her native Brooklyn.