From the Archives: Mae West, Epitome of Witty Sexuality, Dies
Mae West, the legendary actress who taught Americans to smile about sex, died Saturday at her Hollywood apartment after a brief illness associated with old age. She was 87.
The actress had been released from Good Samaritan Hospital three weeks ago after recovering from a stroke.
Paul Novak, her companion for the last 26 years, and Dolly Dempsey, the president of her fan club, were at her bedside, along with a priest who administered last rites.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Forest Lawn Mortuary in Hollywood. Services are pending.
‘The Greatest Funeral’
“I want to give her the greatest Hollywood funeral we’ve ever had,” Novak said.
She was an original: the ultimate bosomy, blonde sex symbol whose style—silken walk, suggestive less of sex than of the meshing of superbly machined parts—was often imitated, but never equaled.
She was a star: the ultimate Hollywood newcomer whose intuitive sense of the ridiculous, coupled with a cheerful vulgarity, was credited with saving an entire studio and its 1,700 theaters from financial destruction.
She was a paradox: the ultimate sex parodist who wrote and delivered such lines as “Goodness had nothin’ to do with it,” and “Beulah, peel me a grape,” while firmly refusing to be photographed in the nude.
She was, above all, Mae West.
‘I Created Myself’
And that was good enough. “It ought to be,” she said in an interview not long before her death, “because I created myself and I never put up with sloppy work. . . .”
Like much that she said, this had the ring of truth—for Mae West had become, in her own lifetime, far more than legend or myth. She had made herself a living part of the English language, a symbol of the sexuality that thrives on the sound of laughter.
Her image was unforgettable: the splendiferous hourglass figure, swathed in feathers, furs and diamonds; the intense blue eyes framed by dark lashes; the hand on the hip; the husky, Brooklyn-accented voice that purrs innuendo . . . while the entire body vibrates like a parked car with its motor running.
She was painted by Dali, admired by George Bernard Shaw, photographed by Avedon and Scavullo, praised by critics, damned by censors, loved by audiences, pursued by the ambitious, and criticized by a famed publisher at a time when he and she were the highest-salaried man and woman in the United States.
“It is not time,” thundered William Randolph Hearst, “that Congress did something about Mae West?”
Never Took the Hint
Congress never took the hint—and it was probably just as well; the only person who ever had much luck “doing something” about Mae West was Mae West herself. She started early . . . and she never stopped.
She was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 17, 1893 (a few sources state an earlier year, but Mae West said it was 1893 and she usually knew best) and she began “doing something” about herself almost at once.
“When I was a little girl in Brooklyn,” she said, “I’d always look at myself in the reflection of the store windows to see how I’d look. I never wanted to be seen carrying a big, ugly package—only pretty, little ones tied with ribbons.”
Her father, an English-Irish stable owner, had been a prizefighter, and became a private detective when automobiles made the livery stable business unprofitable.
Mother from Bavaria
Her mother, who had come to this country from Bavaria, had been a corset and fashion model before her marriage—and she encouraged her eldest child (there is a younger sister, Beverly, and a younger brother John Edwin) in her theatrical ambitions, to the extent of providing singing and dancing lessons.
Mae West’s show business debut came at the turn of the century. She was just seven years old when she began winning prizes for her song and tap-dance routines at Elks Club shows in Brooklyn. By the time she was eight she was a member of a stock company, directed by Hal Clarendon, based at the Gotham Theater in Brooklyn.
For three years, she played the juvenile lead in such stock melodramas as “Little Nell the Marchioness” and “East Lynne,” while her schooling became ever more irregular—brief enrollments in two Brooklyn public schools, a bit of private tutoring—and finally ceased altogether when she went into vaudeville.
Married in Secret
She teamed up with another singer-dancer, Frank Wallace, and they were secretly married on April 11, 1911. But the team broke up professionally not long afterward, and the conjugal relationship ended almost as soon.
They were not, however, legally divorced, which was to have unpleasant consequences a few decades later.
Nonetheless, 1911 was a good year for Mae West, for it was on Sept. 22 that she made her first Broadway appearance. It was in Ned Wayburn’s revue “A’la Broadway and Hello, Paris,” and she drew the best notices from the critics who visited the Folies-Bergere on opening night.
Her next Broadway appearance was in “Vera Violetta,” and the Mae West flair for “doing something” about herself again came into play.
French Star in Show
One of the stars of that show was Gaby Deslys, a French musical-comedy luminary not yet well known to American audiences.
“I had my entrance before Gaby’s,” Miss West recalled, “so I went to wardrobe and asked them to get the fanciest costume and headdress they could find for me.
“When I came on, I got a tremendous ovation because everybody thought I was Gaby.”
After the Broadway successes, Miss West was able to return to vaudeville with star billing and a top agent, Frank Bohm; her weekly pay rose swiftly from $350 to $750—and she was ready to make the next career move.
Wore Leopard Skin
She was already in the habit of changing or embellishing material written by others for her act, and in 1915 she wrote her first song, “The Cave Girl,” which she delivered while wearing a costume of leopard skin.
It was during this period of vaudeville stardom, too, that she developed and perfected other basic elements of her personal style: the walk, the gestures—such as the hand on the hip or raised caressingly to the blonde locks—and the sensual delivery of double entendre such as “It isn’t what you do—it’s how you do it.”
As Mamie Dyne in Arthur Hammerstein and Rudolf Friml’s “Sometime,” Miss West introduced the “shimmy” dance in 1918; she followed with appearances in “Demi-Tasse” and “The Mimic World,” and then wrote an act for the newly-important nightclub circuit in which she used future singing star Harry Richman as her pianist and foil.
Then, in 1926, she was ready for the next step.
At the urging of her mother, she had always written or reworked her own sketch material; now she tried her hand at writing a play for herself, an opus that she, with customary candor, entitled simply, “Sex.”
It opened April 26, 1926, at Daly’s Theater in Manhattan and was a success despite refusal of New York’s newspapers to publish advertisements for it. But there was trouble to come.
After 375 performances, New York police finally yielded to pressure from a group calling itself the Society for the Suppression of Vice and closed the play, arresting its star on a charge of corrupting the morals of youth.
The papers that had refused advertisements for “Sex” had no reservations about reporting the case—and naming the play—in their news columns.
They appeared to take an almost orgiastic delight in reporting her conviction on the charge, and the 80-day sentence she served at New York’s city prison, then located on Welfare Island.
But their victim never struck back.
“I avoid unpleasantness if I can.” she said. “And I don’t hold bad thoughts about people because that doesn’t do me any good.”
At Work on New Play
Besides, she was too busy. Within weeks after ending her prison sentence, she was at work on a new play, “The Drag,” which dealt with the problems of homosexuals. On advice of her attorney, she opened it in Paterson, N.J., and never moved it to Manhattan because New York officials feared it would “upset the city.”
But the following year, she wrote a third play, “The Wicked Age,” which was an expose of rigged beauty contests. A long run was predicted but it closed at the Daly in Manhattan in two weeks due to friction in the cast.
The best was yet to come. In 1928, Mae West created the Gay 90s Bowery Queen “Diamond Lil” as the title character in her fourth play. This was an act of self-creation, for it became more than a character in a play.
“I’m her, and she’s me,” Diamond Lil’s author said in later years, and there was no demur; over the years that followed, the line between the stage character and the woman who played her had become blurred to the point of extinction.
It was, in fact, difficult to say who had created whom.
Was Smash Success
The play, too, was one of the smash successes of all times. First staged at Teller’s Shubert Theater in Brooklyn during the first week of April, 1928, it was the triumphant West vehicle. Diamond Lil descending the dance-hall staircase like a queen on a state occasion; lolling in a golden bed reading the “Police Gazette,” and offering the ultimate put-down to an admirer’s litany (“Your hands, your lips, your hair, your magnificent shoulders . . !”):
“What’re you doin’, honey—makin’ love or takin’ inventory?”
But there was another line from the same play that echoed, and finally became almost a trademark; the sultry-voiced invitation.
As spoken to the Salvation Army captain it was “Come on up.”
But it will always be remembered as:
“Come up and see me sometime!”
“Diamond Lil” began its Broadway run at the Royale Theater on Oct. 1, 1928, and when it closed there the following January, the star-author took it on national tour. While traveling, she seized odd moments to write her first novel, “Babe Gordon,” which was published under that title in its first edition and then became “The Constant Sinner,” the new name its author had decided upon for a stage version in which she appeared at the Royale throughout the 1931-32 season.
It might have run even longer, but Mae West had urgent business to attend to—in Hollywood.
Paramount Pictures, then teetering on the brink of insolvency, offered her $5,000-a-week to start her film career in “Night After Night” with George Raft. It wasn’t a big role (she had only four scenes, and rated no better than fourth billing), but the strategy of “doing something” came into play once more.
One of the scenes called for Miss West to enter Raft’s Manhattan speakeasy ablaze with jewels and wearing a slinky, shimmering gown.
“Goodness, what diamonds!” exclaims a hatcheck girl—to which came the immortal reply: “Goodness . . . had nothin’ to do with it!”
Audiences who had never seen Mae West before never forgot her again.
And Raft admitted, “She stole everything but the cameras.”
Impressed, Paramount bought “Diamond Lil” as a vehicle for her first leading screen role, although it changed the title to “She Done Him Wrong.” She was even permitted to pick for her leading man a newcomer name Cary Grant.
“She Done Him Wrong” broke box office records in the United States and attendance records throughout the world—and it more-or-less permanently revived the fortunes of Paramount, whose executives had been on the point of selling out to MGM.
She followed this with a film that some critics regard as her best: “I’m No Angel,” in which she finally fulfilled a lifelong fantasy—to be a lion trainer.
The picture, a remarkably rhythmic work directed with wit and ease by Wesley Ruggles, was a circus opus in which Miss West played a cooch dancer who becomes a lion trainer and conquers Manhattan society (and a tuxedo-wearing Cary Grant) while remaining her breezy, earthy self.
In filming the movie, she refused (despite violent front office objections) to use a double in the lion-training scenes and actually entered the cage herself with boots and whip.
It was in this film, too, that she first uttered the famous “Beulah, peel me a grape,” line, which she said was her own, inspired by a grape-peeling monkey that was her pet.
“I’m No Angel” grossed more at box offices than “She Done Him Wrong,” and after three more pictures, “Going to Town,” “Belle of the Nineties” and “Klondike Annie,” she was earning the highest salary of any Hollywood star: $300,00 per picture and an additional $100,00 for story or scenario.
Her name also had become a household word.
“I became,” she said in an autobiography, “a star seen in the third person, even to myself. . . . It didn’t frighten me. I got fun out of being a legend and an institution.”
And this, perhaps, was the true secret of her appeal: the myth was built upon a foundation of granite, a lifetime of singleminded dedication to the promotion and perpetuation of her image—a glorious egomania that she was always the first to admit, and to joke about.
Two more Paramount pictures, “Go West Young Man” and “Every Day’s A Holiday” confirmed her status as a top box office star (she had been voted tops in the Motion Picture Herald-Fame polls of 1933 and 1934). But the bluenoses had their say, too, when she made her radio debut in 1937.
In December, 1937, she appeared on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show for NBC, but the interpretation of some of her lines made her a radio “untouchable” for the next 12 years.
She hardly noticed. In 1940, she went to Universal, attracted by the offer to write and star in a picture with W.C. Fields.
There were forebodings of trouble: Miss West was a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker; Fields was, to say the very least, no admirer of these virtues. Far more important, Miss West’s contract called for artistic control—and Fields was known to demand absolute autonomy in his own comedic flourishes, not to mention top billing.
Nonetheless, the picture, “My Little Chickadee,” was a comedic classic, and a box office success.
The Mae West script had left ample room for the celebrated Fields approach to comedy, and in her autobiography she saluted him as “A Great Performer.”
By 1940, the Mae West had entered the dictionary.
In honor of her physique, pilots of the Royal Air Force had begun calling their inflatable lifejackets “Mae Wests.” The name stuck. But there was trouble on the home front.
She had never mentioned her early, brief marriage to Frank Wallace, but the story had appeared in the press in 1935 and Wallace had promptly begun touring the United States with an act in which he was billed as “Mae West’s Husband.”
In September, 1941, he filed suit for $1,00-a-month alimony, and the next year followed with a second suit demanding even more. Miss West finally filed a cross complaint, asking only a divorce—and it was finally granted.
Took Time and Energy
It had taken up time and energy, however, and was in part blamed by the star’s friends for her agreement to do a backstage musical called “The Heat’s On” for Columbia—the last picture she would do for 26 years.
Still, she was not idle. After “The Heat’s On,” she opened on Broadway in Mike Todd’s production of her play, “Catherine Was Great,” touring with the company through 1945.
A farce called “Ring Twice Tonight” (later retitled “Come On Up”), was less than successful, but she revived “Diamond Lil” on stage in London and New York in the late 1940s, and returned with it to New York in 1951.
From 1954 to 1956, she toured the country with a nightclub act in which she was surrounded by young musclemen (there was some sort of altercation between two of them in her dressing room at a Washington, D.C., nightclub; no one ever knew exactly what it was all about—but one of the gladiators, Mickey Hargitay, later married Mae West imitator Jayne Mansfield) and in 1959 there was a little trouble over her appearance on the CBS-TV show “Person to Person.”
Interview in Hollywood
Charles Collingwood had taped an interview with Miss West at the Hollywood apartment that had been her home ever since the William Morris office retained it for her when she first came to town. The show was scheduled to be the first of the 1959 season.
But it never aired. Network officials said they canceled it because some of her remarks might be “misconstrued.”
“I doubt that,” she said later. “I think everyone would understand exactly what I meant.”
Yet it was not a total loss. In 1960, she appeared on the Red Skelton television show, doing a lampoon of the “Person to Person” interview (for the same network that had refused to air the segment) and was back on CBS-TV in 1964 with an appearance on the “Mister Ed” television series.
Made Record Albums
She also made records: a Decca album in 1955, “The Fabulous Mae West,” and two more LPs, “Way Out West” and “Wild Christmas” in 1966 on the Tower label.
Her return to the screen in the 1970 movie “Myra Breckenridge” was a personal triumph, though she never liked the film because it was X-rated—and therefore unavailable to her younger fans.
“I still have fan clubs around the world,” she had said in an interview the year before that film was made. “Fans still address mail to Mae West, Hollywood, and I get it. I answer it too. I never want to lose touch with fans—they keep you young.”
And make you rich. She never denied wealth, “but I think it’s terrible to talk about it,” she said. “I own land, and have made investments . . . car washes, office buildings . . . I even owned the apartment building where I live, but sold it. I never say no to a good offer.”
She continued to live in the building after selling it, however; the white-on-white decor with gilt-on-white furniture furnishing more fuel for the Mae West image, the Mae West legend.
On the grand piano that dominated the living room stood a nude marble statue of Mae West, sculpted in 1935; above a couch hung a painting of Mae West reclining—also nude.
One of the remarks from her never-aired “Person to Person” interview concerned the mirrors in her bedroom: “I like to see how I’m doin’.”
But it was Mae West herself who remained the centerpiece.
Interviewers who expected to find her hiding in the past, living a kind of self-pitying and deranged Norma Desmond life were always in for a surprise. The woman they met was relaxed, outgoing and still interested in the real world.
There Were Visitors
There were visitors such as Dr. Richard Ireland, the psychic who regularly presented demonstrations of ESP for Miss West (a longtime believer in the phenomenon) and her friends, and there was the constant companionship of Paul Novak, her bodyguard for the last quarter century of her life.
And, in 1977, there was another picture.
It was called “Sextette.” As usual, Mae West had a hand in writing it, starred in it—and had a wonderful time.
It brought her total list of film credits to an even dozen; a remarkably small number. No one else had ever established so secure a place in film history on the basis of so few roles, but then no other woman had become a sex symbol after making her screen debut at 40, either.
“I gave up a lot,” she said. “I love kids, but I never had any. I might have liked liquor or even cigarettes, but I never fooled with them. Never even let myself eat too much—and that might have been fun, once in a while.
“Still, I can’t regret anything, really.
“Some writer called me ‘the greatest female impersonator of all time’ once, and I didn’t like it, but I guess he meant it as a compliment and I can kind of see what he meant, I guess.
“I lived like a man, in some ways—decided what I wanted and went after it. I’m not sorry. A friend of mine once wrote that I was ‘self-enchanted but never self-deceiving,’ and I hope that was always true.
“I got what I wanted. I still have it. Like I said a long time ago—'A real star never stops.’ ”
And Mae West never did.
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