I'm No Angel (1892)
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
Before Mansfield’s bosom and Monroe’s backside, before Madonna’s bustier and Stone’s uncrossed legs, there was the leader of the pack: bodacious, bawdy, blonde Mae West. Critic George Jean Nathan dubbed her the Statue of Libido.
The master of sexual innuendo came from a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, the daughter of an Irish American ex-boxer, John “Battling John” Patrick West, and his French-born wife, Mathilde “Tillie,” a corset and fashion model. West was never jealous of her siblings because of her supreme self-absorption. She often commented, “I don’t like myself. I’m crazy about myself.” Mae West was a Mount Everest of egomania, a trait she regarded as a virtue.
The precursor of Dr. Ruth, at age five, Ms. West found her passion at the Royal Theater where she performed wearing a pink and green satin dress and won first prize in a talent competition. She later recounted, “I ached for it, the spotlight, which was like the strongest man’s arms around me, like an ermine coat.” Formal schooling went by the wayside in favor of vaudeville, and from the ages of 8 to 11, Mae played roles as the moonshiner’s daughter, Little Nell, who stepped through a swinging saloon door in search of her drunk father. In her early teens, Mae performed under the name “Baby Mae” and incorporated burlesque into her act. Frank Wallace, a song-and-dance man, was her co-star; the young entertainers secretly married in Milwaukee in 1911. Realizing she was not cut out for the role of domestic diva, Mae helped her husband find a job with a show that was going on the road for forty weeks, a move calculated to dissolve both her professional and conjugal ties. She kept the marriage under wraps - mink no doubt - until Frank resurfaced in 1941 and demanded a $1,000-a-month alimony. They divorced in 1942. Asked if she would ever tie the knot again, she stated, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”
The Mae moves, “the cooch and the shimmy,” borrowed from a black Chicago club, along with suggestive songs and double-entendre wisecracks, were too blatant for vaudeville, and Mae took her five-inch stiletto heels to Broadway. In 1926, she wrote a play whose title epitomized her life and career: Sex. Variety deemed it “the nastiest thing ever disclosed on the New York stage.” The production’s popularity peaked through the auspices of a New York City police raid instigated by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a nineteenth-century organization dedicated to promoting public morality. The authorities closed her play, and the police arrested Ms. West on a charge of corruption of morals; the judge fined her $500.00 and issued a ten-day jail sentence. Afforded preferential treatment, she wore silk underwear instead of the state-issued ones. The publicity proved pure gold, and she proclaimed, “Censorship made me.” Under her ample cleavage beat a caring heart and in a letter to the governor of California, Mae praised the warden at San Quentin, “I hope your Excellency will feel as I do and let Warden Duffy continue making bad men good, while I continue making good men bad.” The inmates sent her a collective Valentine.
In New Jersey in 1928, Mae came up with her alter ego “Diamond Lil” in which the leading lady reclined in a golden bed perusing the Police Gazette. The show delivered the West witticism directed at a Salvation Army captain Cary Grant, “Come on up” but is remembered as, “Come up and see me sometime.” The star-author took “Diamond Lil” on a national tour and penned her first novel, The Constant Sinner. Denounced by the conservative press, hounded by censors, she put the roar into the 1920s.
After the Wall Street crash extinguished the lights of Broadway, Ms. West, lured by Hollywood, headed in the direction of her name. Not one to be over-awed by the big boy bosses who ran Tinseltown, she boasted, “I’m not a little girl from a little town making good in a big town; I’m a big girl from a big town making good in a little town.”
Although her image suggested she only cared about horizontal positions, she was extremely astute in marketing Mae West. She had carefully honed her act from her expertise in burlesque, black music, and dance and demanded to write her own screenplays. The West persona was chiseled platinum hair, a sin-promising strut, and an elongated delivery of lines, breaking each word into as many syllables as possible, (“fas-cin-a-tin”). In a scene from her 1932 debut film, Night After Night, Ms. Mae, adorned with diamonds, entered a speakeasy. When the hatcheck girl exclaimed, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” the 40-year-old actress purred, “Goodness had nothing to do with them.” The quip led to the title of her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It.
Ms. West selected as her male lead a “sensational looking young man” whom she spotted walking along the street. Smitten, she declared, “If he can talk, I’ll take him.” The unknown actor was Cary Grant with whom she co-starred in a movie in which she fulfilled her lifelong fantasy-to be a lion-tamer. Refusing to use a stunt double in the lion-training scenes, Mae entered the cage replete with boots and whip. In the film, she uttered the famous phrase, “Beulah, peel me a grape,” a line based on her pet grape-peeling monkey. The notorious leading lady earned the highest salary of any Hollywood star: $300,000 per picture-an astronomical price in the midst of the Great Depression- thereby proving her quotation, “The curve is more powerful than the sword.”
The course was set for a succession of highly popular comedies such as She Done Him Wrong, Go West Young Man, and My Little Chickadee, the latter of which W.C. Fields co-starred. A West witticism regarding her screen career was, “I’m the woman who works at Paramount all day and Fox all night.” Mae became a film goddess during the silver screen’s golden era, keeping men securely pinned beneath her double-decker stilettos. Her name became an entry in the Webster’s New International Dictionary when ogling servicemen of World War II christened an inflatable life jacket after the siren. Men were her domain, and the only women she had close relationships with were her mother and sister. The girl from the blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood was the highest paid woman in the United States.
Finally, Mae met some men she did not desire: the censors of the Hays Office-the film industry’s watchdog. They were less than impressed with her song “A Guy What Takes His Time” with its lyric, “I don’t like a big commotion. I’m a demon for slow motion.” Although West’s popularity had rescued Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, they did not protect her from the hounds of Hays. Unlike her contemporaries, she refused to let the men in suits alter her image. Another hound of public purity was William Randolph Hearst who used his newspaper empire to pillory her in the press, “Isn’t it time Congress did something about Mae West?” (Hypocritically, at the time Hearst was canoodling with his mistress actress Marion Davies at his mega mansion, San Simeon.) Mae’s response to the slings and arrows aimed in her direction, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.” After the sanitization of her pictures that did not dovetail with her artistic vision, West bid farewell-no doubt with a ring-bedecked middle finger - to Hollywood.
With her hefty bank account, West purchased a home, a shrine to herself. A nude marble statue of the diva stood on her grand piano that dominated the living room; on the wall hung a painting of a reclining Mae, in which she had also dispensed with garments. Her bedroom held a plethora of mirrors because she often said, “I like to see how I’m doin’.”
In her later years, journalists who expected to find the aged star taking refuge in yesteryear, a self-pitying Norma Desmond, were in for a surprise. The octogenarian was still preoccupied with all matters horizontal-at age seventy-eight, she claimed that in one marathon session she had sex twenty-six times in a single day. However, her alter-ego “Diamond Lil” was not a portrayal of the private Ms. West. She lived with her bodyguard, Paul Novak, thirty years her junior, who she persuaded to change his name from Chester Rybinski. She took her writing seriously, and despite her image as the symbol of hedonism, she led a private life of rigid discipline. Under the sequined, form-hugging, cleavage-bagging gowns was an artist who orchestrated her moves and movies. Shunning alcohol and tobacco, the five-foot-two star maintained an organic diet that included fresh fruits dusted with almond powder and honey.
After a lengthy absence, West toured for years in Catherine the Great in which she was the only female actress, (a ratio in which she reveled.) As the Tsarina, she surrounded herself with an imperial guard of muscular, six-foot-tall young men. Her twilight years were dedicated to mediums and ESP, and she was a dedicated follower of astrologer Sydney Omarr. Her aged countenance appeared as if she were wearing a wax-colored mask, and her hour-glass figure had expanded. Mae did not care that her slinky gowns showed off her expanding girth, “I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.” After twenty-four years of retirement, Ms. West left her mirror-lined bedroom to appear in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge where she had a falling out with fellow diva Raquel Welch. Her last rendezvous with the silver screen was at age eighty-five when she starred in the appropriately titled Sextette. As proof the lady still possessed spunk and a salacious spirit, she delivered the indelible words in her final film: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
Mae’s immorality rests on her movies that knocked the stale wind out of conservative Hollywood. She also gained goddess stature when Salvador Dali created the Mae West Lips Sofa, one of the twentieth century’s most iconic pieces of furniture. Another Mae milestone was her appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band album cover. When the Beatles had contacted her to ask permission to use her likeness, Mae agreed, but she added the quip, “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” The band placed her next to the image of Lenny Bruce who also pushed the boundary of free speech.
“A real star never stops,” Ms. West said after her release from Good Samaritan Hospital where she spent three months recovering from a stroke and a concussion. And she never did until she passed away in her Hollywood home at age eighty-eight. Novak, her companion of twenty-six years, opted for an open casket because he claimed she still looked young. The ageless star died a cult figure who had shown that carnal pleasure was not synonymous with brimstone. For West, the only sin was hypocrisy. An apt metaphor for the incomparable Ms. West could well have been the title of one of her movies, I’m No Angel.