Actress, playwright, screenwriter, and iconic sex symbol Mae West [1893-1980] created sensation after sensation after she transitioned from vaudeville to Broadway, where she once co-headlined with Al Jolson. If she had lived as long as she wanted, Miss West would be entering her 120th year today: August 17. She’s entombed in a mausoleum in the Abbey of Cypress Hills Cemetery, in her native Queens.
She thrived on creating scandal. As innocent as it would be today, back in 1926 her play Sex caused riots. She was convicted of obscenity and sentenced to 10 days. In prison, she regaled reporters and entertained the warden and guards, even played cards with them.
When she segued at the ripe age of 40 into movies, she became a late-in-life sex symbol and spent the rest of her life honing that image. Miss West was Number One at the box office.
Her self-penned screenplays, some based on her controversial stage work, are said to have saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy. Her films, none more hilarious than when she matched wits with W.C. Fields in My Little Chicadee [Universal Studios], were notorious for double-entendres that somehow made it by the Hollywood censors.
Behind the screen image, Miss West was a savvy business woman, especially when it came to buying up Hollywood real estate in the 30s. If she hadn’t been so obsessed with sex, she could have gone on to become one of filmdom’s greatest comic actresses. When she could no longer beat the censors, she took her act, surrounded by muscle men to Vegas, the U.K., and returned to Broadway. She performed on radio and made occasional guest TV appearances in addition to recording some pretty awful rock ‘n roll albums that today are prized collectibles.
To visit Mae West was a rare privilege and an unforgettable and quite theatrical experience, especially if you were aware of her films, the controversy, the legend, the myth. She certainly didn’t disappoint. Every interview was a command performance: the floor-length gown, the platinum wig with flowing curls, the platform shoes to make her appear taller.
She wasn’t shy. Once, when I asked what it takes to become a legend, Miss West oohed and aahed, then stated, “You got to be different – have a special look, or walk, or aura. I had it all, and knew how to use it. These aren’t gestures you learn in high school, dear. They come natural. I never changed my basic style. Half the women in the world – and quite a few men – have imitated me. They only imitate you if you’re unique. I am.”
Boastful, she was; innocent, she wasn’t. Both made her exciting and charming. Sadly, though she was outspoken on feminist issues long before the pack, she was all about Mae. As her fame waned, she was obsessed with keeping her image alive. In the process, she became a caricature of herself.
With her vast real estate holdings, she could have afforded an estate that would rival a Raj palace, but home was an apartment that took up the entire top floor in a residential neighborhood. Like Miss West, it remained unchanged until her death.
[Trivia: Jerry Orbach, when he was between roles, drove limos. He was once chauffeur to Mae West.]