Mae West: The Sex-Positive Old-Hollywood Icon Who Was Far Ahead of Her Time

SHE DONE HIM WRONG, Mae West, 1933
Courtesy Everett Collection

There weren’t many individuals in old Hollywood like Mae West, a bold comic performer who was at least 50 years ahead of her time in terms of her material and command of her career.

She was born August 17, probably in 1893, though accounts differ. Variety covered her vaudeville appearances starting in 1911, describing her as a “cyclonic young singer” in shows like “Big Gaiety Review.” In 1912, Variety tried to discreetly describe her specialty act in Philadelphia, which was called “A Muscle Dance in a Sitting Position.” The PR stated: “It is all in the way she does it, and her way is all her own.”

That doesn’t provide a lot of clues, but the phrase “her way is all her own” sums up her style and her work. West took charge of her life and career. She challenged taboos by dealing with sex in a comic tone, when America’s Puritan streak was in full flower. Her frank and bawdy humor opened doors for subsequent generations of comics and she was always in the driver’s seat with her career, never beholden to anyone.

West perfected a slow sashaying walk and a deadpan delivery of one-liners, which were often double entendres. Two of her most remembered were “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better” and “When caught between two evils, I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.”

After creating her own material for a solo act, she expanded this talent by writing plays. In 1926, Variety was upbeat about her play “Sex,” adding, “Miss West gives a remarkable performance.” The New York Times, though, called it “crude and inept” and she ended up being arrested for “corrupting the morals of youth.” West chose to serve the jail term (10 days) rather than pay a fine, because she knew it was good publicity.

Variety reported that “Sex” was earning an impressive $10,000 a week at the 63rd Street theater. She followed it up with “The Drag,” depicting homosexuals in a positive light. More battles with censors, more big business. She deadpanned, “I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it.”

Continuing to break rules, she made her film debut at age 40 in the 1932 “Night After Night,” in a supporting role for which she wrote her own dialog. When a hat-check girl exclaims “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” West dryly responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” She became a lead in 1933 with “She Done Him Wrong,” costarring the new actor Cary Grant; it received a best-picture Oscar nomination.

Lazy loaded image
W.C. Fields and Mae West in 1940’s “My Little Chickadee Courtesy Everett Collection

Her films were wildly successful, saving Paramount from bankruptcy and she became one of the highest paid individuals in the U.S., male or female. But as Hollywood began cracking down on morals, with the introduction of the Hays Code, her scripts were increasingly cut and the studio insisted she needed to add dialog moralizing about the dangers of wicked living.

Tired of battling the censors, she stopped making films in 1943, moving to stage and nightclubs and smartly investing in Los Angeles real estate. Among her purchases: the Ravenswood Apartments on Rossmore Avenue in Hancock Park, south of Hollywood, which she bought when her boyfriend William Jones, who was a Black boxer, was forbidden by the then-owners from entering the building.

After a 1964 TV appearance in an episode of “Mr. Ed,” of all things, she returned to the big screen in the 1970 “Myra Breckinridge.” Though she was in her late 70s, her screen persona had not changed: She was still the sexually voracious, in-control woman surrounded by hunky young men. When the film was being made, there were stories of tension between West and Raquel Welch, a sex siren from a different era. But Hollywood insiders were more interested in the battles among studio execs, the producers, author Gore Vidal and director Michael Sarne (who had complete artistic control over this, his second film).

In a June 24, 1970 review, Variety’s A.D. Murphy found the film artless and uninteresting, but said West was “excellent,” noting that she wrote her own lines with her trademark “easy and inoffensive vulgarity.”

In 1977, she starred in her 12th and final film, “Sextette,” when she was about 85, still surrounded by leading men including Timothy Dalton (aged 31), Tony Curtis and Ringo Starr.

Curtis said her distinctive walk was born due to wearing platform shoes early in her career, since she was only five feet tall.

Rumors tended to swirl around her, including the myth that she was actually a man, a far-fetched idea that may sprung from her her boldness both in business and onscreen. Her exaggerated impersonation of feminine behavior has made her a favorite of drag performers, including Alaska on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.”

Starting in the 1940s, she turned down many film roles, including Norma Desmond in the 1950 “Sunset Blvd.”

Federico Fellini wanted to work with her. In Charlotte Chandler’s book of interviews, “I, Fellini,” the filmmaker said of West: “I admired her enormously. She was wonderful. She always seemed to be anti-sex because she made a joke of sex and made you laugh, and that is anti-erotic. I think work was really her sex. It seems to me that her career was everything.”

Her 1959 autobiography used one of her most well-known lines as a title, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It.”

West died Nov. 22, 1980, three months after suffering a stroke and falling at the Ravenswood, where she lived for half a century.

Her best films include “I’m No Angel” (in which she plays a lion tamer) and the 1940 “My Little Chickadee” with W.C. Fields. But her legacy lasts beyond those films. During World War II, her name was given to inflatable life jackets, which are still called Mae Wests. Her most lasting contribution was creating an unlikely but effective role model for future generations, in terms of sex, humor and independence.