Mae West was born on August 17, 1893, and in the 119 years since then, she’s played a lot of roles – a symbol of all things bawdy and titillating, a blatant lawbreaker, even a feminist icon. By the standards of today, more than three decades after her death on November 22, 1980, West may seem a little quaint – tame even – when compared with the displays of female sexuality we are accustomed to seeing in magazines, movies and on television.
But “tame” couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Mae West. Her career was built on pushing the envelope and challenging boundaries, from her early performances as a teenager working in burlesque shows to her final film, Sextette, in which she dared to portray a sensual woman at the age of 84. She worked in an era that wouldn’t let her do all the same things today’s envelope-pushers do, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
Determined to be a performer, as a teenager she bounced from vaudeville to its less-respectable cousin burlesque and back, without apparently worrying too hard about which side of propriety she came down on. On the burlesque stage, West delighted audiences with her dancing – including a fan dance in which a large fan covered a very small (maybe nonexistent) outfit. She also specialized in the hootchy-kootchy, a popular – and none too modest – burlesque dance with its roots in belly dancing. And she prided herself on introducing a wider audience to the shimmy, a shoulder-shaking move that had previously only been seen in black nightclubs.
Even in vaudeville, which brought entertainment to folks who generally wouldn’t be caught dead at a burlesque show, Mae West kept it risqué, doing the hootchy-kootchy while wearing a costume with a daring breakaway shoulder strap. Reviewers didn’t always love her work, proclaiming her coarse and vulgar, but that didn’t stop audiences from flocking to see her.
While West’s dancing brought raves from her burlesque and vaudeville audiences, it wasn’t all she had to offer. She was clever, too – queen of the double-entendre and an adept comedian. Onstage, she sang, acted, riffed and joked. Some of her one-liners are legendary even today:
"When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better."
"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."
"I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it."
"I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure."
"It is better to be looked over than overlooked."
"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."
After several years of working in burlesque and vaudeville reviews, improvising some classic lines and jokes, she tried her hand at writing…with explosive results. Her first play, written in 1926, seems to have been conceived and written specifically to shock. It was called Sex. Its main character – played by West herself when the play opened on Broadway – was a prostitute. The results were unsurprising; audiences adored it and the authorities were outraged.
In fact, the authorities were so outraged that they raided the theater…but not until the play had been running for a full year. And not until after quite a few police officers, judges and prominent attorneys got a chance to see it. Eventually they must have decided they were scandalized enough (or all the officers who wanted to see it had gotten their chance), and the raid was on. West was arrested and brought up on obscenity charges. She ended up serving 10 days, with a fine of $500, and probably couldn’t have been happier about it. What’s a few days in the workhouse and a medium-sized fine compared to the massive publicity boost West’s arrest brought her? She was now in the national spotlight for being immodest, and that was just the way she liked it.
West continued to write plays – and they continued to generate controversy. Then she burst onto the movie scene by substantially rewriting her part in her first film, 1932’s Night After Night – giving herself another classic quote (and the title of the autobiography she’d later write). When told, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” West’s character replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” The classic West one-liner and scene-stealer prompted a costar to muse, “She stole everything but the cameras.”
Although West continued to write her own parts, within a couple years of her movie debut, the motion picture industry tightened up its self-censorship guidelines under the Production Code, and her writing began to be heavily edited. When she started working in radio a few years later, she met yet more censorship. Her double-entendres and blunt sexual references enraged the FCC, and she didn’t last long as a radio star. NBC went so far as to ban her – and all mention of her name – from their radio stations.
Censorship and criticism never seemed to bother West. It was the story of her life. As long as audiences kept coming back for more, who cared what the reviewers thought? She just kept offering up her unmistakable brand of envelope-pushing humor and sexuality, even in her 80s, as she wrote and starred in 1978’s bawdy Sextette. Unsurprisingly, critics panned it, but a new generation of young fans loved it.
The time may be ripe for another Mae West revival. Indeed, burlesque is back on stages across the country, offering up sexy shimmies and bawdy one-liners 100 years after its first heyday. Today’s burlesque audiences might take a moment to thank Mae West for challenging all those boundaries so many years ago…and then take another moment to watch her doing what she did so well: making music and tossing off a clever one-liner.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published November 2010.