Mae West in 1936 (Wikimedia Commons/Paramount Pictures)
“Why don't you come up sometime and see me?” That line could still work for Mae West, assuming she is really “up” there somewhere. Could she be?
The hot-as-a-pistol actress, born 120 years ago today, certainly didn’t act like she was on her way into heaven, consistently playing slithery, come-hither roles that portrayed her as tough but seductive.
Born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, the daughter of a prize fighter and fashion model started entertaining at age 5. By 14 she was doing vaudeville, and at 18 she was on Broadway. She literally shimmied her way into wider notice – and renown – in a Shubert Brothers revue and soon started writing her own material under the name Jane Mast, including a controversial play she called Sex. The public loved it; the critics did not.
She finally had a hit with Diamond Lil in 1928 and then it was on to Hollywood, where soon she was playing against Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong. She continued a successful and suggestive career in film and on the radio but occasionally ran into charges of vulgarity and bawdy behavior – and some members of her family weren’t too happy about her professional choices, either.
She had at least one, maybe two, marriages that she kept secret, but when she died in 1980 at the age of 87, she had been with Paul Novak, a “Mr. California” 30 years her junior, for 27 years.
Mae West (Wikimedia Commons/
Los Angeles Times Archive)
Mae West left many lasting legacies, including some rather unique ones: the inflatable life jackets used by the Royal Air Force were named for her, and Army soldiers called their two-turret combat tanks “Mae Wests,” according to her New York Times obituary.
In 1959, she released her best-selling autobiography entitled Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. The line was allegedly her retort to a hat-check girl who complimented West: “Goodness, those are beautiful diamonds!” To which the star responded, “Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it.”
Other Mae West-isms that have endured are the many quotes that have become part of the American lexicon. A few of our favorites:
"Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" (She Done Him Wrong, 1933)
"I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported." (I’m No Angel, 1933)
"I’ve always had a weakness for foreign affairs." (Interview with Charles Collingwood)
"I’ve been in more laps than a napkin." (Quoted in The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said)
"When I’m good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better." (I’m No Angel, 1933)
"When you got the personality, you don’t need the nudity." (Quoted in For Women, Monologues They Haven’t Heard)
"Peel me a grape." (I’m No Angel)
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."