“To most people I am offstage what I am on, a deep-dyed hussy without a moral in the world…As a matter of fact I live quite a decent, quiet, moral life. I am a a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment and I give it to them.”
Odd though it may seem, throughout her vaudeville career Mae West was less a comedienne than a singer. She consciously modeled herself on Eva Tanguay, but really took only the sex element, replacing Tanguay’s aimless craziness with a calculating quality that was, shall we say, ahead of its time. Her finely-honed lifelong act of self creation foreshadowed that of Madonna. Unfortunately, though her instinct that sex sells was right on the money, in the vaudeville era residual Victorianism was still in force, causing managers and critics to balk at her antics and thwart her success with audiences. Consequently, she most decidedly did NOT make a hit in vaudeville and never quite discovered herself until she cooked up the legit stage vehicles that allowed her to deliver her characteristic hand-on-hip epigrams.
Mary Jane West (born on this day in 1893) was the second child of two very different parents, each of whom had a strong influence on her identity. Her mother Mathilda (Tillie), a former corset model, supplied the feminine influence, encouraging a love of girlish finery in Mae that was almost absurd. At the same time, her dad “Battling Jack” West, an Irish bouncer and sometime pugilist, had taught her how to box, and surely how to talk and walk. This peculiar mix of gender influences manifested itself in Mae’s personality. In later years, people frequently took her for a trans male because of her mannish walk and tough manner of speech. (interestingly, though, it’s her exaggerated girlishness that makes her seem the most like a drag performer. Her frequent use of “dearie” came from Bert Savoy and was no doubt one of the contributing factors to the rumor that she was a man.)
The Wests lived in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, which supplied Mae with the familiar accent. An older sister, Kate, had died young, and so Mae was spoiled rotten from the very beginning. She was the very center of her parents’ lives.
From the start they encouraged her to perform, with a disturbing tendency to draw out Mae’s sex instinct at a younger age than most people would think appropriate. They bought her dancing lessons and put her onstage in an amateur contest at age five.
Right from the start Mae did risque character songs. Tillie actually urged Mae to study Eva Tanguay, whom they went to see at the theatre many times.
Another “shocking” preference, for wholly different reasons, was Mae’s other favorite performer Bert Williams. Prejudice apparently did not exist in the West household (at least not to degree that it did in the society-at-large) possibly owing to Jack West’s immersion in the boxing community. Mae would continue to draw from African American influences throughout her life, and it was another element that made her shocking, even unacceptable to polite audiences. When Mae was a girl, Jack somehow persuaded Williams to come back to the house for a visit, but Mae wouldn’t believe it was him. She didn’t recognize him without the blackface.
At age 8, Mae presented her impressions of Bert Williams and Eva Tanguay at an amateur show and was spotted by a representative of the Gotham Theatre, a stock company in Brooklyn run by a man named Hal Clarendon. There was still an audience for melodrama at the turn of the century, and Mae spent several years playing the kid roles in classics like Ten Nights in a Bar-room and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This experience, too, had a profound influence on Mae, particularly on her work as a playwright and screenwriter in the 20s and 30s.
When Mae reached her teenage years, the company couldn’t use her anymore, and she was phased out. This was a blow to the family, as she was already the principle breadwinner.
She decided to go into vaudeville. For close to twenty years she tried as many formulas as her mind could conceive to strike it big in vaudeville. None made her a star.
First she was a coon shouter, mixing blackface** with a Tanguay-esque sexual approach. Then she began teaming up with various people. In 1909, Hogan and West did a “Huck Finn” act, where Mae was expected to delineate a Becky Thatcher type. Her character quickly evolved into a mischievous tomboy, out-Hucking Huck. In 1911, she met and toured the Fox Circuit with one Frank Wallace. Later that year, they worked the Columbia Wheel in a show called A Florida Enchantment in which West played “a little French adventuress.” Somewhere in there she married Wallace, apparently at his behest for the purposes of safe sex, i.e, in case of accident they’d already be hitched. But Mae didn’t like being tied down this way. In short order she left him and the act.
She returned to New York and started to work solo again. From the get-go her act was outrageous, daring, presenting sexually suggestive songs. She’d tone down the act in auditions for skittish managers, then pull out all the stops in front of the audience. Critics hated her vulgarity
An appalling amount of potential success slipped through Mae’s fingers in these early years. She starred in La Broadway , a Ned Wayburn revue at the short lived New York Folies Bergere in 1911. Despite Mae’s great notices for “the Philadelphia drag” the show folded after eight performances. Next, the Shuberts cast her in Vera Violetta with Jolson.
She was fired during the New Haven tryouts – either for inciting drunken Yale students to riot, or for upstaging French music hall star Gaby Deslys, but probably both.
In 1912 she played in vaudeville with “Mae West and Her Boys”. Sime Silverman and others opined that she belonged more in burlesque, being too suggestive for the more refined audiences of vaudeville. Nonetheless she managed to get a Big Time agent named Frank Bohm who straightaway got her cast in the Ziegfeld show A Winsome Widow with Fanny Brice, the Dolly Sisters, and Leon Errol. She left the show after just 5 days, apparently because Bohm had gone to work for Keith and could now get her excellent vaudeville bookings. He booked at her Hammerstein’s Victoria, where she sang a few rags and played the bones, minstrel style. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Mae was to see-saw perpetually betwixt Keith and the small time for the next three years.
Bohm died in 1916, and Mae began to flounder again. She teamed briefly with dashing accordionist Guido Deiro and then her own sister Beverly, a partnership that lasted 12 weeks. Influenced by performers from Harlem nightclubs, she began to incorporate the blues and the shimmy into her act.
In 1918, entertainment lawyer James Timony started to represent her. He first got her into a Hammerstein show called Sometime, starring Ed Wynn. Her role as a smart-mouthed chorus girl was well received, and her performance of the shimmy (unprecedented on the Broadway stage) made her the hit of the 1918-19 season. She tried to exploit this notoriety in vaudeville but it still didn’t click. In the 1921 Shubert revue The Whirl of the Town she played “Shifty Liz” and also “Shimmy Mae”, a character on trial for doing the shimmy. Her performance brought the house down. following tryouts, the show went to Broadway as The Mimic World of 1921. The show closed after a month.
By now it should have been obvious that audiences seemed to be receptive to Mae when there was some sort of script for context, but they weren’t crazy about her as an act. It seems likely that some people needed to think that Mae was playing a character in order to accept her scandalous behavior (others—mostly men, liked her just fine). But this realization dawned on Mae and Timony slowly.
Her first literary excursions, the playlet The Ruby Ring,and the semi-autobiographical full-length The Hussy went unproduced but gave her valuable experience. She starred in a very promising outing The Ginger Box Revue, in which she played Circe(!), did a duet with Harry Richman, and did a parody of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. The producer absconded, however, imploding the production. She briefly teamed with Richman in 1922 and finally scored a hit in vaudeville, but when it seemed that Richman was garnering the bigger applause she sent him packing. By the mid-twenties the writing was on the wall that she had hit a ceiling in vaudeville—she’d been at roughly the same level for a dozen years.
She resolved to conquer the world of the legitimate stage. Eugene O’Neill had proven it could be done with risqué material (viz., Desire Under the Elms). Lacking vehicles for the character she had been developing, she began to craft her own in a serious way.
Her first endeavor as both author and star couldn’t have been less ambiguous. Called Sex (1924), it was inspired by a prostitute she’d seen by the west side docks, and concerned the exploits of one Margy Lamont, call girl. Sex, like all of West’s plays and screenplays, share two very important qualities with the works of Oscar Wilde. One is a tendency to express herself through perverse and often paradoxical epigrams. “It’s not the men in your life; it’s the life in your men” – that could just as easily have come from Wilde. The other quality was a strong moral streak, but coming from a point of view most of conventional society finds immoral. Hating hypocrisy above all, West and Wilde took pleasure in revealing self-righteous moralizers as villainous, and making martyrs of eloquent defenders of honest vice.
Since self-righteous moralizers making up 90% of the critical establishment, her plays were uniformly panned. On the other hand, since most audiences are composed of human beings, and therefore possessed vices (and were probably tired of feeling guilty about them) her plays were big box office successes. Sex was the first Mae West project to undeniably make her a star. After out of town try-outs it moved to New York’s Daly Theatre in 1926, and was thereafter good newspaper copy. Anti-vice groups wanted to shut the play down. Mind you, the play contained no nudity nor no profanity. It merely dealt sympathetically with a character who was a prostitute and included one passionate make-out scene. When West opened The Drag, a play about homosexuals out of town in 1927, that’s when the authorities made their move. Sex was raided, and the cast dragged down to the station house. Mae spent nine days in jail, and no New York producer would touch The Drag. She backed off a little bit in her next play The Wicked Age, in which she played a flapper in a fixed beauty contest.
She was back on her game in 1928 with Diamond Lil . For the first time she became closely identified with the image we now think of her as – the gay nineties dance-hall girl, with a tight dress, a parasol, an infinity of hats, and a figure clearly bound tightly by a corset. The play’s nostalgia for San Francisco’s Barbary Coast struck a chord, and this time captivated even the critics and intellectuals. However its frank depiction of criminals and Mae’s sexual jokes caused the Hays Office to put it on a list of properties banned as potential films. (West got around this in 1933 by resetting the play in the Bowery and calling the screenplay She Done Him Wrong).
Her next play Pleasure Man was panned again, critics bending over backwards to think of the worst metaphors possible: “sewage” “garbage” “cow dirt”. She adapted her 1930 novel about miscegenation Babe Gordon into the 1931 stage vehicle The Constant Sinner. It didn’t do so well owing to a combination of economics (the depression was at its height) and social forces (racist audiences stayed away.)
But that didn’t matter. Her old pal George Raft was about to set her up in a new situation; the one most of us know her for today. For her further adventures go here.
** Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.