Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 17 August 1892. Education: Attended Brooklyn public schools to age 13. Family: Married the entertainer Frank Wallace, 1911 (divorced 1942). Career: Child entertainer: joined Hal Clarendon's stock company, Brooklyn, at age eight; toured with Frank Wallace; 1911—Broadway debut in the revue A la Broadway and Hello, Paris ; then returned to vaudeville tour with star billing; early 1920s—toured in nightclub act with Harry Richman; 1926—on Broadway in her own play Sex (later plays produced include The Drag , 1926, The Wicked Age , 1927, Diamond Lil , 1928 and several revivals, The Pleasure Man , 1928, The Constant Sinner , 1931, and Catherine Was Great , 1944); 1932—film debut in Night After Night : contract with Paramount; then a series of popular films in the 1930s for which she often wrote the screenplay; 1954–56—toured with nightclub act; 1955—first of several albums of her songs, The Fabulous Mae West . Died: In Los Angeles, 22 November 1980.
Night After Night (Mayo) (as Maudie Triplett)
She Done Him Wrong (Sherman) (as Lady Lou)
The Heat's On ( Tropicana ) (Ratoff) (as Fay Lawrence)
Myra Breckenridge (Sarne) (as Leticia Van Allen)
Sextette (Ken Hughes) (as Marlo Manners)
I'm No Angel (Ruggles) (as Tira)
Belle of the Nineties (McCarey) (as Ruby Carter)
Goin' to Town (Alexander Hall) (as Cleo Borden)
Klondike Annie (Walsh) (as the Frisco Doll/Rose Carlton); Go West, Young Man (Hathaway) (as Mavis Arden)
Every Day's a Holiday (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Peaches O'Day/Mademoiselle Fifi)
My Little Chickadee (Cline) (as Flower Belle Lee, co-sc)
Babe Gordon (novel), New York, 1930; as The Constant Sinner , New York, 1931.
Diamond Lil (novel), New York, 1932; as She Done Him Wrong , New York, 1932.
Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It , New York, 1959; rev. ed., New York, 1970.
The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West , edited by Joseph Weintraub, New York, 1967.
On Sex, Health, and ESP , New York, 1975.
She Done Him Wrong , New York, 1995.
Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man , New York, 1997.
"Mae West," interview with W. S. Eyman, in Take One (Montreal), January 1974.
"Mae West: The Queen at Home in Hollywood," interview with A. Huston and P. Lester, in Interview (New York), December 1974.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus , New York, 1973.
Tuska, Jon, The Films of Mae West , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1973; rev. ed., as The Complete Films of Mae West , 1992.
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, The Funsters , New Rochelle, New York, 1979.
Cashin, Fergus, Mae West: A Biography , London, 1981.
Eells, George, and Stanley Musgrove, Mae West , New York, 1982.
Chandler, Charlotte, The Ultimate Seduction , New York, 1984.
Bergman, Carol, Mae West , New York, 1988.
Ward, Carol Marie, Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography , New York, 1989.
Leonard, Maurice, Mae West: Empress of Sex , London, 1991.
Sochen, June, Mae West: She Who Laughs, Lasts , Arlington Heights, Illinois, 1992.
Baxt, George, The Mae West Murder Case (novel), New York, 1993.
Malachosky, Tim, and James Greene, Mae West , California, 1993.
Curry, Ramona, Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon , Minneapolis, 1995.
Hamilton, Marybeth, "When I'm Bad, I'm Better": Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment , New York, 1995.
Robertson, Pamela, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna , Durham, North Carolina, 1996.
Yeatts, Tabatha, The Legendary Mae West , Sterling.
Troy, William, "Mae West and the Classic Tradition," in Nation (New York), 8 November 1933.
Arbus, Diane, "Mae West: Emotion in Motion," in Show (Hollywood), January 1965.
Current Biography 1967 , New York, 1967.
Christie, George, "Mae West Raps," in Cosmopolitan (New York), May 1970.
Braun, Eric, "Doing What Comes Naturally," and "One for the Boys," in Films and Filming (London), October and November 1970.
Passek, J.-L., "Hommage: Mae West: Sex transit gloria mundi," in Cinéma (Paris), November 1973.
Adair, G., "Go West, Old Mae," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1980.
Obituary in New York Times , 23 November 1980.
McCourt, James, obituary in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1981.
Kobal, John, "Mae West," in Films and Filming (London), September 1983.
Curry, Ramona, "Mae West as Censored Commodity: The Case of Klondike Annie ," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Fall 1991.
Clayton, Justin, "Mae West: The Biggest Blonde of Them All," in Classic Images (Muscatine), March 1993.
Haskell, M., "Mae West's Bawdy Spirit Spans the Gay 90s," in New York Times , Section 2, 15 August 1993.
Alexander, R., "Peel Her a Grape," in New York Times , Section 9, 22 August 1993.
Robertson, Pamela, "'The Kinda Comedy That Imitates Me': Mae West's Identification with the Feminist Camp," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Winter 1993.
Frank, Michael, "Mae West at the Ravenswood: Diamond Lil's Glittery Los Angeles Apartment," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1994.
* * *
The strongest breakthrough for sophisticated sexual comedy was made by Mae West. The unabashed woman who takes pleasure in her sexuality and ability to control men with her physical charms was delectably burlesqued in her 1933 work She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel . In these movies she played the gaudy kept woman who enjoyed her position in society. Derived from the stage play Diamond Lil , which West wrote for herself in 1928, She Done Him Wrong was the weaker of the two films. Nevertheless, the movie had much to offer. West's dialogue was sprinkled with double entendres, usually linked with sex. When asked if she had ever found a man who could make her happy, she replied with her famous drawl, a clenched jaw, and a smile: "Sure. Lots of times." And there were the now well-known maxims, such as, "When women go wrong, men go right after them." As in some of her later films, the total work did not have a strong comic design. An old-fashioned, serious love triangle held every story together. Sprinkled into the melodramas, two songs, "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone" and "I Like a Man Who Takes His Time," gave West the chance to make further sexual comments and display her talents with the torch song and the blues.
I'm No Angel not only displayed a definite improvement over the Diamond Lil adaptation, but also was West's most distinguished contribution to the sophisticated comedy film. Her link with the underworld in I'm No Angel was rather melodramatic, but her bedhopping in high society created a comic framework for the total work. Her characterization of Tira, a carnival dancer, shows a woman who is engaged in the put-down with the relish, if not the zip, of a Groucho Marx. When her boss, played by the daddy of all big deals, Edward Arnold, made a conciliatory gesture by stating, "Tira, I've changed my mind," West cracked, "Does it work any better?" With an aggressiveness seldom exhibited in a woman at that time, she took over her own defense in a trial. I'm No Angel was also a showcase for still more of the famous West lines. To her servant she drawled: "Beulah, peel me a grape." To a man, fluttering her eyelashes, she observed, "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad [very long pause] I'm better." As a gilded, tainted sage she uttered, "It's not the men in your life that count—it's the life in your men." Most remembered and most often repeated (with variations) was the line: "And don't forget—come up and see me sometime."
In her early 1930s movies, however, West's humor was not merely verbal. It consisted of a provocative walk, a toss of the head or hip, or a glint in the eye. She was a personality comedienne with a particular style of her own. Actually, she never possessed strong acting skills: her delivery was, in fact, monotonous. Yet her slender talent and ample body made her a legend in her time and the height of camp in the 1960s.
Since West's sexual wit was nearly eliminated by the Hays Office in 1934, her subsequent films remain a pale shadow of those early works—especially in the wealth of innuendo. Nevertheless, she still portrayed the shady lady in the 1936 Klondike Annie , escaping the law by assuming the role of a religious leader in a booming, bawdy frontier community. Her high-handed tactics to "win souls" remain fresh today because they lampoon a type of religious leader who still exists. Ironically, West would not be able to use her sexual humor again until she appeared in Myra Breckinridge . At 78, West was still the femme fatale, uttering bawdier lines than she had been allowed to deliver in the 1930s.