Published: March 18, 2018
Actress Mae West was found guilty on this day in history of “obscenity and corrupting the morals of youth” in a New York stage play entitled "Sex". She was sentenced to ten days in prison and fined $500. But the resulting publicity did much to launch her Hollywood career and make her one of the highest paid people in the United States.
Born in 1893, Mary Jane "Mae" West started to perform in local theatre groups when she was just seven.
By the age of 14 she was she was part of a vaudeville tour that performed across the country. Vaudeville was a popular theatrical show with several entertainers performing songs, dances and jokes.
She first trod the boards of Broadway in New York when she was 18 and for the next fifteen years she sang and danced in both Broadway and vaudeville shows.
As well as performing she turned to writing and in 1926 began to write, produce, and star in her own plays on Broadway. In the first of these, "Sex" (1926), her performance as a prostitute created a sensation. It ran for several weeks before the guardians of morality in New York put a stop to it.
Garish posters proclaiming "Sex with Mae West" caused outrage among key religious and political figures as well as many members of the public. After several complaints she was arrested and the police closed the show.
She went on to write and star in another show, The Pleasure Man, that dealt with homosexuality, but which ran for only one performance before West was again arrested for obscenity. This time a jury could not agree on her guilt.
Another play, The Constant Sinner, was shut down after just two performances by the District Attorney.
Other Mae West plays were panned by critics but did well at the box office, drawing the attention of Hollywood executives. Despite being 38 years old – an age when most actresses start to wind down their careers – she was offered a contract by Paramount worth $5,000 a week, equivalent to about $80,000 today.
Crucially for West, it was agreed that she could re-write lines in the films, which would allow her to set the tone for her persona. So in her first movie, Night After Night, a hat-check girl says to her: “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” To which West replies: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
The slightly changed line, "Come up and see me some time," forever associated with Mae West, emerged from a 1933 film called She Done Him Wrong in which she starred opposite a young Cary Grant in his first movie.
She is in love with Captain Cummings, played by Grant, and says to him: "You know, I always did like a man in a uniform. That one fits you grand. Why don't you come up some time and see me."
Nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, the film was a box-office triumph and was said to have saved Paramount from bankruptcy. It grossed over $2 million, the equivalent of $140 million today.
Mae West's blunt sexuality made her both famous and notorious and despite her advancing age she quickly built a reputation as a daring sex symbol. Such was her success that within three years it was claimed she was the second highest paid person in the United States behind only newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
When in 1967 The Beatles asked permission to use a picture of West on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, the actress joked: "What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” But she agreed to the request.
Certainly, she was not short of money. When the management at her apartment building discriminated against William Jones, her African-American boxer boyfriend and barred his entry, West solved the problem simply by buying the building.
In August 1980, she was unable to speak after a fall. Tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke and Mae West died on November 22 that year. She was 87.
Several of the 13 films she made have faded, some into obscurity, but her lines from them remain memorable, such as:
“There are no good girls gone wrong – just bad girls found out.”
“I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.”
“When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better. ”
“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”