(Go to It Happened in History Archives)
She was every man's greatest fantasy and every woman's worst nightmare. She draped her trademark hourglass figure with tight dresses over tighter corsets and set them off with diamond necklaces, bangles, and baubles. A natural comic known for her irreverent style, incomparable wit, and sultry voice, for more than half a century Mae West remained the quintessential Hollywood sex symbol upon which all future divas would base their personas.
Born on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, N. Y.,
West was the first child of a boxer and a corset model. Her mother,
Matilda, exerted a profound influence on her, instilling generous amounts of
self-confidence and ambition and pushing her daughter onto the vaudeville stage by
the age of seven.
creating an international sensation. Her first Broadway role was in A la Bradway and Hello, Paris and was quickly followed by a starring role with Al Jolson in Vera Violetta in 1911. She soon built a reputation for adding spicy asides to her scripts and was often censored by producers.
Her introduction to national notoriety eluded her until 1928, when she wrote and staged her own play, Sex, in New York. That led to her arrest and a widely publicized trial on obscenity charges, culminating in one week of incarceration and a lifetime of fame. The charges against West were "corrupting the morals of youth," and the arresting officer testified that she had not only revealed her navel in public, but also moved it up and down and side to side. The resulting controversy made her a star.
The following year, her next play, Drag, was banned on Broadway because its subject matter was homosexuality. With Diamond Lil (1928), West became the toast of Broadway. After several more controversial plays, she was signed by Paramount Pictures in 1932, where her phenomenal success is credited with keeping the studio solvent. To get around the Hayes decency code then in effect, West, who wrote nearly all of her own screenplays, began disguising her risqué material in innuendoes and double entendres, which became a trademark of her comedic style. "I'm no angel, but I've spread my wings a bit," she once said, and "I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it." Still, by the mid-1940s, her films and popularity were so compromised after her bouts with censorship that she could no longer find work in Hollywood.
During her long and varied career, West wrote and starred in numerous plays, including Diamond Lil (1928) and The Constant Sinner (1931); and she starred in suggestive movies such as I'm No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). As a comedic actress, she was the magnificent foil opposite W. C. Fields in My Little Chickadee.
Mae West once said, "When choosing between two evils, I always like to pick the one I never tried before" and "When I'm bad, I'm better."
Mae West died in 1980 following a series of several strokes.
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