Actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian and sex symbol Mae West was born Mary Jane West 123 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Here are 10 MW Did-You-Knows:
West was delivered in her family’s home by her midwife aunt. Her father was a prize fighter and, later, a private investigator.
Her first public performance is said to occurred at the age of five, when, ironically enough, she entertained at a church social at a still-extant Queens establishment called Neir’s Social Hall (now Neir’s Tavern). After that, she performed in local talent shows.
West’s first Broadway appearance came in a 1911 revue called A La Broadway, which was mounted by her former dancing teacher and long-time impresario of juvenile theatrical acts, Ned Wayburn. The revue folded after just eight performances.
Her first review in The New York Times, when she was 18 years old, stated, “A girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
West began writing risqué plays under the name Jane Mast, and her first starring role on Broadway came in a 1926 play she wrote called Sex. Conservative critics and church groups objected to the play, but the production was a hit. Eventually, the pressure put on by the groups led to West being arrested and placed in jail at Jefferson Market Courthouse (it’s now a public library).
West could have paid a fine and remained free, but she opted for a sentence of ten days in jail, figuring it would be good publicity (it was).
Of the twelve pictures West appeared in, she wrote or co-wrote nine of them.
From the 1920s forward, West was an outspoken supporter of gay rights.
West’s 1928 play, Diamond Lil, earned her a ticket to Hollywood (the play was eventually adapted for the screen as She Done Him Wrong and costarred Cary Grant). She was nearly 40 when she signed her first movie contract.
After strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934, putting a damper on her popularity (a toned-down Mae West wasn’t as appealing to the public), West performed in nightclubs, mounted a Las Vegas revue, made records (something she’d been doing since the 1930s) and wrote books. Her final film, Sextette (1978), closed out a career that had spanned more than seventy years.