For her contribution to the film industry, Mae West has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood. For her contributions as a stage actor in the theater world, she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Mary Jane West was born to Protestant parents in the Greenpoint (some sources cite Bushwick) section of Kings County, New York (later Brooklyn, New York after NYC was consolidated in 1898) on August 17, 1893. She was delivered at home by an aunt who was a midwife. She was the eldest surviving child of John Patrick West and Mathilde "Tillie" (later Matilda) Delker (originally Doelger; later Americanized to "Delker" or "Dilker"). Tillie and her five siblings emigrated with their parents, Jakob (1835–1902) and Christiana (1838–1901; née Brüning) Doelger from Bavaria in 1886. West's parents married on January 18, 1889 in Brooklyn, to the pleasure of the groom's parents and the displeasure of the bride's parents, and reared their children as Protestants, although John West was of mixed Catholic-Protestant descent and Tillie was of at least partial Jewish descent.
Her eldest sibling, Katie, died in infancy. Her other siblings were Mildred Katherine West, later known as Beverly (December 8, 1898 – March 12, 1982), and John Edwin West, II (sometimes inaccurately called "John Edwin West, Jr."; February 11, 1900 – October 12, 1964). During her childhood, West's family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, as well as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In Woodhaven, at Neir's Social Hall (which opened in 1829 and is still extant), West supposedly first performed professionally.
West was five when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at local talent contests. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14. West first performed under the stage name "Baby Mae", and tried various personas, including a male impersonator,
West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Szatkus, whose stage name was Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17; he was 21. West kept the marriage a secret, but in 1935, after West had made several hit movies, a filing clerk discovered West's marriage certificate and alerted the press. An affidavit in which she had declared herself married, which she made during the Sex trial in 1927, was also uncovered. At first, West denied ever marrying Wallace, but she finally admitted in July 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, that they had been married. Although legally wed, the couple never lived together as husband and wife. She insisted they have separate bedrooms, and she soon sent him away in a show of his own to get rid of him. She obtained a legal divorce on July 21, 1942, during which Wallace withdrew his request for separate maintenance, and West testified that Wallace and she had lived together for only "several weeks". The final divorce decree was granted on May 7, 1943.
In August 1913, she met an Italian-born vaudeville headliner and star of the piano-accordion, Guido Deiro. Her affair went "[v]ery deep, hittin' on all the emotions". West later said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet."
West had a relationship with James Timony, an attorney 15 years her senior, in 1916, when she was a vaudeville Actress. Timony was also her manager. By the time West was an established movie Actress in the mid-1930s, they were no longer a couple. West and Timony remained extremely close, living in the same building, working together, and providing support for each other until Timony's death in 1954.
She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who according to West, always thought that anything Mae did was fantastic. Other family members were less encouraging, including an aunt and her paternal grandmother. They are all reported as having disapproved of her career and her choices. In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn. Her character Mayme danced the shimmy, and her photograph appeared on an edition of the sheet music for the popular number "Ev'rybody Shimmies Now".
Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality, and was what West called one of her "comedy-dramas of life". After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York. However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due to efforts by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban any attempt by West to stage it. West explained, "the city fathers begged me not to bring the show to New York because they were not equipped to handle the commotion it would cause." West was an early supporter of the women's liberation movement, but said she was not a "burn your bra" type feminist. Since the 1920s, she was also an early supporter of gay rights.
Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play she entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Although conservative critics panned the show, ticket sales were strong. The production did not go over well with city officials, who had received complaints from some religious groups, and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast. She was taken to the Jefferson Market Court House, (now Jefferson Market Library), where she was prosecuted on morals charges, and on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to 10 days for "corrupting the morals of youth". Though West could have paid a fine, and been let off, she chose the jail sentence for the publicity it would garner. While incarcerated on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she dined with the warden and his wife; she told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the "burlap" the other girls had to wear. West got great mileage from this jail stint. She served eight days with two days off for "good behavior". Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career, by crowning her the darling "bad girl" who "had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong".
When Mae West revived her 1928 play Diamond Lil, bringing it back to Broadway in 1949, The New York Times labeled her an "American Institution – as beloved and indestructible as Donald Duck. Like Chinatown, and Grant's Tomb, Mae West should be seen at least once." In the 1950s, West starred in her own Las Vegas stage show at the newly opened Sahara Hotel, singing while surrounded by bodybuilders. The show stood Las Vegas on its head. "Men come to see me, but I also give the women something to see: wall to wall men!" West explained. Jayne Mansfield met and later married one of West's muscle men, a former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay.
West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930. In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the new Ravenswood apartment building, where she lived until her death in 1980.
Upon its release, Sextette was not a critical or commercial success, but remains notable for the diverse cast, and because none of West's contemporaries such as Dietrich, Garbo, etc., were still making films. The cast included some of West's first co-stars such George Raft (Night After Night, 1932), silver screen stars such as Walter Pigeon and Tony Curtis, and more contemporary pop stars such as The Beatles' Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper, and television favorites such as Dom DeLuise and gossip queen Rona Barrett. It also included cameos of some of her famed musclemen from her 1950s Las Vegas show, such as the still remarkably fit Reg Lewis. Sextette also reunited Mae West with Edith Head, her costume designer from 1933 in She Done Him Wrong. The film was a last hurrah and a Valentine from Mae West to her fans.
At least 21 singles (78 rpm and 45 rpm) also were released from 1933 to 1973.
By 1933, West was one of the largest box office draws in the United States and, by 1935, West was also the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after william Randolph Hearst). Hearst invited West to San Simeon, California. "I could'a married him," West explained, "but I got no time for parties. I don't like those big crowds." On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. West would purposely place over-the-top lines in her scripts, knowing the censors would cut them out. She hoped they would then not object as much to her other lines. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). The original titled, It Ain't No Sin, was changed due to the censors' objections. Despite Paramount's early objections regarding costs, she insisted the studio hire Duke Ellington and his orchestra to accompany her in the film's musical numbers. Their collaboration was a success; the classic "My Old Flame" (recorded by Duke Ellington) was introduced in this picture. Her next film, Goin' to Town (1935), received mixed reviews, as censorship continued to take its toll in eroding West's best lines.
That same year, 1936, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era, due to the censor's cuts.
On December 12, 1937, West appeared in two separate sketches on Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. By the second half of the 1930s, West's popularity was affected by her dialogue being severely censored. She went on the show eager to promote her latest movie, Every Day's a Holiday. Appearing as herself, West flirted with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's dummy, using her usual brand of wit and risqué sexual references. West referred to Charlie as "all wood and a yard long" and commented, "Charles, I remember our last date, and have the splinters to prove it!" West was on the verge of being banned from radio.
In 1939, Universal Pictures approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. The studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart with a comic vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount 18 months earlier and looking for a new film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940). Despite the stars' intense mutual dislike, and Fields's very real drinking problems, and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box-office success, outgrossing Fields's previous film, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), and the later The Bank Dick (1940). Despite this, religious Leaders condemned West as a negative role model, taking offense at lines such as "Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven't tried before", and "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"
After appearing in The Heat's On in 1943, West returned to a very active career on stage and swank clubs. Among her popular new stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great (1944) on Broadway, in which she penned a spoof on the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, surrounding herself with an "imperial guard" of tall, muscular young actors. The play was produced by theater and film impresario Mike Todd (Around The World In 80 Days) and ran for 191 performances.
When casting about for the role of Norma Desmond for the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder offered West the role. Still smarting from the censorship debacle of The Heat's On, and the constraints placed on her characterization, she declined. The theme of the Wilder film, she noted, was pure pathos, while her brand of comedy was always "about uplifting the audience". Mae West had a unique comic character that was timeless, in the same way Charlie Chaplin did. After Mary Pickford also declined the role, Gloria Swanson was cast. In subsequent years, West was offered the role of Vera Simpson, opposite Marlon Brando, in the 1957 film adaptation of Pal Joey, which she turned down, with the role going to Rita Hayworth. In 1964, West was offered a leading role in Roustabout, starring Elvis Presley. She turned the role down, and Barbara Stanwyck was cast in her place. West was also approached for roles in Frederico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon, but rejected both offers.
In 1958, West appeared at the live televised Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson, which brought a standing ovation. In 1959, she released an autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, which became a best seller and was reprinted with a new chapter in 1970. West guest-starred on television, including The Dean Martin Show in 1959 and The Red Skelton Show in 1960, to promote her autobiography, and a lengthy interview on Person to Person with Charles Collingwood, which was censored by CBS in 1959, and never aired. CBS executives felt members of the television audience were not ready to see a nude marble statue of West, which rested on her piano. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on the sitcom Mister Ed. Much later, in 1976, she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang two songs on his "Back Lot U.S.A." special on CBS.
The April 18, 1969 issue of Life featured West at age 75, with images by child star, actor, and professional Photographer Roddy McDowall.
After a 27-year absence from motion pictures, West appeared as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. The movie was intended to be deliberately campy sex change comedy, but had serious production problems, resulting in a botched film that was both a box-office and critical failure. Author Vidal, at great odds with inexperienced and self-styled "art film" Director Michael Sarne, later called the film "an awful joke". Though Mae West was given star billing to attract ticket buyers, her scenes were truncated by the inexperienced film Editor, and her songs were filmed as though they were merely side acts. Despite Myra Breckinridge's mainstream failure, it continued to find an audience on the cult film circuit where West's films were regularly screened and West herself was dubbed "the queen of camp". Mae West's counterculture appeal included the young and hip, and by 1971, the student body of UCLA voted Mae West "Woman of the Century" in honor of her relevance as a pioneering advocate of sexual frankness and courageous crusader against censorship.
In 1975, West released her book Sex, Health, and ESP (William Allen & Sons, publisher), and Pleasure Man (Dell publishers) based on her 1928 play of the same name. Her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, was also updated and republished in the 1970s.
Mae West was a shrewd investor, produced her own stage acts, and invested her money in large tracts of land in Van Nuys, a thriving suburb of Los Angeles. With her considerable fortune, she could afford to do as she liked. In 1976, she appeared on Back Lot U.S.A. on CBS, where she was interviewed by Dick Cavett and sang "Frankie and Johnny" along with "After You've Gone." That same year, she began work on her final film, Sextette (1978). Adapted from a 1959 script written by West, the film's daily revisions and production disagreements hampered production from the beginning. Due to the near-endless last-minute script changes and tiring production schedule, West agreed to have her lines signaled to her through a speaker concealed in her hair piece. Despite the daily problems, West was, according to Sextette Director Ken Hughes, determined to see the film through. At 84, her now-failing eyesight made navigating around the set difficult, but she made it through the filming, a tribute to her self-confidence, remarkable endurance, and stature as a self-created star 67 years after her Broadway debut in 1911 at the age of 18. Time wrote an article on the indomitable star entitled "At 84, Mae West Is Still Mae West".
At 61, West became romantically involved with one of the muscle men in her Las Vegas stage show, Wrestler, former Mr. California, and former merchant marine Chester Rybinski. He was 30 years younger than West, and later changed his name to Paul Novak. He soon moved in with her, and their romance continued until West's death in 1980 at age 87. Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West." West was a practicing Presbyterian and her funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills, California.
Known for her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, and breezy sexual independence, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood to become a Comedian, Actress, and Writer in the motion picture industry, as well as appearing on radio and television. For her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema.