Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Mae West

Episode Summary

Mae West (1893-1980) was a Hollywood star known for her seductive, rebellious stage presence. She dodged censorship laws and embraced her persona as a sex symbol.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at jenny@wondermedianetwork.com.

Thank you to Care/of for sponsoring this episode of Encyclopedia Womannica! Visit takecareof.com and use the code ENCYCLOPEDIA for 50% off your first Care/of order.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was a Hollywood star known for her seductive, rebellious stage presence. She dodged censorship laws and embraced her persona as a sex symbol. 

 Let’s talk about Mae West. 

Mary Jane West was born in 1893 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the eldest child of Matilda and Battlin’ Jack West, who was known as a prizefighter. Mae had three siblings, one of whom died in infancy. 

From an early age, Mae immersed herself in the theater scene—first entertaining crowds at church socials, then acting in small shows. By the age of 14, Mae was performing in vaudeville productions—a form of theater that combined song, dance, and burlesque comedy. She used various personas in her acts, and initially performed under the alias “Jane Mast.” 

In 1911, Mae made her Broadway debut in the show A La Broadway. A New York Times reviewer singled her out and wrote that he was “pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.” 

Following A La Broadway, Mae starred in other plays, and altered her roles to make them more risqué. She intrigued her audiences by incorporating provocative one-liners into her acts. Mae used shock-value to build a name for herself.

In 1926, Mae wrote, directed and starred in a play called Sex. It became an instant hit, and was attacked by conservative groups. The theater that housed the performance was raided, and Mae and her fellow cast members were prosecuted on moral charges. Mae hoped her time in prison would garner media attention — and it did. The arrest enhanced her career, giving her the reputation of a glamorous ‘bad girl.’

 Mae was an early champion of gay rights. The next play she wrote called, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality and drag culture. The show closed shortly after it opened due to critics’ response to the taboo subject matter. 

But she didn’t let the failure of The Drag prevent her from returning to the stage. In 1928, Mae’s popularity soared when her racy play Diamond Lil debuted on Broadway. Her growing fame caught the eye of Hollywood executives. 

In 1932, Mae was offered a small part in the film Night After Night. She rewrote her dialogue to make her appearance more notable. The scene convinced Paramount Pictures of Mae’s star quality, and that same year, as she was nearing 40 years old, she signed a contract with the film studio. 

It is said that when Mae signed on to Paramount, she demanded a salary of $251,000 because the studio’s head was paid $250,000. Mae was also given full-script approval. 

In 1933, Mae adapted the play “Diamond Lil” into the movie She Done Him Wrong, which was nominated for Best Picture. The film was a sensation, grossing what would be equivalent to $140 million today. Its mass success saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and as a gesture of gratitude, the corporation named a building in its lot after Mae. 

That same year, Mae starred in her most successful film: I’m No Angel. In it, she received screenplay credit, and used her one-of-a-kind suggestive humor. 

Following I’m No Angel’s release, Mae was a household name. She was one of the few people — let alone women — to get past censorship laws. She once said, "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

 

By 1933, Mae had become one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. But as Mae appeared in more films, the censorship laws she had flouted came back to haunt her. In 1930, Hollywood had established the Motion Picture Production Code, which outlined moral obligations for filmmakers, relating to sex and obscenity. 

Historians have asserted that Mae served as a motivation for increased industry regulation, and while she tried to dodge the restrictions, her signature raunchy dialogue had to be omitted from her films. As a result, she experienced a decline in her career. 

In 1943, Mae starred in The Heat’s On as a personal favor to the director. For the first time, she was not allowed to write her own dialogue, and the film performed poorly. Mae was disheartened by its failure, and took a break from acting for the subsequent 27 years. 

In her later years, Mae pivoted and took center stage at nightclubs and on Broadway, where censorship laws were less strict. She went on to write an autobiography, in which she maintained that she had no regrets about her rambunctious, free-spirited lifestyle. She wrote, “I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society."

After suffering from a stroke, Mae died in 1980.

Mae West built a name for herself by breaking the rules. She embraced her wit and sexuality, and used it to become an unforgettable figure in Hollywood. In 1999, she was voted one of the greatest female screen legends by the American Film Institute. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!