Today I want to tell you about Mae West. Mae was close to forty when she started her film career in 1932, which is unusually late. A year later, she was the eight largest box office draw in the US. By 1935 she was the second highest paid person in the United States, second only to newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hurst. She would have a career that spanned seven decades and was famous for saying things like: “Between two evils, I pick the one I’ve never tried before.” Today is not her birthday though. Today I want to tell you about something else that happened to her. On this day in 1927, she was jailed for obscenity. It did her absolutely no harm whatsoever.
Before she ever appeared on screen, Mae had a long stage career. She first began performing professionally in vaudeville at the age of 14. She tried out various personas, including a male impersonator. By the time she was eighteen, she was appearing on Broadway. In her thirties, she began to write her own plays. In 1926, she wrote, directed and starred in a play called ‘Sex’. The play is about a prostitute who tries to better her social standing by marrying a rich man. She winds up realising that you are better off with someone who accepts you for who you are.
It was not well received by critics. They didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the themes. One reviewer said: “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.” The audiences loved it. The first night was a sell out. The play ran to 375 performances and was seen by 325,000 people. Religious figures and those who considered themselves ‘guardians of morality’ did not enjoy seeing the word ‘Sex’ in huge letters outside a Broadway theatre. Nor did they care for the posters that announced ‘Sex – with Mae West’. After several official complaints, the police were sent to the theatre on February 9th 1927. They arrested Mae, along with the rest of the cast, and the show was closed.
Her arrest and the subsequent court case received a lot of media attention and Mae was not afraid to exploit that. She knew that any publicity was good publicity. She did loads of interviews, dressed in her most glamorous outfits. In court, on April 19th, she was found guilty of ‘corrupting the morals of youth’, fined $500 and sentenced to ten days in jail. The play had been on stage on Broadway for ten months, so frankly, if they really thought she was corrupting the morals of youth, they were dragging their heels a bit.
Mae took the verdict well and was driven to jail in her limousine. During her short stay she distributed the gifts she received from fans among the other prisoners and dined every night with the warden and his wife. She gleefully revealed to the press that she had worn her silk panties all the time she was in prison. Mae was released two days early for good behaviour. Afterwards she said that it was “…the first time I ever got anything for good behaviour.”
The media attention surrounding the trial considerably furthered her career and she certainly had no intention of changing her ways. Her next play ‘The Drag’ was about homosexuality. The play did well in out of town try outs but never made it to Broadway. Like ‘Sex’ it was popular with audiences, but panned by the critics. It was closed after two weeks because of its portrayal of homosexuality and cross-dressing. Mae was an early advocate of gay and transgender rights and once told a cop who was raiding a gay bar “Don’t you know you’re hitting a woman in a man’s body?”
I like Mae West a lot. I like the way she accepted controversy joyfully and turned it to her advantage. So hooray for Mae West today and hooray for living your life with people who accept you for who you are.