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Mae West (August 17, 1893 - November 22, 1980) was an American actress, playwright, screenwriter, and sex symbol.
Famous for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become renowned as a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion picture industry.
One of the most controversial stars of her day, West encountered many problems including censorship.
When her cinematic career ended, she continued to perform on stage, in Las Vegas, in England, on radio and television, and recorded Rock and Roll albums.
Mae West was only 5 years old when she started appearing in amateur shows and many times she won prizes for her performances. West began performing professionally in vaudeville in 1905 at the age of twelve. She performed at that time under the name The Baby Vamp. Though she had not yet matured, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was already performing a lascivious "shimmy" dance in 1913 and was photographed for a song-sheet for the song "Everybody Shimmies Now." She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that whatever her daughter did was fantastic.
Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a stage actress. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence.
Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name "Jane Mast." Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play she titled Sex, which she also wrote, produced and directed. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials and the theatre was raided with West arrested along with the cast.
She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue and the warden reportedly took her to dinner every night. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior. Media attention to the case enhanced her career.
Her next play, The Drag, was about homosexuality and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box office success but it played in New Jersey because it was banned from Broadway. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue and was also an early advocate of gay and transgender rights. She famously told policemen who were raiding a gay bar, "Don't you know you're hitting a woman in a man's body?", a daring statement at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. During her entire lifetime she surrounded herself with gay men and stood up for gay rights at any and every opportunity.
She continued to write plays including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and other problems. The controversy insured that Mae stayed in the news and most of the time resulted in packed performances.
Her next play, Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit in 1928. This show enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would successfully revive it many times throughout the course of her career.
West also made some rare appearances on television, including The Red Skelton Show in 1960. She did a comedy sketch with Skelton regarding her recently published autobiography. Viewers reported astonishment at her youthful appearance and energy. In 1964, she guest starred as herself on the popular sitcom Mister Ed. The episode's ratings were well above usual for the series.
In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded two Rock and Roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas in the late 1960s. The single "Treat Him Right," from Way Out West, made the album a financial success. She also recorded a number of parody songs including "Santa, Come Up and See Me Sometime," on the album Wild Christmas.
After a 26-year absence from motion pictures, she appeared in the role as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with John Huston, Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. This movie failed at the box office, despite popular excitement. It became a camp classic, however, due to its sex change theme. It has since been re-released several times doing much better than originally and has also had successful multiple releases on DVD and VHS.
West made many personal appearances to an enthusiastic audience. In New York, fans were held back by a large number of policemen, including those on horseback, who were there to control the crowd. One fan was led away by police who proclaimed, "I touched Mae West...I touched Mae West!" College students held up signs saying "Mae West fan club."
West recorded another album in the 1970s on MGM Records titled Great Balls of Fire, which covered songs by Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, among others, and her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was updated in a new version and republished.
In 1976, she appeared on the The Dick Cavett Show and gave an exclusive interview about her life and career along with insights into her proclivity toward vulgar humor and her battle with censorship. Her appearance on the Dick Cavett special generated great excitement and led to her next movie Sextette. Dick Cavett said Mae was so fantastic that she only had to extend her hand, "to give you a jolt that could be felt in the floorboards."
At age 85, she returned to the screen for a final time as Marlo Manners in Sextette (1978) with an all-star cast including a cameo by George Raft which provided an odd symmetry to both their long careers. Sextette was another box office failure.
Although the movie was not received well by some critics or the general public, After Dark magazine awarded West the "Star of the World" award for her performance in what became her final screen appearance. Sextette has become a cult classic and has done well on cable movie channels as well as VHS and DVD releases. In fact, Time magazine proclaimed Sextette an "instant classic, sure to be loved by her many fans."
It is a fact that at the premiere of Sextette some fans crawled up telephone poles in order to get a better view of the star. Many drag queens also came to the premiere dressed as Mae West and it was pandemonium.
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