“I Used to Be Snow White. But, I Drifted” – Mae West

Way before Britney Spears, Michelle Pfeiffer, and even Marilyn Monroe, Mae West was the epitome of the iconic female sex symbol and movie star in Old Hollywood. However, West proved to be more than just a pretty face with natural talent. She was a strong, independent woman who stood up for what she believed in, no matter how controversial it was.

Mae West / Mae West and Cary Grant
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Her life was bursting with career accomplishments, but she cared about real issues a hundred years ago that people are only starting to recognize today. West advocated for racial equality, feminism, the LGBTQ community, and creative freedom in a world filled with strict censorship and restrictions.

This is the story of Hollywood legend and feminist icon: Mae West

Who is Mae West?

On August 17th, 1893, Mae West was welcomed into the world in Kings County, New York. In case you were wondering if her name is a stage name, she was born Mary Jane West – so, pretty close! Her mom was a corset model named Matilda Delker Doelger. And her father was a private investment owner named John Patrick West; he was also a part-time prizefighter.

Mae West is leaning on a fainting couch in a black dress and a large black hat.
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When she was just five, West made her debut appearance in front of an audience. She started off performing at church events but quickly started snagging first place in amateur shows and talent contests.

This Won’t Age Well…

Mae West’s screenwriting career started with the same movie that launched her acting career: Night After Night. During production for the film, West did a rewrite that ultimately led to her writing or co-writing nine of the movies that she starred in.

Alison Skipworth, George Raft, and Mae West at the bar in a scene from the film 'Night After Night'.
Photo by Paramount/Getty Images

As a youngster, West got her professional start in the theater world. One of the first major plays she acted in was the musical Vera Violetta. Inappropriately for modern audiences, the play famously featured Al Jolson, recognized for his blackface routine. However, it was clear that Mae West was destined for bigger and better projects.

It Ain’t No Sin

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until she was nearly 40 when she started getting into movies. Hollywood didn’t come knocking until after she took over the theater world with her highly successful and extremely controversial plays.

Mae West behind the scenes of the film 'Belle of the Nineties,' standing beside large film cameras.
Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

In her 1934 film, Belle of the Nineties was initially called It Ain’t No Sin. Predictably, the original title got in trouble with the censors of the time, but the backlash only came after the production company trained 40 parrots to say “it ain’t no sin” as part of a publicity stunt. The movie was ultimately a success and even received positive reviews from critics.

Monkeying Around

West loved being on stage. Since her earliest days performing, the starlet was known for her musical talents, particularly when it came to singing and songwriting. She was credited for her work on soundtracks for more than 17 separate projects. – She also did a lot of uncredited work.

Mae West is holding up sheet music while standing beside a piano.
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At one point, West had an unusual animal for a pet: a chimpanzee named Coffee. I think all of us wish we could have a monkey as a pet. West eventually gave Coffee to her friend Ralph Helfer who was an animal behaviorist and trainer. So, at least we know Coffee went to her a good home.

West’s Iconic Character

West’s biggest on-stage success as a writer and actress was the play Diamond Lil. The play is about the escapades of “a racy woman” who makes her way using her street-smarts and intellect instead of having a man save her. That sounds extremely modern and feminist for that time.

American actress and playwright Mae West in the title role of her play, 'Diamond Lil,' sits in an armchair looking at herself in the mirror.
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The character West brilliantly portrayed became so iconic that she West played another character based on her: Lady Lou in the film She Done Him Wrong. Needless to say, the movie was a box office success bringing in $2,000,000 with a mere budget of $200,000. Now, that’s impressive.

Cary Grant’s Breakout Role

Helping the immense success of She Done Him Wrong was her-star, Cary Grant. He was a classic leading man in Hollywood’s Golden age. Your grandparents will certainly remember his name, and he is best known for his roles in Bringing Up Baby and North by Northwest.

Saloon-keeper Mae West falls for investigator Cary Grant in the Paramount production 'She Done Him Wrong.'
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While they were casting for West’s movie, She Done Him Wrong, the actress noticed Grant hanging around the film studio and said, “If he can talk, I’ll take him.” Grant enjoyed his role and did a wonderful job. It was his breakout into showbiz.

Feminism – Before it was Cool

In 2021, it might be hard to look back and understand why people took issue with the actress in the 1920s. I mean, her movies never included any nudity, sexuality, or even curse words. According to West, it was the way she portrayed a confident, liberated woman.

Close-up photo of Mae West.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

At the time, feminism was in its infancy, and her persona of a “strong, powerful woman” was too much for the time period to endure. These issues led to constant battles between censors and religious groups. She may have been considered too much back then, but what the actress stood for is a beautiful representation of feminism today.

Behind the Scenes

Another unsurprising hit for West was her 1940 film, My Little Chickadee. Despite its massive box office success, the film resulted in tension from without and from within. West’s constant suggestive one-liners in the script brought down censors on the movie.

Cuthbert J. Twillie, played by W.C. Fields, plants a kiss on the hand of Flower Belle Lee, played by Mae West, in a scene from 'My Little Chickadee.'
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Meanwhile, West didn’t get along great with her co-star, comedic actor W.C. Fields; the two regularly butted heads. Behind the scenes, the clashing actors despised each other. Plus, Field’s alcoholism didn’t help matters. Yikes! Behind the scenes drama!

An Impressive Resume

In 1935, West was the highest-paid actress in all of Hollywood. Not only that, but she was the second-highest paid person in the whole country. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was the only person in America who earned a higher paycheck than her. That’s pretty impressive for an actress who only made 12 movies. And at that point, she had only made five.

The star of Mae West on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, awarded for her contributions to motion pictures.
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It should come as no surprise that West got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You can go check it out for yourself on 1560 Vine Street.

Sweet at Both Ends

West voluptuous breasts inspired soldiers fighting in World War II to name lifejackets after her, thanks to their ability to keep them sinking. The nickname for the lifejackets persisted far beyond World War II and far beyond West’s life.

A life vest presented to former actress Mae West is shown on August 16, 2002, at the Mae West Collection.
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Like many actresses, West had various routines to help her get ready for a movie. One of her more eccentric habits in preparation for a film was her use of laxatives. Reportedly, she would take them in the morning, and she said that they helped improve her physical health significantly. The actress even commented that the enemas kept her “smelling sweet at both ends.”

One Television Appearance

Mae West famously made an appearance at the 1958 Academy Awards. West and fellow movie star Rock Hudson performed the song Baby It’s Cold Outside. West’s hit film She Done him Wrong is just over an hour. At 66 minutes long, it remained to be the shortest feature film to ever be nominated for an Oscar Award for Best Picture.

Mae West in 1964 showing Mr. Ed slowly walking towards a horse that is inside the house.
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West’s only television credit was in Misted Ed, the classic talking horse series. The actress played herself and hired Wilbur Post, the protagonist, to redesign the stables. She did a magnificent job playing up her legendary persona and reputation in the episode.

Did Mae West Have Children?

In 1911, 17-year-old West walked down the aisle with fellow theater geek Frank Wallace. However, they had a strange marriage. Not only did the pair never live together, but West spent years denying that she ever even married Wallace in the first place. Thirty-two years later, in 1943, a legal divorce was finally carried out. This was her Only Marriage, and he had no children.

Actress Mae West checks over a few legal details as she appears in Los Angeles court to fight the separate maintenance plea of her husband, Frank Wallace, which she is contesting with a suit for divorce.
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Like many other Hollywood starlets, West hired multiple people to work as her own personal staff. One of these individuals was a chauffeur named Jerry Orbach. Orbach would later become an actor in his own right; you might recognize him as Detective Lennie Briscoe, who was featured in four different series in the Law & Order franchise.

Other Endeavors

West was extremely determined to have complete control over the characters she played. Her persistence caused her to turn down several roles that ended up being incredibly successful. One of the most famous examples was the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis recline on a sofa together in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

We mentioned West’s love for writing, so it only makes sense that she took the time to write an autobiography on her fascinating life: Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. The book came out in 1959, and like her other work, it was successful. The book was reprinted and re-released in 1970, with a new chapter added.

Raking in the Cash

Like the success of Mae West’s movies, she is frequently credited for single-handedly saving Paramount from bankruptcy. The studio made so much from her movies that it rescued them from any financial woes.

The front gate to Paramount Studios in the 1920s.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

To put this into perspective for you, West’s 1993 movie She Done Him Wrong cost $200,000 to make (in 1930s money) and made an astonishing $2 million upon its release. Today, if you calculate for inflation, that comes out to over $140 million! When she passed away in 1980, West had a $20 million net worth.

Breaking the Barriers

During her theater days, West made a rule to work with African Americans as much as possible in order to break the racist barriers keeping them relegated to second-class citizens. When she transitioned from the stage to the screen, she continued to stand up against racism. West even insisted that Black actress Louise Beavers be cast alongside her in She Done Him Wrong.

Actress Louise Beavers posing for a portrait.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

West was extremely progressive, and although her opinions may have been controversial at the time, her statements align with how society evolved throughout the years. We will talk more about all that.

Original Cancel Culture

West’s reputation for “risqué” behavior created a polarized reaction in the United States. This was best depicted in an anecdote where West was forbidden from performing a theater act in New Haven, Connecticut, at the last minute.

Full-length portrait of American actor Mae West standing on stage wearing a long ruffled and sequined dress and a plumed hat.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Apparently, the venue’s manager was so offended by her act that he decided to cancel the show instead of letting her perform. The choice led to angry audience members excited to see her, among them, some Yale University students. They were so enraged that they even started a riot in the theater.

The Big Comeback

After a 27-year hiatus, the starlet was finally featured in another film: 1970s Myra Breckinridge, an adaptation of a Gore Vidal novel about a man named Myron who undergoes gender reassignment surgery to become an actress. With an all-star cast including West, John Huston, and Raquel Welch, the movie was supposed to be a success.

Actor John Huston as Buck Loner and actress Mae West as Leticia Van Allen on the set of the 20th Century-Fox movie
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

However, Myra Breckinridge turned out to be an utter disaster. The production was filled with stormy fights between Welch and West, who both made extreme demands for creative freedom. The final cut was denounced by audiences, critics, and Vidal himself.

Her Co-Star Liked It

West tried to make yet another comeback in 1978 with the musical comedy Sextette. By this time, the actress began dealing with hearing loss, and she needed to wear an earpiece during filming so that lines could be given to her. Unfortunately for West, this wasn’t the comeback she was hoping for.

Mae West standing between Alan Marshal and his son, all of them played together in the film 'Sextette.'
SPhoto by Bettmann/Getty Images

The movie was another box office catastrophe and a critical failure. West’s co-star, Timothy Dalton, has no regrets about the film and said it was “a sort of carnival, extremely special to do.”

The Beatles Connection

Speaking of the movie Sextette, it featured former Beatles member Ringo Starr. Believe it or not, this wasn’t West’s first encounter with the Beatles. She appeared on the cover of the famous album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A still of Mae West and Ringo Starr from the film 'Sextette.'
Source: Pinterest

The actress hesitated at first because she was uninterested in appearing on the album. But when the Beatles personally wrote to her to change her mind, she agreed. The reason she initially took issue with the idea was, in her own words, “What would I be doing in a lonely heart club?” PSHHH! Mic drop!

Do You See the Resemblance?

Have you ever heard that the Coca-Cola bottle was modeled on a woman’s body? It’s a famous marketing technique where “sex” is inserted into products subliminally (unaware that it has a sexual connotation), causing the customer to find that specific product more appealing (unaware that it has a sexual connotation).

Actress Mae West in a scene from the movie
Photo by Donaldson Collection, Getty Images / Pinterest

Apparently, West’s figure was the inspiration behind the Coca-Cola bottle. Whether it’s true or not, the public saw the connection. Due to her voluptuous curves, the Coke bottles were dubbed “Mae West” bottles. Wow! Considering how big the Coca-Cola company is, being associated with its famous bottles is pretty cool.

Take That, Haters!

One of the most shocking performances in West’s career was her first leading role on Broadway. In 1926, West wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a play called Sex. As if that title wasn’t shocking enough for the 1920s…

Mae West, in a scene from 'Sex,' lays on an armchair in a man's arms.
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The content, however, didn’t sit well with conservative critics and religious groups who complained and denounced the piece. Meanwhile, the show had a big attendance and more than 375 performances. Take that, critics! From her active effort to work with African Americans and her stance on sex and feminism, Mae West was ahead of her time.

You’re Under Arrest

Despite the immense success of the play Sex, performances came to an abrupt halt when New York City police launched a raid in 1927 and arrested West, among others. The raid happened after various officers in the police department, and members of the justice system saw the play.

Mae West star and playwright of 'Sex' as she left the West Side court after having been held on $1,000 bail for a further hearing on her play which was alleged to be unfit for public showing.
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The actress was charged with obscenity and “corrupting the morals of youth.” West’s sentence was to either pay a fine or spend ten days behind bars. Not one to back down from what she believed in, West proudly decided to go to prison for her art.

Life Behind Bars Wasn’t Too Bad

West’s decision to go to jail wasn’t just about standing up for her work. The wise actress was fully aware of the publicity that would come with her stint, so it was a good marketing ploy as well. Her efforts were rewarded. West revealed that during her time in the slammer, she wore silk panties instead of standard prison clothes.

Mae West is saying goodbye to Warden Henry O. Schleth at the door of the prison.
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She also got to dine with the prison warden and his wife. We can only imagine what they discussed over that dinner date. In the end, West spent only eight days behind bars and was released two days early for good behavior – which is hilariously ironic.

More Controversial Plays

West was ahead of her time. She was extremely progressive and had no problems stating her opinions, no matter how sexual or unpopular they were at the time. After her play Sex, West’s 1927 play The Drag directly addressed LGBTQ themes and cross-dressing.

Mae West, Stan Stanley, Alan Brooks, and others sit in court facing charges because of a play they put on.
Photo Bettmann/Getty Images

However, since those topics were so controversial at the time, the play ended up closing early and got banned from opening on Broadway. Once again, the actress was sent to prison and had to pay a fine. The difference between the 1920s and the 2020s is incredible.

Standing Her Ground

Although there was a staunch backlash to The Drag and she wound up in prison once again, the actress didn’t change her mind or opinions; she remained a loyal LGBTQ ally for the rest of her life. She didn’t look down on others and believed in treating everyone with respect.

Mae West is standing on a stage out in the open-air, speaking to a large crowd.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

She also lent her support to the women’s liberation movement, which came as a surprise to no one. At that point, people knew better than to underestimate West. She was one to always put her money where her mouth was.

Sticking It to the Man!

In the mid-1930s, the Productions Code’s restrictions and censorship were taken extremely seriously. People started becoming very careful and aware of the content they were putting out. This meant that West’s writing was challenged at almost every turn, but the actress reacted in true West fashion.

Mae West is sitting on a large bed in a scene from the Paramount Picture' Goin' to Town'.
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

Unleashing her inner troll, West purposely wrote lines that she knew would make the censors lose their minds. It didn’t matter to her that none of these lines would ever get approved. Her goal was sticking it to the man, and she certainly did.

The Heat Is Not On

West was approached by her friend and filmmaker Gregory Ratoff in the early 1940s. He was dealing with serious financial issues and needed a successful movie. He was really hoping to get West to work with him on the movie The Heat’s On.

Mae West starring in 'The Heat's On' wearing an elaborate dress and a sizeable feathery hat.
Photo by Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS/Getty Images

At first, West was a little bit reluctant to do the film, but she agreed because she was friendly with Ratoff. However, the strict censors at the time didn’t approve of most of her dialogue and insisted on modest clothes. As you might have predicted, all these changes made the hamstrung movie a critical and commercial failure.

Leaving Hollywood

Mae West was absolutely devastated about The Heat’s On disaster. The movie’s failure coupled with losing creative control of her work was heartbreaking for the natural-born performer.

The original Hollywood sex symbol, Mae West, is sitting in bed looking off into the distance.
Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

At this point, West chose to step away from the spotlight, and she retired from Hollywood for over 25 years. The actress found more creative freedom in the theater and nightclubs. As any creator knows, being confined and restricted comes across in the final project. But a voice like West’s is needed in 2021, as creative freedom becomes more and more controlled.

When Did Mae West Die?

Mae West still had it going on at 61 years old when she started dating Paul Novak, who portrayed one of the muscle men featured in her Las Vegas show. Even though she was 30 years his senior, the relationship lasted until her death.

Actor Paul Novak and actress Mae West attend the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Gala on April 1, 1978.
Photo by Ron Galella/Getty Images

West’s first film, Night After Night, came out in 1932, and her last movie, Sextette, was released in 1977. Remarkably, both films also featured movie star George Raft. On November 22nd, 1980, Mae West passed away at the age of 87, after suffering a stroke earlier that year.

Her Raspy Voice

Believe it or not, it was her raspy voice that made West a vaudeville star! She started performing in vaudeville at the tender age of 12, when she was known as Baby Vamp. By the time she was 18, she had begun introducing her own sexy dance moves.

Mae West is posing for a portrait, wearing a Barrett, an American leading lady and the archetypal sex symbol who was vulgar, mocking, overdressed, and endearing.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And by 1918, she was already a Broadway legend, winning audiences’ hearts with her honesty, uniqueness, sincerity, dance moves, and, of course, natural-born talent. But it was her throaty voice that really made her stand out. She eventually became the first woman ever to perform solo.

Limo Ride to Jail

We mentioned how West’s time behind bars wasn’t that bad. West’s play Sex became a huge sensation. Her portrayal of the Montreal hooker sold out tickets for over ten months before the show was raided and West was arrested. But the jail sentence didn’t seem to upset her.

Mae West is seen here being welcomed back to Blackwell's Island jail by shaking the warden's hand; she was incarcerated last year. With her is Lillian R. Sire.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The court offered to drop the charges if she closed the play, but the stubborn starlet wasn’t going to give in. She rode to prison covered in roses and in a limousine, and the incident made West a New York superstar.

No Alcohol

Despite her remarkable career and star power, West always stayed close to her family. One of the hardest things for her to go through was her mother’s death in 1930. After that, she moved to Hollywood and brought most of her family members along: her father, brother, and sister. Not only that, but West provided them all with apartments and jobs.

A preview of Mae West's new movie, Belle of the Nineties, left to right: Jack West, Jr., Mae's brother; James Timony, her manager; Dr. Jack West, Mae's father; Mae; Beverly West, Mae's sister; Robert Baikoff, Beverly's husband and manager; Boris Petroff, Mae's dramatic advisor and formerly a New York stage director.
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She explained in one interview: “I never understood drinking. It isn’t good for your looks, and it cuts down on what you are. I never wanted to cut down on what I am.” West kept a healthy lifestyle and lived to be 87 years old.

Dorothy Parker vs. Mae West

Some of Dorothy Parker’s most famous lines are attributed to Mae West and the other way around. The two were born in the same year, both wrote screenplays, and were known for their strong wit. But there are also some differences between these two gals.

American author Dorothy Parker poses with her arms crossed.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Parker is mostly known for her work as a literary writer and critic, while West is mostly remembered as an actress. Parker and her group of friends famously made up the Algonquin Round Table. West, however, was more of a lone wolf. But that wasn’t the extent of their differences.

Different Personalities

Parker suffered from depression, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts. West didn’t drink, smoke, or dwell too much in sadness or self-pity. Parker was a brunette, while West had her signature blonde hair. West was from Brooklyn; Parker grew up in Manhattan. And so on…

American writer Dorothy Parker reviews a draft copy of a manuscript at her home.
Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

One easy way to tell if a quote came from Parker or West is to read it and ask yourself, “sad or sexy?” It’s not always easy. For example, this is a Parker quote: “Money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.”

Learning From All Women

Both Parker and West were talented and extremely sarcastic and witty. They both had inspirational quotes, but you can start to tell the difference when you see these two writers’ separate personalities. But there is something to be learned from both.

Mae West surrounded by admirers in a scene from the film 'Belle Of The Nineties', 1934.
Photo by Paramount/Getty Images

West’s quotes all had a positive undertone. Even ones like, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before” or “I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.” But one of my favorites is, “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for a double meaning.”

Not Ready for an Institution

West has plenty of clever and hilarious quotes about men in relationships: “Save a boyfriend for a rainy day – and another, in case it doesn’t rain” and “Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.” However, one of her most famous is “Marriage is a great institution. I’m not ready for an institution yet.”

A headshot of the beautiful Mae West.
Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Although she married at age 17 and didn’t legalize her divorce until 31 years later, it was rumored that she secretly married another man at some point. But she preferred dating younger men, as her long-term boyfriend Paul Novak was 30 years younger than she.