‘Sex’ and Mae West
During 1925, Jane Mast – a seemingly unknown playwright – began penning a play. She was not herself a demure wallflower and her completed work entitled, shockingly, ‘Sex’ was not destined to dwell forgotten and barely acknowledged in the backstreets of an off-Broadway theatre. Off course, ‘Jane Past’ was just a pseudonym and it was for the even more outlandish Mae West who knew how to attract attention and demanded the spotlight.
Mae was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893 in New York and began her seven decade career as a child, performing in amateur shows and beauty contests. As she grew older, this became a more permanent spot in vaudeville and several Broadway shows. It was decades later when Mae was in her early thirties and an experienced and popular feature in the New York scene when she began writing her most famous and controversial piece.
The play opened April 26, 1927 at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre and starred the divine Mae in the main role. It was never going to be a critical success with moralists stunned by the plays overt title and even more overt themes. One critic even wrote:
“Mae West … has broken the fetters and does as she pleases here. After three hours of this play’s nasty, infantile, amateurish, and vicious dialog, after watching its various actors do their stuff badly, one really has a feeling of gratefulness for any repression that may have toned down her vaudeville songs in the past. If this show could do one week of good business it would depart with a handsome profit, it’s that cheaply put on.” (Courting Mae West blogspot)
Another commented, “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.”
But, it was the audience that would make or break the fairly obscure production with a sold out opening performance and good ticket sales for the subsequent 375 shows. By February the following year, when the marquee was still boasting the bright, glittering word ‘SEX’ and posters were shouting ‘Sex with Mae West’, the guards of morality in New York had had enough. After several complaints from key religious and political figures and members of the public, the police took action arresting Mae and others on the 9th of February as well as permanently closing the show.
The arrest and subsequent prosecution was a media frenzy, an opportunity Mae exploited to its full potential. She had countless interviews, wore her most glamorous outfits and wasn’t afraid to scandalise herself and the court to the absolute maximum. To her all publicity was good publicity. On April 19, 1927 Mae was prosecuted on moral charges, mainly for “corrupting the morals of youth” and given a $500 fine and ten days in jail. However, of her sentence she only served eight days for good behaviour. During her time in prison, Mae seemed – like in life – to find the fun side, reportedly dining with the warden and his wife and admitted to wearing silk underwear. She also used her stint to publicise the problems with women’s prisons by writing several articles about the people she met and donating money to improve the library facilities.
It would be five years later that Mae, now aged 38, was offered a contract with Paramount studios and began her first film Night After Night (1932). The case appeared only to increase Mae’s notoriety and reputation and hastened her entry into movies which made her a legend in both film history and pop culture in general.
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