"I was the first liberated woman, you know. No guy was going to get the best of me. That's what I wrote all my scripts about."
On this Day of April 19th, Mae West - Actress, Singer, Playwright, Screenwriter, Feminist, Artist, Comedian, Advocate, Activist, Author, Protester…. I can go on and on was arrested and jailed because her first play according to the censors and authorities “corrupting the morals of youth.” They thought that would make her first play also her last play, and for most folks that probably would have done so. Instead, West devoted a life of seven decades to First Amendment speech and art!
While not on her school’s debate team, West devoted her entire life to debating Censors and protesting laws and individuals that suppressed the rights of artists… also making a fortune and was ranked at one point as the #2 most paid person in America, right behind William Randolph Hearst. American Film Institute named her 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema.
She started in New York City on Broadway and became a huge success but authorities kept on trying to shut down her plays. So she went to Hollywood and became #1 there! Again, authorities tried to silence her, censor her dialogue. And so she went to Radio and became #1 there. Again, the censors continued to suppress her speech and eventually banned her from radio for over a decade. So then she went to Vegas and became #1 there!
West was born in New York City on August 17th 1893. Her father was a detective, prizefighter, salesman and livery stableman. Her mother was a model and dressmaker. She started her entertainment career at church socials at the age of five and started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven and winning local contests.
Eventually she started writing her own plays using the pen name “Jane Mast.” She wrote, produced, directed and starred in a 1926 play she entitled, “Sex.” Religious leaders protested and the theater was raided and on April 19th, Mae was sentenced to 10 days for “corrupting the morals of youth.” They offered her to pay the fine which she easily could have, but she chose the jail sentence for publicity. When freed, she didn’t tone down her art for authorities but pushed it even further. Her next play, “The Drag” dealt with homosexuality. It had a 2 week run in New Jersey, but New York shut down the play.
She went on to write, direct, produce and perform numerous other plays that continued to arouse controversy and censorship. She then moved on to Hollywood and by 1933 was one of the largest box office draws in the United States. By 1935 she was the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst). In fact Hearst invited her to meet and West said, ”I could'a married him," West explained, "but I got no time for parties. I don't like those big crowds."
But West was not simply an actress. She wrote 9 of the 13 films she starred. She described herself as “the lady who works at Paramount all day… and Fox all night.”
Despite being number one in the Box Office, nearly every one of her movies were objected by censors, her lines cut by censors, and engulfed in controversy. She did not care and continued to create her art. Women were treated as second class citizens. West portrayed the complete opposite and debated and rejected any attempts to censor and suppress her. And in the end she won despite the censorship… “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
West also expanded to Radio and Television and continued to freely express herself and protest and challenge censorship. NBC eventually banned her from radio and she would not perform in radio for a dozen years. So she went on to Vegas and and became number one there!
In Vegas one of her boyfriends, was boxing champion William Jones. The management at her apartment building barred the African American boxer from entering the building. West solved the problem by buying the building and lifting the ban!
Like all too many heroes, Hollywood recognized her achievements far too late. She now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For her contributions in theater, she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of fame.
And so today and everyday we salute Mae West who devoted a life to debating and fighting for the freedom of speech, freedom of art, and freedom of women.
"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.” - Mae West