The Real Mae West — Part A (1934) 🇺🇸

December 04, 2021

Is she a good or a bad influence in Pictures?

The first real life story of the Brooklyn blonde who stared a new era on the screen.

by Aileen St. John Brenon

The history of motion pictures is replete with stories of colorful personalities who have risen from obscurity to world-wide fame in an incredibly brief span of time, but Mae West is the only one who made herself a star with her opening entrance.

All the others — Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, and the late Wallace Reid — served an apprenticeship before the cameras of at least two or three pictures — in some instances, years — but when Mae West, blonde, bold, bad and buxom, swaggered onto the , screen for the first time, 20,000,000 people started listening to her song.

The scene showed her checking in at a swanky night club. The check girl admired her jewels.

“Goodness,” she exclaimed, “what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness,” retorted Mae West in that insinuating drawl of hers, “had nothing to do with them, dearie.”

Mae West had only a “bit” in that picture, but it was her name that went up in electric lights, and she was the reason “Night After Night” was re-booked in 5,000 motion-picture theaters.

She started an era — the Mae West era. She brought a rowdy spirit to the films, which made Hollywood blush, but which made her the sensation, not only of America, but of Europe, too. She took Paris by storm — fastidious, critical Paris, the rendezvous of the elegant, the suave, la politesse. Somehow, through her utter frankness and honesty, her double meanings are not offensive even to the most sensitive.

She shattered every tradition of the screen as well as the box office, and has contradicted every theory of stardom by her unconventionality, her ribaldry, her boisterous philosophy. She doesn’t believe that sex should be taken seriously, but with a laugh. She is unconventional, she says, because Joan of Arc was unconventional, and look at what she did for France.

But unconventional as she certainly is, Miss West, as we shall see, has a code of her own. She has a reason, as well as a wisecrack, for everything.

Mae West’s success was not an accident. A lifetime, with all but five years (the first five) spent tirelessly in the theater, lay behind that first entrance upon the screen — years of experience, incessant labor, well-directed energy, firm adherence to purpose n the face of many discouragements and setbacks, in spite of which she never lost sight of her goal.

Mae West’s strong individuality and her firm will are as responsible for her success as her inherent talent — a talent which was as apparent at the age of five as the strong little personality which bossed all the children on the block, and was the terror of the brownstone house district of Brooklyn — the Bushwick Section.

Mae West, the child, as with Mae West, the showwoman, never allowed anything to swerve her from her purpose. During her long career, which has taken her into all phases of the theater, stock, vaudeville, burlesque, musical comedy, producer of her own plays. Miss West, as I said before, never forgot that her aim was to reach the very top. And there is something else she never forgot — something many women do forget in the bitterness of struggle for success. She has never forgotten to be a woman, and it is this warm, gracious quality which has helped her to become the celebrity she is today.

Despite the fact that she is now a world-wide figure, those who knew Mae West “when,” and “after,” find her the same kindly, unaffected, hard-working woman she was when she first became known in show business. Her success on Broadway never changed her, and her success on the screen has not made a particle of difference in her attitude toward life in general and toward those less fortunate than herself whom she frequently has encountered in her long journey into the various phases of the theater.

Mae West has a level, as well as a clever head, on her shapely shoulders, and I have never known anyone representing a worthy cause to ask her for financial help that she did not immediately reach down into her stocking — which serves as a bank — and roll off a banknote from her wad.

Ostentatious in her love of jewelry, she contributes large sums unostentatiously to worthy causes. The only party she ever gave in Hollywood was for the little orphans at the circus, where pink lemonade and peanuts were the refreshments.

She is a woman of great sympathies, great courage, and is remarkably abstemious in her private life. (She never smokes or drinks, yet being feminine, she’s scared to death of a mouse.)

Mae West the woman is just as remarkable, just as fascinating a human being as Mae West the celebrity. But totally different and at opposite poles are Mae West the star, and Mae West the woman. And it is the woman as I have seen her that I want to introduce to you.

You all know Mae West the star, whether you live in Hyde Park, London, Charlottenburg, Berlin, or Chillicothe, Ohio. “Take all you can get, and give as little as you can” is the philosophy of Mae West, the celebrity, but as you will see, the philosophy of the real Mae West is “Give where you can, give generously, unsparingly of yourself, of your money, of your time, to your work, to your friends, to those who are weaker than yourself.”

It takes more than merely acting to become a national figure — an emblem — which, strange and contradictory as it may seem, is exactly what Mae West is. Fashions, figures, diet, manners, social customs, even morals, as we shall see, have felt the influence of her strong personality.

She was voted by the Seaman’s Institute as their favorite actress.

She was nominated a Kentucky Colonel by Governor Ruby Laffoon.

The Central Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorsed her unanimously at its annual convention, whereat Dr. W. P. Holmes of Chicago delivered himself of these sentiments in regard to her Rubens figure:

“If it is Mae West who is responsible for this new, yet age-old fashion, my hat is off to her. The return to plumpness is a boon to motherhood.”

A Hudson River houseboat plies the river bearing her name.

J.P. McEvoy, the famous author and humorist, gives public thanks on behalf of writers, for her initiating the new era — an era of wide skirts, full bosoms, ostrich feather boas, large hips, trains, and the ample curve of the “90’s” — the Diamond Lil of the stage, Diamond Lou of the screen, Lady Lou to the boulevardiers of Paris.

She abolished the modish repression known as the boyish form, and making sex funny instead of lachrymose, murdered one screen convention after another— and has thrived.

She advised the skinny girl: “What the good Lord has forgotten, we’ll put there with cotton,” being an advocate of curves because “they will get you farther than an angle.”

Mae West knows men and how to appeal to them.

She knows, too, that the charm, the romance and the glamour of the Lillian Russell period captures man’s imagination. She knows that men, though they flirt and play, and are often caught, to their sorrow, by the wide-eyed ingenue, really love women with charm and poise and worldly wisdom; that men know they are being teased and hoodwinked by their platinum blondes and fall for them, but that they are willing to die for their well-rounded, full-bosomed inamoratas of the “90’s”.

Men like Mae West the minute they meet her, but she never does a thing to attract their attention. Off the screen she dresses simply — usually in black. But men are attracted, as Cary Grant explained to me, by her intense human qualities — her love of people, her interest and desire for their welfare. She is frank and spontaneous, utterly unaffected. Moreover, she is considerate and understanding, and very, very witty. Absolutely on the level herself, she’s intolerant of sham — and is quick to detect it. Years on the stage have left her no illusions.

Her grasp on life is tremendous and her sympathy inexhaustible. She knows, likes and understands people — sums them up quickly. She is essentially the sophisticated woman of the world who has tasted life with all its experiences. But it has not left her bitter — it has made her big.

Naturally talented and clever, keen and shrewd, Miss West has, since the age of five, devoted all her efforts toward mastering her profession, climbing the ladder of success, as she will tell you with a laugh, “wrong by wrong.”

It is interesting to know, and I will tell you the story later, just why, how and when Mae West decided to be bad — professionally. For the moment, let’s meet the high-spirited little flaxen-haired girl, the daughter of the Wests, known because of her unconventional exploits at an early age as “that West child,” and looked upon with arched eyebrows by the conservative mothers of the neighborhood because untamed, stubborn little spirit as she was, and the leader of the block, she refused to conform to the then current pastime of playing jacks in lady-like fashion on the top step, preferring to gang about with the boys.

Mae West, the daughter of a French mother and an American father, grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. She was one of those children whom all the neighborhood knows — you know the sort — a forceful little mite, getting into every kind of mischief (instituting most of it), determined to see it through — the sort that all the other children look to for leadership and a jolly good time of it, and the kind grown-ups watch and frown upon.

She became used to the public eye at an early age because she took part in neighborhood theatricals. She was a child actress at the age of five, and strange as it may seem in the light of subsequent events, one of her most popular roles was that of the angelic child of all times, the studiously polite and decorous little being of the velvet suit and lace collar, known to the world as “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

Mae West’s mother was a native Parisienne. Miss West says she got that insinuating strut of hers walking over men, but as long as her mother was alive, her daughter Mae accorded her a devotion and a reverence seldom seen in these days of scorn for family ties and neglect in general of the older generation. Until the time of her mother’s death three years ago, the two were seldom apart. Miss West went to her mother for advice about her life, for counsel about her work, and for discussion of all the problems besetting an active and strenuous life.

Hardboiled, you ask? After her mother’s death, Miss West, prostrate with grief, was unable to see a living soul for days, remaining in her room alone trying to reconcile herself with the loss of the person she loved most on earth.

But I am ahead of my story. Let’s go back to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where a clever little flaxen-haired girl lived with her parents. Battling Jack West, the one-time light-weight prizefighter, was her father, and it was from him that she received her first interest in the manly art of self-defense. To this day she is an ardent fight fan. It is one of her few diversions and she never misses a fight, always occupying a ringside seat with “some of the boys.”

Mae West was a strong, husky child, full of vitality, determination and fire. She explained to me one day that even as a child, once she got an idea into her head, nothing on earth could get it out. “I don’t give myself any credit for that,” she said. “I’m just that way — so stubborn and difficult once I get an idea into my head.” Her mother was the one person in her early youth who had the patience to cope with it.

She tells of a visit she paid at a tender age with her mother to an elderly spinster, very precise and inflexible. In the living room of the elderly lady’s house a multi-colored globe on a mahogany table caught the fancy of little Mae’s childish eye. Bored by the conversation, she edged her way over to the table and began to finger the bowl curiously, as children do.

“Little girl,” said the elderly lady in cold, disapproving tones, “you’re too big to handle other people’s things. Keep your hands off — you should know better.” Something in the woman’s tone was too much for Mae’s amour propre. She went and found her hat and coat, stalked up to her mother and announced: “We are going home. Mother.” Her mother coaxed and cajoled, apologized and threatened. Candy, cake and cookies, even knicknacks, were pressed into service. It was useless— home they went — and Mae, wounded to the heart, never entered the undiscerning old lady’s portals again.

Another day her mother took her to the toy department of a store on Brooklyn’s Broadway to buy a doll. When she entered the shop, Mae’s eyes lit upon a shelf full of matchless beauties with flaxen hair and long, curling eyelashes. On the top of a pyramid of boxes, so high the salesman could not reach them, Mae spied immediately the doll she wanted — a fetching creation in lavender. The salespeople united in trying to persuade her to choose another doll. There were pink ones, blue ones, yellow ones, bigger ones, dolls that talked and walked and cried, but Mae, to the exasperation of the assembled salespeople, was adamant. She could see they all hated her cordially, but she stood her ground. Finally, exasperated, they sent for a ladder from the basement, and a scowling sales-man, too annoyed even to pretend to be gracious, got her the doll on top. Ever since, Mae says, she’s wanted everything at the top and will be content with nothing less.

When she was about four years of age she began showing an aptitude for mimicry. She appeared at the amateur performances of the neighborhood church and club socials, giving impersonations of Eva Tanguay, Eddie Foy, George M. Cohan and other popular vaudeville headliners of the day. Her take-off of Eva Tanguay, the unrestrained, hippy favorite of soldiers, sailors, college boys and tired business men of that day, invariably won her the greatest applause. It practically gave Mae West her start in show business.

Mae West never forgets a friend nor a kindness, and seems to have an inexhaustible memory for the faces of those who have crossed her pathway in her long journey from Brooklyn to Broadway.

Like all the children on the block, Mae West went to the public school, and she passes over the monotony of the schoolroom for the more exciting adventures in the evening when, as a child actress, with grease paint and furbelows, she occupied the center of the stage.

Her first professional appearance took place with the Clarendon Stock Company at the Gotham Theatre in East New York. She was the little daughter who cried out “Father, dear father, come home with me now,” in “Ten Nights in a Bar Room.” As Little Eva she often took the piano-wire route to heaven in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” playing, as a matter of fact, a large repertoire of child roles in the good old days — “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “The Moonshiner’s Daughter,” “East Lynne” and “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.”

As a member of the stock company, when there were no child parts in the plays, she was called upon to take part in what are known in old-fashioned plays as “olios,” or vaudeville acts in between the scenes of the plays. She sang popular songs and gave her imitations, being what was known on the billboards as a “coon shouter.” It was at this stage of the game, she avers, that she learned to roll her eyes, a propensity, however, that had to be curbed when she became, for the sake of drama, “Little Eva” or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

She continued her schooling, off and on, to please her mother, and when she was “going on twelve,” she made another interesting discovery. It was the interest — reciprocated, she admits — she had for boys. She never played with girls at all if she could help it. “Gee, I loved the boys,” she says. “Went around with lots of them and played with them. There was a gang of us — of course, we would have fights.” And since she was a husky child, she’d smack a boy on the nose as quickly as she would a girl.

Popular as she always has been with boys and men, Mae West has never married and she has very definite reasons why she, who typifies all that is seductive and charming to mankind, has preferred to pursue her career in real life alone.

Above, Mae in “Diamond Lil” when the star was crowding Broadway theaters.

Mae swaggered into “Night After Night” and captured 20,000,000 fans with a tiny bit of acting. 

The second instalment of Mae West’s real life story will appear in the July New Movie.

Source: New Movie Magazine, June 1934