Ten Things You Didn't Know About Mae West

Admittedly, Mae West isn't someone I've thought about often--seeing as how Go Retro has a tendency to focus on people, places and things from the 60s through the 80s. But something made me think of Ms. West the other night, and damn, there really ought to be a movie made about her life. To most folks, she is remembered best for her trademark husky voice (back in the day she would have been referred to affectionately as a "broad"), platinum locks and sassy double entendres. However, West was also a talented comedienne and entertainer--the first on-screen star to exude sexiness and humor at the same time, which she gleaned from her vaudeville beginnings. She also lived a colorful life and remained quite active right up into her 80s. The lady had chutzpah, and here are ten factoids to prove it: 

1. She wrote all of her snappy one-liners
West was allowed to call the shots in her movies--she rewrote her lines for her first film, Night After Night, turning it into a hit--and many of her quotes have stood the test of time as classic zingers said both on and off the screen: 

"Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

"When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better."

"A hard man is good to find."

"It's not the men in my life that count, it's the life in my men."

"It is better to be looked over than overlooked."

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before."

Needless to say, West was pretty uninhibited and confident for her time--but not filthy by today's standards. Her quips left most of it up to an audience's imagination (but did manage to infuriate women's and Catholic groups during one bawdy NBC radio program.) 

According to IMDB.com, West's early films, while box office smashes, were a bit controversial and led to studios establishing the Motion Picture Production Code, which regulated what content could be shown or said in pictures. It was then that West started writing her famous double entendres as a way of getting around these codes. 

My favorite line, however, comes from one of her last films, a 1970 movie called Myra Breckenridge. The movie itself is considered one of the worst flops ever made and caused a lot of lawsuits (another blog post for another time) but that didn't stop me from enjoying this clip. The line in question is at the veeeeery end--and yes, that is a young Tom Selleck sans mustache.

2. She "discovered" Cary Grant
In a 1976 interview with Dick Cavett, West said that she was flipping through photos of  actors that a Paramount director gave to her to pick her leading man for the film She Done Him Wrong. (Imagine being able to choose which actor to star with you?) West spotted a good looking young man walking across the street outside the window and inquired about him. "If he can talk, I'll take him!" she told the director. The movie was a box office hit and launched Grant's career. West told Cavett that she actually "had him (Grant) twice"--meaning she made two movies with him...but with West, nearly everything she said had a double meaning. 

3. She was a supporter of gay rights
Years before her movie career, West wrote a play about homosexuals called "The Drag." It never opened; she had already been arrested for staging another controversial play at the time (more on that a bit below.) West believed that gay people were born gay, and was vehemently against the belief that therapy could "change" a person from gay to straight. She would become a gay icon years later. 

4. She didn't launch her movie career until she was nearly 40 years old
West's first motion picture role was in the aforementioned 1932 film Night After Night. She was 39 at the time which is nothing short of amazing, and she managed to keep her age a secret. Not that she had to--she looked freaking fabulous and years younger, probably due to the fact that she stayed out of the sun as much as possible. 

5. She was arrested for writing and starring in a controversial play
Years before Madonna made waves with her erotic coffee table conversation piece "Sex", West wrote, produced and starred in a 1926 play by the same name. It marked her debut on Broadway and ran for nearly 400 performances before the New York City Police department raided the theater and arrested her for "corrupting the morals of youth." She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, and enjoyed meals with the warden and his wife. She must have made a good impression, because she was released after serving 8 days due to good behavior. The scandal didn't hurt West's career at all, and raised her profile. 

6. She recorded rock and roll albums
In 1966, West recorded an album featuring rock and roll covers called Way Out West, backed by a teen band called Somebody's Chyldren. A Christmas album followed the same year. She also recorded a second rock album in 1968 called Great Balls of Fire which didn't get released until 1972, and included The Doors' hit "Light My Fire." Whether she was actually a good singer I can only leave up to you--I've heard far worse renditions of popular music at the time by actors. She was the oldest female singer at that time to have a solo album on the Billboard 200 chart--a record that wouldn't be broken until 2011 when country singer Wanda Jackson released The Party Ain't Over.

7. She didn't want to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
When The Beatles were pulling together personalities for their infamous album cover, they had to ask permission to use celebrity likenesses. Mae West initially turned down their request, saying, "What would I be doing in a 'lonely hearts club'?" She had a point. But then the Fab Four sent her a personal letter saying that they were fans of her, and she accepted their request. Ringo Starr would later co-star with her in her final movie, Sextette.

8. She became a cougar
West was married a couple of times and involved in several relationships, but her last one when she was 61 up until her death was with a bodybuilder 30 years younger than her, Chester Rybinski, who changed his name to Paul Novak. He was one of the performers in her Las Vegas musclemen stage show and would later say "I believe I was put on this earth to take care of Mae West."

9. She inspired a sofa
West's lips inspired surrealist artist Salvatore Dali to create the "Mae West Lips Sofa"--an art deco shaped couch with a design that is recognizable to this day. Allied forces airmen during WWII also referred to their life preserver jackets as "Mae Wests" because they resembled her waist and breasts. 

10. She bought a building to shut up a bunch of racists
West dated the boxing champion William "Gorilla" Jones, who was African-American. The landlords of the Ravenswood apartment building West lived in at the time didn't allow "negroes" to visit the complex and complained, so West shut them up by purchasing the building and lifting the ban on African American guests and tenants. 

Mae West was certainly a woman way ahead of her time and in 1982, Ann Jillian played her in a TV movie about her life, but I think a big screen rendition is in order. Truth be told, I don't think there is an actress convincing enough to play her in a biopic (unless she's an unknown) but it would be nice to see Hollywood bring her to the public's attention again. 


  1. Might be an urban legend, but I definitely see her in the front section of the Camel in the cigarette packs...

  2. I had no idea she was such a bad ass. She is so wonderful. I actually have a Playboy from 1971 with an interview with her and I've been meaning to scan it and post it. Love her!

  3. A trailblazer and a true original. They don't make stars like her any more.

  4. Awesome piece, Pam--you showed what a class act Mae West really was. (And I loved that clip of her singing that Doors song!)

  5. Thanks, everyone. Bad ass is the right phrase for her! I forgot to mention that she was into psychics and mediumship and very savvy with her finances and investing. I just find it amazing that she didn't truly hit her stride until she was in her 40s--definitely an inspiration to me!

  6. I've always love Mae West, she is a totally amazing woman!

  7. Mae West is one of my idols, she was so witty and glamorous. A really extraordinary woman.

  8. Hi darlings, it's Mae again. Even though I've been away for a long time (I'm still busy ya know) I just want ya to know that I've gone down happy. Ya boys needn't fear death just 'cause you end up stiff. A hard angel is God to find (at least for me!) Love ya all, now I gotta go blow Gabriel's horn.

  9. I think Jennifer Lawrence,Christina Aguilera or the blonde from Dawson's Creek could play the younger Mae and if they couldn't be convincingly aged,Bette Midler or Faye Dunaway again(she played Mae in a bit part once)or Meryl Street could play the older Mae,in fact,Bette Midler IS going to play her in a project soon I think.


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