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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mary Jane West aka Mae West

Mary Jane West aka Mae West, 1893-1980

Born to a prize fighter father who later became a PI, and a mother who made corsets and was once a fashion model, she began performing professionally at the age of fourteen in vaudeville and first appeared on Broadway in 1911.   A playwright, screenwriter and actress, Mae spent most of her time tweaking the establishment and pushing the envelope of morality in her day while entertaining a generation. 

Prosecuted on moral charges of ‘corrupting youth’ she received a sentence of 10 days jail time in 1927.  With her usual charm, she got out two days early for ‘good behavior’.  Media attention only enhanced her career, a trick that she used repeatedly to her advantage over the years.  Most of her plays had to be rewritten in order to pass the censors, and she regularly got reprimands for her ‘vulgar’ behavior.  Somehow this only spurred her on to keep moving forward.

Mae secretly married at seventeen and didn’t divorce until 1942.  According to her, they kept separate bedrooms and only spent a few ‘weeks’ together.  (If the media hadn’t accidentally found out that she was married, she might never have bothered to divorce.)  Rumor had her married to an accordion player during this same time period, but she never confirmed this relationship.  Being a confirmed bigamist might have been more ugly press than even she could deflect with a twitch and a smile. 
Mae was an early supporter of gay rights and the women’s liberation movement, but she claimed she wasn’t a feminist.  Clearly, she did soak up what might be considered the ‘lower moral values’ of musicians, actors and artists.  She did like her men.  At the same time, she was devoted to her family, moved them to Hollywood and took care of them.  She seemed to be a woman capable of and worthy of deep relationships even though she didn’t fit into the societal norms of the day.  When the owner’s of her apartment building objected to her relationship with an African-American, she bought the damned building and took care of that nonsense.

At sixty-one, she became romantically involved with one of the muscle men that served as a backdrop for her Vegas show.  Mr. Novak once commented, “I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West.”  Thirty years younger, he stayed with her until her death at eighty-seven. 

Quotes that I like:

A dame that knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up.

A hard man is good to find.

A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him.

A man's kiss is his signature.

A woman in love can't be reasonable - or she probably wouldn't be in love.

An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.

Any time you've got nothing to do and lots of time to do it come on up.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

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

Cultivate your curves - they may be dangerous but they won't be avoided.

Don't keep a man guessing too long - he's sure to find the answer somewhere else.

Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can't figure out what from.

Give a man a free hand and he'll run it all over you.

He who hesitates is a damned fool.

I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.

I believe that it's better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.

I didn't discover curves; I only uncovered them.

I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.

I like a man who's good, but not too good - for the good die young, and I hate a dead one.

I like restraint, if it doesn't go too far.

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.

I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported.

I speak two languages, Body and English.

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.

I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.

I'm a woman of very few words, but lots of action.

I'm no model, lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing.

It isn't what I do, but how I do it. It isn't what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.

It takes two to get one in trouble.

Attitude, positive feedback and reinforcement, a belief in self and a little showmanship are all the qualities that Mae West took and molded to become an icon in her day.  She wasn’t perfectly beautiful and at 5’ and 120 pounds (in her prime) she’d be considered a little chunky today.  When you watched her on the screen, that lack really didn’t matter.  I’m sure she had some bad days--when she didn’t feel like “Mae West” and maybe more like “Mary Jane”.  Still I understand what she projected, a sense of allure and security in her own sexuality.  We should all strive to allow a little Mae into our life.

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