Mae West was an American actress, playwright, and screenwriter famed for her provocative and outspoken manner. Her career spanned seven decades, during which she performed in vaudeville, on Broadway, in Hollywood films, in Las Vegas, and on Rock and Roll albums. Mae West was famous for her double entendres and sometimes inserted her own extemporized lines into a script.
Mae West was born Mary Jane West on 17 August 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a prize fighter and a corset model. Her father, John Patrick West, would later become a police officer and a private detective. Mae West had two younger siblings.
Mae West began performing on the vaudeville stage at the age of twelve, when she was billed as The Baby Vamp. She soon began writing for the stage under the pseudonym Jane Mast, making her Broadway debut in 1926 as the star of her own play, Sex. Though the play was popular, it was shut down after about a year and Mae West was arrested on obscenity charges. Her ten-day prison sentence, during which the warden purportedly treated her to dinner every night before letting her off two days early for good behavior, turned out to be good publicity.
Mae West's next play, The Drag (1927), dealt with the theme of homosexuality and advocated gay rights at a time when such subjects were taboo. Mae West had continued success as a playwright and actress throughout the 1920s. In 1932, she moved to Hollywood on a contract with Paramount.
Mae West's first film role, in Night After Night, was small, but she was allowed to rewrite her lines, bringing her trademark witty double entendres to a wider audience. Her next film, She Done Him Wrong (1933), was a screen adaptation of her successful stage play Diamond Lil and co-starred Cary Grant. Though she saw considerable success as an actress and screenwriter throughout the 1930s, Mae West had to battle the censors constantly.
Mae West took a hiatus from the world of film after her last Paramount picture, in 1943, but she continued to perform on stage, both on Broadway and in Las Vegas. She published an autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, in 1959. In the 1960s, she made a few appearances on television and recorded two Rock and Roll albums.
Mae West returned to film in 1970 in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, about a transsexual. Her final film, Sextette (1979), was her own script. Though both films were box office failures, they have since gained a cult following.
Mae West died in Hollywood, California on 22 November 1980 after suffering from two strokes. Many of her double entendres have become part of the cultural lexicon, and Mae West is often referenced as the quintessential example of the outspoken, sexually independent woman. She was one of the first women in Hollywood to pull off funny and sexy in equal measures and has inspired many imitators.