This 1930s Hollywood Sex Symbol’s Work Was So Scandalous That She Wound Up In Jail

Mae West was used to ruffling feathers but, in 1927, censors had enough. That’s why police came crashing into the Broadway theater where she produced her successful show, Sex. And, when the actor had her day in court, the judge decided there was only one solution. They had to put the sassy starlet behind bars.

Mae West, born Mary Jane West in August of 1893, came into the world with the perfect parents for her. Her mother, Tillie, didn’t adhere to contemporary Victorian standards for raising children. Indeed, rather than encouraging her daughter to be quiet and obedient, as many other parents of the era advised, she allowed the young girl to be her funny, independent self.

As such, by the time West turned three, she had already begun to hone her comedic prowess. The toddler did impersonations of her loved ones, and both Tillie and the little girl’s father, John, loved it. The mom then started to take her daughter to vaudeville shows, and she was instantly hooked. Indeed, the music, dancing and characters drew her in.

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One vaudevillian performer stuck out the most to West – Bert Williams, an African-American actor who used double entendre and innuendo to talk about U.S. race relations. The star would go on to cite him as her first great influence, which made sense. She, too, became an expert with wordplay in her own performances.

It would take a while for West to reach the age where she’d be giving such sassy performances, though. First, she had to make her way through a round of local concerts and amateur nights. Her father, though, initially disapproved of her entering those contests at such a young age. That is, until she won a first-place prize of $10, the equivalent of about $300 today.

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From there, West became a vaudevillian performer herself. And, at just 14, she started using the sassy, sexual undertones for which she’d become known in the future. Indeed, the character she played reflected the way she had grown up. And she made fun of the traditional Victorian upbringing in her act, just as her mother had rejected it with her children.

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In between vaudeville jobs, West made ends meet by appearing in burlesque shows. Around 1910, the 17-year-old went on a tour through the Midwestern U.S. And, as she danced her way across the country, she did so without Tillie’s guidance. At this point, the performer began a slew of affairs with her castmates. And in 1911, she married one of them, named Frank Wallace.

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The young couple never lived together, according to West, and the marriage broke down. And their burlesque act didn’t last much longer than that summer in the Midwest, either. But the teenage actress had much more in store than just marriage, anyway. By the time she turned 18, she’d have her first big break on Broadway, albeit in a short-lived production.

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Indeed, West nabbed a part in A La Broadway, a production helmed by Ned Wayburn, her one-time dance teacher. The show, though, lasted just eight performances before it folded. However, the young woman’s work caught the eye of The New York Times’ reviewer. They wrote about how a “girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased [the audience with] her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”

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Still, it would take West seven more years to become a bona fide star. The role that eventually changed her career came in 1918, when she starred opposite Ed Wynn in the revue Sometime. The show featured her breaking out into a shimmy, a dance move seen as bold and brazen at the time.

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Of course, this character fit with who West was – and she only continued to tailor her performances to her bold personality. To do so, she would edit scripted dialogue or re-write the character description of the role she was playing. Then, under the pen name Jane Mast, she eventually began to pen entire plays of her own. That way, she could be any character she wanted.

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In 1928, West wrote the play that would once again change her career. This time, though, she’d become a movie star. Diamond Lil starred West as a racy but wise woman of the late 19th century and the resulting production proved wildly popular with audiences. With that, Hollywood could no longer ignore her.

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Indeed, West got her hands on a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1932, a surprising feat considering her age. The almost-40-year-old was, in fact, starting her film career late, but she kept her age under wraps and continued working. And the performer made the most of her first role, a small part in Night After Night, since she had license to edit her lines.

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In West’s debut appearance in Night After Night, she made her mark with her punchy edits. Indeed, during the scene, the hat-check girl said to her character, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” As per her self-written edits, the actor retorted, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Needless to say, her small role in the film had a big impact.

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Hollywood executives knew that West had a leading lady role inside her, too. So in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong, West reprised her Diamond Lil character with a new name, Lady Lou. She also handpicked the man who’d play opposite her in the flick. Indeed, as she passed through Paramount studio, she noticed actor Cary Grant and supposedly said, “If he can talk, I’ll take him!”

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She Done Him Wrong proved an enormous success for Paramount. The studio, in fact, almost went into bankruptcy, but the $2 million earnings from the flick saved it from such a filing. As such, there is still a building on its lot named after West, a token of the company’s gratitude to the racy star.

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Still, West’s greatest success was yet to come. She and Grant collaborated once more on I’m No Angel, which proved to be one of the star’s least provocative creations. Nevertheless, the film did provide fans some of her best quotes. “When I’m good, I’m very good,” she said in the film. “But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

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With that, the star became one of Hollywood’s most powerful performers, as far as box-office profits went. Indeed, in 1935 she stood as the top female earner in the U.S. and the country’s second-highest earning American overall. Above West was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who often published negative stories about her. The star didn’t care, though. Instead, she responded, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

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There was, however, still a backlash against those who attempted to push Hollywood’s envelope with gritty dialogue and risque storylines. As a result, in 1934, the film industry began to enforce its Production Code. This meant that writing like West’s got heavily edited and censored. Ever brilliant, though, the star had her own way around such rules.

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Indeed, West would fill her scripts with deliberately over-the-top and risque dialogue, knowing that censors would immediately remove such language. But the star also knew that, with their minds focused on the overtly sexual or otherwise blush-worthy lines removed, they might not notice the slightly less suggestive ones that remained.

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Not all of West’s ideas went as well as that one, though. Indeed, early in her career, she had a run-in with the law for the very same reason – that scandalous way of expressing herself, which had become her signature. “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted,” the star once cheekily said by way of explanation.

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In 1926, West – using the pen name Jane Mast – wrote herself a leading role in a Broadway show called Sex. In it, the star played a prostitute named Margy, who decides to leave Montreal to travel with the military and entertain them on the road. On a stop in Haiti, though, a society man mistakes her for a tourist and swiftly declares his love. She then struggles with revealing her past to him.

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Sex made its debut in April of 1926. It then faced a slew of negative reviews from critics who disliked the show’s subject matter. As The New York Times put it, the play was “crude and inept, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Billboard echoed the newspaper’s sentiment, crowning Sex “the cheapest, most vulgar low show to have dared to open in New York this year.”

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But such reviews did little to deter audiences from seeing Sex. In fact, all of Broadway had been in a slump before West’s prostitute-centric play premiered. But her show often played to packed houses and it lasted on the Great White Way through the summer and into 1927 without issue.

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In fact, West’s Sex ran for a total 375 performances and saw 325,000 audience members before she got into legal trouble for the play. City officials didn’t like the show, nor did religious groups that complained to the authorities about the ongoing production. So, in February of 1927, police finally sprang into action.

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The cops then raided Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, where Sex had its controversial run. The show’s entire company faced charges of obscenity, backed up by those in the police department who’d seen the show. Indeed, judges, officers and their wives and even people who worked for the district attorney had sat all in the audience at some point.

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Two months later – and nearly a year after Sex opened on Broadway – West learned her fate. At the Jefferson Market Courthouse, the playwright was given a ten-day workhouse sentence for corrupting young members of the public. West could have paid a $500 fine to avoid jail time. But the star chose to spend a week and a half behind bars instead.

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As it turned out, West’s time in prison didn’t scare her straight. For one thing, she didn’t dine with the rest of the women behind bars. Indeed, the warden, along with his wife, had the star eat with them each night instead. And, as the playwright told reporters post-jail, she was allowed to forego the standard-issue burlap underwear for her own silk version.

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West left prison after just eight days due to her good behavior. Nevertheless, the star’s jail time would only amplify her bad girl image, which went onto boost her fame across the nation. And, as expected, the legal slap on the wrist did little to silence the actor. Instead, she went on to write a string of controversial plays before her big break in Hollywood.

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After Sex, West penned The Drag, which daringly displayed the lives of gay men in New York City. The star supported gay rights and knew that many secretly gay men wanted to live their lives openly. So, she cast them in the show. And then she let them improvise the dialogue themselves.

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When The Drag opened, it brought West instant financial success. Indeed, she is said to have made $30,000 on opening night, which would be about $425,000 today. But the show never made it to Broadway due to a warning from the Society for the Prevention of Vice. They told the star that if The Drag continued, then all future Broadway shows would be censored.

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Even after that, the Broadway censors couldn’t silence West. Instead, she decided to rework The Drag into a new show that she called The Pleasure Man. This time, she rewrote the lead character as a heterosexual man, although she kept the original play’s closing scene, which featured a drag ball.

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Nearly two years after The Drag premiered, The Pleasure Man made its Broadway debut in October of 1928. This time, though, the police didn’t wait around to punish the star for her production. They instead arrested all 56 cast members after the opening, charging each person with indecency.

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Although some newspapers questioned the ongoing effort to censor Broadway – and some even reviewed the show favorably – most saw The Pleasure Man in the same light as its predecessors. Even so, it took two years for the cast to go on trial, and the prosecution didn’t hold back. The actors were referred to as degenerates and homophobia featured prominently in their case.

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The jury, however, couldn’t make up their minds against those accused of indecency. Instead, they dropped the charges against everyone. All except West, that is, who faced a $60,000 fine for failing to appear in court. Some might argue that she won in the end, though, as her star only rose with each of these controversies.

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In the same year that The Pleasure Man premiered, so, too, did Diamond Lil, the show that helped West move on to Hollywood. Of course, censorship followed West to films – and after 1943’s The Heat Is On, she grew tired of it. The actor didn’t make another picture for 25 years afterward, as she was so distraught by the movie’s poor reception, along with her creative constraints.

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After that, West found refuge in an unexpected place – back on Broadway. She staged Catherine Was Great in 1944, playing a comedic version of Russia’s Catherine the Great for nearly 200 performances. Five years later, she brought Diamond Lil back to the stage, and earned accolades for it.

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In the 1950s, West made her way from New York to Las Vegas. There, the star put on a show like only she could – she sang while surrounded by chiseled bodybuilders. According to the 1996 book Guilty Pleasures, the star said of the show, “Men come to see me, but I also give the women something to see: Wall to wall men!”

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Eventually, West did make her way back to Hollywood in 1970 after a 27-year hiatus from film. Her last movie, Sextette, came out in 1978, although she had written it nearly 20 years prior. By that time, the star was 84 years old, but she powered through the production’s grueling schedule, as well as multiple changes to the script.

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As was to be expected, West spent much of her adult life doing just as she pleased. Indeed, her smart investments and sizeable fortune allowed her to do exactly that. She passed away in November of 1980, but she clearly lived to the fullest. As she put it, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

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