Every few decades there comes a woman who dares to challenge convention. Someone who inspires through the sheer force of her personality. Although this particular lady did not sculpt, paint, or do photography, she was nonetheless an artist with her wit.
An intrepid trailblazer, Mae West—known as the ‘Queen of Sex’ and the “Statue of Libido’—dominated the Great Depression with her trademark flamboyant style. The skin-tight gowns, flashy jewels, and platinum blonde locks made her the girl everyone wanted to know. (Joan Rivers would be proud!) She wasn’t afraid to set new trends and used her shocking persona as a way to garner attention. Offering sultry-voiced sexual innuendos, she represented the epitome of playful sensuality. Women wanted to be like her while men buckled at the knees just at the sight of her.
But Mae West was much more than a curvy woman with a sailor’s mouth. She was extremely intelligent and knew exactly how to promote attention for herself. After reaching success in the early 1900’s she began writing, directing, and starring in her own material. Choosing sex as her subject, Mae became a legend for performances in films, on stage, in nightclubs, and on records. However, her arrest record did little to curb her sexual entertainment. In fact, she capitalized on the controversy.
Great Depression Sex Appeal
Not surprisingly, her frank and maverick-like free thinking on the subject of sex often put her at odds with moralists and hard-nosed religious leaders. Her Broadway play Sex resulted in another arrest. A grand jury deemed the production “wicked, lewd, scandalous, bawdy, obscene, indecent, infamous, immoral, and impure.” But by the time the case went to trial, Sex had been performed on Broadway 339 times and had been seen by about 325,000 people. She allegedly received star treatment in prison. Dining each night with the warden and getting to wear the finest in lingeries, West was eventually released on good behavior.
In 1927 West was in trouble again. Her new play Drag, about a homosexual party, was banned from Broadway. However, never to back down from a challenge, West bounced back with her naughty Diamond Lil which caught the eye of Hollywood. Mainstream stardom for Mae West following the release of Night After Night. But in pure Mae West fashion, she insisted on rewriting all of her lines and making the movie a box office hit. Audiences went wild for Mae West.
But West’s empowered sexuality, that entranced movie-goers, really pissed off religious leaders. The Catholic Church eventually launched a campaign to put an end to her “filth” and the studios that supported her. By 1934 Hollywood felt the squeeze by the strict Motion Picture Production Code. Since West was not one to give in easily and she managed for a while to pull a clever bait and switch with the censors. She loaded scripts with material for them to cut while slipping in more subtle tones they would overlook. Most famous were her sly double entendres. Her lines were delivered with such droll understatement that fans were never quite sure what was a straight line and what was intentional innuendo.
One of West’s favorite roles was her 1944 Broadway production of Catherine Was Great. A woman after her own heart, West felt inspired by the famed Russian empress. Catherine represented a powerful, lusty, independent woman who surrounded herself with tall muscle men. Like the historic Catherine, West’s identity as a sexual titan seemed untarnished by age. Well into her 60’s, Mae West still demanded daily sex well and held onto a girlish figure.
Mae West was more than just a sexual outlaw. Her straightforward, shameless convictions made her a true feminist, consummate actress, and complete iconoclast. And for Mae West—that was something always worth fighting for.1