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Mum Meets Mae West

January 22, 2013


“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”  –Mae West

It’s hard not to love Mae West. She invented “Sex.” In fact, she was arrested for performing it on stage in the Roaring Twenties.

The Queen of the Double Entendre good-naturedly scandalized 20th century audiences by delivering “suggestive” wise cracks in her signature punchy purr during those headlong decades when America went from buttoned-up tightly to “let it all hang out.”

Starting with a 1927 stage play called Sex, which got her briefly jailed for “corrupting youth,” Mae West wrote all her own shows as well as those classic 1930s film comedies when, stout and no longer young, she came into her own in Hollywood.

Like any comic genius, she knew to a scintilla how she got laughs. “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 and say it.”

In 1933, Mae West discovered a young ex-acrobat named Cary Grant and made him the co-star of her most popular movie, She Done Him Wrong, based on her biggest stage hit, Diamond Lil…

One long-ago summer Saturday in Washington, D.C. where my mother grew up, mum happened to be downtown shopping. As she walked by the National Theater, all around her, other pedestrians were hurrying down the stage-door alley. And, yes, there was glittering Mae West fresh from her matinee performance of Diamond Lil, greeting fans and signing autographs.

As mum joined the crowd, she started searching through her purse for something Mae West might sign. All mother could come up with was a leaflet from a local Catholic church.

Her turn in line came, and May West was especially gracious since mum, too, was a famous beauty, locally. The first color photographs ever published in The Washington Post were rotogravures of the White House, the Washington Monument, visiting Queen Anne of Romania, and Margaret Virginia Mangan as a debutante.

After an exchange of smiles and compliments, mum asked for an autograph and passed Mae West the church leaflet. The star glanced down, then looked up, grinning, and wise-cracked in that husky, knowing voice, “I don’t usually endorse this kinda literature.”

Everybody around laughed, but, unfortunately, the feeling turned out to be entirely mutual. The church didn’t much care for Mae West, either. And, in 1930, Catholics set up the Hays Office, whose Production Code censored studio motion pictures. Mae West’s career suffered when the naughty sparkle got scrubbed out of her scripts, and directors had to tone down her performances.

Mae West never did retire. Into the Seventies, she played Vegas, put out a rock’n’roll album, and made a final screen appearance in 1978’s Sextette, adapted as usual from a one-act play of her own. Today the American Film Institute ranks Mae West as the fifteen greatest movie actress of all time.

Not her epitaph, but she once quipped, “”The score never interested me, only the game.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Emmett permalink
    January 24, 2013 12:26 PM

    By today’s standards, she’d be a nun

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