A seductive, overdressed, endearing, intelligent, buxom, sometimes vulgar blonde actress and sex symbol with drooping eyelids, Mae West featured a come-hither voice, aggressive sexuality, and a genius for comedy. She began working as an entertainer at age five. After a few years in stock she moved into burlesque, where she was billed as "The Baby Vamp." She began working in vaudeville and Broadway revues at age 14; she was the first to do the "shimmy" on stage, and she also appeared as a male impersonator. Between 1907-18 West often re-wrote her material and began thinking of herself as a playwright. In 1926 her first play, Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed on Broadway, caused a scandal and led to her imprisonment on Welfare Island for over a week on obscenity charges. She wrote and directed her second play, Drag, in 1927; about homosexuality, the play was a smash hit in Paterson, New Jersey, but she was warned not to bring it to Broadway. Finally, she had a legitimate success on Broadway with Diamond Lil in 1928, and, after two more successful stage productions, she was invited to Hollywood. With a reputation as a provocative sexual figure, she was watched carefully by the censors and often clashed with them; still, she managed to inject much sexuality into her films through innuendo and double entendre. For most of her films she wrote her own lines and collaborated on the scripts; her witticisms and catch-phrases soon entered the speech of mainstream America. Having debuted onscreen in 1932 in Night After Night, by 1935 she was the highest-paid woman in the United States. Throughout the '30s her films were anticipated as major events, but by the end of the decade she seemed to have reached her limit and her popularity waned; puritanism was on the rise and censorship was severely limiting her career. After making The Heat's On (1943), she planned to retire from the screen, and went back to Broadway and on a tour of English theaters. In 1954, when she was 62, she began a nightclub act in which she was surrounded by musclemen; it ran for three years and was a great success. By now a legend and cult figure, she went into retirement. She appeared in two more films in the '70s. She is the author of an autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It (1959).
Biography by Rovi
- First performed at church functions as a 5-year-old and was enrolled in dance school at age 7. By 13, she was performing professionally in vaudeville.
- Secretly married fellow entertainer Frank Wallace at 17 but soon after, distanced herself from the relationship. She filed for divorce 30 years later when a reporter uncovered the marriage.
- Was arrested in 1927 on obscenity charges for the Broadway production of Sex, which she wrote, directed and starred in. Eight months later she was arrested again for the same reasons during the run of The Pleasure Man.
- Her fondness for diamonds sparked the creation of a successful show centering on her most memorable character, Diamond Lil.
- Signed on with Paramount Pictures in 1932 for her first feature film, Night After Night. Followed that with the box-office smashes She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, both featuring, at her suggestion, Cary Grant.
- Though she's often associated with W.C. Fields, My Little Chickadee (1940) is the only film they made together.
- Known for many quips and double entendres, among them, "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
- Published her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, in 1959.
- After a 26-year break from acting, she returned to acting in Myra Breckinridge (1970); at age 85, she starred in Sextette (1978).