Most people, when they hear the name Mae West, think of old Hollywood movies and a brassy bottle blonde delivering comic double entendres in a studied drawl. In fact, there was a lot more to Mae than innocently smutty remarks (although she made those into a cinematic art form – most famously replying to the comment “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” with a knowing “Goodness had nothing to do with it” in the 1932 movie Night After Night).
A woman way ahead of her time, she was a multi-talented performer and a very successful and highly controversial playwright – her first play (entitled, with admirable brevity and decades before Madonna, simply Sex) led to her arrest and brief imprisonment during the highly moralistic 1920s. Beginning her career in vaudeville, she became a smash hit on Broadway for both her acting and her plays before moving to Hollywood in the early 1930s, where she became a huge success, again for her acting and writing.
Her distinctive and naughty style attracted the attention of the censors, and her early Hollywood performances were apparently partly responsible for the creation of the so-called Hays Code, which tied the American film industry into a narrowly defined moral outlook for more than thirty years. It was in order to circumvent this new code that Mae developed her now-famous facility with double entendres, a facility that turned her into an icon and one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars.
There are very few actresses back then who could claim that their success had rescued their studio from bankruptcy, or, even now, had written many of the films they starred in – but Mae could claim both with complete honesty, as well as a later appearance on the equally iconic Peter Blake cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Mae was a woman in a man’s world, but she never let that stop her…
Below is Mae’s list of ‘Things I’ll Never Do’, reproduced from Simon Louvish’s wonderful biography Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin (Faber and Faber, 2006). I love this list, mainly because much of it still rings true, decades after this undated document was compiled – in amongst the distinctively Westian humour, she imparts what is still good advice for women everywhere…
Things I’ll Never Do:
1] Take another woman’s man. Not intentionally, that is. Even though all’s fair in love and war and it ain’t no sin.
2] Try to be anything but myself at all times, publicly and privately, except on the stage or screen, for that’s where acting belongs.
3] Cook, bake, sew, wash dishes, peel potatoes, eat onions, or bite my nails.
4] Wear white cotton stockings or join a nudist colony.
5] Like opera, number thirteen, yodelling, cold spaghetti, rats, snails, men who shave their necks, or over-ripe bananas.
6] Care for people who whistle in dressing rooms or checks that bounce as high as the stratosphere.
7] Play mother parts, sad parts, dumb parts, or a virtuous wife, betrayed or otherwise. I pity weak women, good or bad, but I can’t like them. A woman should be strong either in her goodness or badness.
8] Go nuts about classical music, sandwiches, cigar smoke, places that smell like hospitals, and black nail polish.
9] Get excited over night clubs, contract bridge, fan dancing, bobby sox, the stock market, badminton, or bust developers.
10] Be thrilled to death by orchids, anonymous love letters, souvenir postcard folders, earthquakes, slave bracelets, or beds with hard mattresses.
11] Be bothered by Scotch money-lenders or boys who lisp.
12] Believe the worst about anybody without complete proof nor will I believe that it’s useless to struggle against so-called Fate – the phony!
13] Walk when I can sit, or sit when I can recline. I believe in saving my energy – for important things.
14] Write a story that is unsophisticated, because I believe that innocence is as innocent doesn’t.
15] Marry a man who is too handsome, a man who drinks to excess or doesn’t carry his liquor like a gentleman, a man who is easy to get, easily led into temptation – unless I do the leading…