Mae West quipped, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” She was born on this date in 1893 ... or so she claimed.
1. Mae West's first performance was at a church social when she was five years old. By 14, she was a vaudeville stage actress known as Baby Mae. Her early roles involved cross-dressing and blackface. She was "discovered" at 18 and cast in bigger shows. Her big break was dancing the Shimmy in the revue Sometime.
2. West later starred in her own plays, which she wrote under the pseudonym Jane Mast. In 1927, Sex landed her 10 days in jail and a $500 fine for obscenity. She got off two days early for good behavior.
3. Paramount Pictures offered West a motion picture contact in 1932. She was 38.
4. Though known for her hourglass figure, Mae West is most beloved for her favorite figure of speech, the double entendre. A few examples:
“Women like a man with a past, but they prefer a man with a present." “I'm no model lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing.” “I'm a woman of very few words, but lots of action.” She later joked, "If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning."
5. Mae West wasn't just reading lines. She wrote nine of the 13 films in which she starred. It all started when she re-wrote her first role in Night After Night and stole the show. West once described herself as "the lady who works at Paramount all day ... and Fox all night."
6. Dorothy Parker's famous lines are sometimes attributed to Mae West and vice-versa. The two were born the same year, wrote screenplays, and were known for their sharp wit. But there are a few big differences. While Parker is best known as a literary writer and critic, West is most remembered as an actress. Parker and her friends famously comprised the Algonquin Round Table. West was more of a lone wolf. Parker was a depressive, sometimes suicidal, alcoholic. West didn't drink, smoke, or dwell too much on sadness. Parker was a brunette; West was a bottle blonde. Parker grew up in Manhattan; West was from Brooklyn. And so on...
The simplest way to tell if a quote came from either Parker or West is to ask yourself, "Sad or sexy?" That said, it's not always easy! Can you figure out who's responsible for these lines? (Scroll down to the bottom for the answers.)
A: "To err is human — but it feels divine."
B: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
C: “She's the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.”
D: "That woman speaks eight languages and can't say 'no' in any of them."
7. That famous line from 1933's She Done Him Wrong is actually, "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?"
8. West said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet." She was secretly married at age 17, but only lived with her husband for a few weeks. They didn't legally divorce until 31 years later. The actress was rumored to have secretly married another man, but preferred dating younger men. Her long-term partner Paul Novak was 30 years her junior.
9. By 1935, West was the highest-paid star in Hollywood — and the second highest-paid person in the United States. The first: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
10. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli — Coco Chanel's rival — designed a number of West's costumes. In 1937, she released a perfume called Shocking that came in a bottle shaped like West's torso. The buxom star is also rumored to have inspired a Coca-Cola bottle.
Image via virtualmuseo
11. Frequent Schiaparelli collaborator Salvador Dalí also considered Mae West a muse. His painting Il volto di Mae West imagines the bombshell as an apartment. He later designed a surrealist sofa called Mae West Lips. Now you can see the two works as one in the Mae West Room at the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain.
12. The inflatable, body-hugging B-4 life preservers used in World War II were nicknamed "Mae Wests." In parachuting, a "Mae West" is what happens when the canopy malfunctions and contorts into the shape of a bra.
Image via Philippines Phil
13. When the Beatles asked permission to use a picture of West on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band album cover, the actress joked, "What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” When the Beatles finally convinced her, they put her (#3) next to Lenny Bruce (#4), another comic known for pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech.
And time to revisit #5. Did you know your Dorothy Parker from your Mae West? A: Mae West B: Dorothy Parker C: Mae West D: Dorothy Parker