Though Mae West (1892-1980) lives on in popular culture as an alternately sultry and comedic sex symbol from twenties and thirties films, her plays challenged the conventional mores regarding homosexuality and female sexuality—even in the ‘libertine’ Jazz Age.
Born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1892, West dove almost instantly into show business. By age fourteen, she was a well-known vaudevillian under the stage name Baby Mae. At age eighteen, her career blossomed and she won meatier roles on Broadway. As she began to earn a more established name on the stage, she also began to write plays. West had always loved to write, and she was especially proud of her skill. Though it is unclear whether she ever had a formal education, her writing sparkles with traces of her sharp wit and her strong command of language—the double entendre was her favorite literary device. However sharp and skilled her writing was, most critics could not get past subject material such as prostitution and homosexuality, and so she was widely condemned. Censorship also hindered her attempts to establish herself as a provocative playwright, and her plays were often shut down; Sex, her 1926 debut, which she authored under the pseudonym Jane Mast, earned her a jail sentence for “indecency” and “[corrupting] the morals of youth.” West was undeterred—her plays were commercial successes, so she continued to write. Her 1928 smash hit, the raunchy Diamond Lil, launched her into stardom and earned her the attention of Hollywood.
In 1932, Paramount offered West a contract, and as she transitioned to film she eventually stopped writing plays. However, she channeled her writing abilities into screenwriting: she wrote nine of the thirteen films in which she starred.
Although critics generally denounced her racy plays, West got the last laugh. Her legacy as a pioneer for gay rights and feminism, a woman who dared to stretch the boundaries of conventional sexual mores, lives on.