Westisms are what I call the things said by a bawdy, beloved performer named Mae West. She was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893 to parents John Patrick West and Matilda (Tillie) Doelger in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a prize fighter who became a “special policeman” and later had his own detective agency. Her mother modeled corsets and fashions. Mae was only five years old when she entertained a crowd at a church social. She adored the spotlight and after that there was no stopping her; she won several prizes at local talent shows, then progressed to Vaudeville, beginning the start of what became a lucrative career.
One of the things Mae West became known for worldwide were the things she said such as “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises,” and “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” She was clever at puns but didn’t use them as much as double entendres , where everything she said sounded naughty. Her tone of voice and inflection would have given a dull dictionary reading a sexy sound. Those Westisms became her trademark along with her appearance. She was influenced by several performers in her time, always those who overdressed and whose mannerisms caught her eye. She took her distinctive walk from female impersonators and dressed outrageously in low cut gowns, marcelled hair and tons of jewelry and rings. The “good people” of the day were scandalized, but in private they couldn’t stop talking about her. The first Broadway show in which she appeared was a 1911 revue produced and directed by her former dance teacher, Ned Wayburn. It folded after only a few performances. But the New York Times spied her in the show, with the reviewer noting “a girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
With her “Mae Westisms” or simply “Westisms”, she could make people laugh, except those who were staid and puritanical. She wrote her own plays under the name Jane Mast. But nothing prepared the American public for her first starring Broadway role in a play called “Sex.” This was in a time when the mere mention of the word was taboo in polite society and here it was emblazoned for all the world to see on a marquee. Critics were harsh, but ticket sales were great! However the theatre was raided by police and Mae and the cast were taken to jail. She was prosecuted on morals charges, sentenced on April 19, 1927 to ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth,” serving only eight days with two off for good behavior. The newspapers had a field day portraying her as a “jail bird,” but it only served to enhance her career. West said, “I enjoyed the court room as just another stage, but not so amusing as Broadway.”
A few more Mae Westisms:
- When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.
- Sex is emotion in motion.
- I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it and three times to make sure.
- I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.
- It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men.
- I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
- Say what you want about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins.
- Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home. I’m tired.
- I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.
- It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
- Personally I like two types of men, domestic and foreign.
- When women go wrong, men go right after them.
- I’ve been in more laps than a napkin.
In 1927 she wrote a play named “The Drag,” about homosexuality. Try-outs were in Connecticut and New Jersey and West announced she would open the play on Broadway, but the Society for the Prevention of Vice banned all attempts to stage it. It was never staged on Broadway. Mae West was an early supporter of women’s liberation movements and gay rights. She wrote other plays; “The Wicked Age,” “Pleasure Man,” and “The Constant Sinner,” and “Diamond Lil,” which became a Broadway hit and continued to be popular for years. She revived it several times, always to great reviews.
When she was cast in a small role in a Hollywood movie called “Night After Night,” starring bad boy George Raft, she wasn’t happy with her part, until she learned she could re-write some of her lines. A prime example of her rewriting is when a hatcheck girl in the films says of her jewelry, “Goodness what beautiful diamonds,” she replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!” Later Raft is said to have remarked about her performance “She stole everything but the cameras,” meaning of course, that she stole the show from everyone else.
In 1933 West boosted a new young actor to stardom, when she cast a handsome young Cary Grant in her movie “She Done Him Wrong.” She told her Producer, after seeing Grant in the studio, “If he can talk, I’ll take him.” The movie was a smash success, earning an Academy Award Nomination. The movie is famous for her line, “I always did like a man in a uniform. That one fits you grand. Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? I’m home every evening.” In her next movie, “I’m No Angel,” she changed it to “Come up and see me sometime!” She went on to several film successes, often saving the studios she worked for from bankruptcy. She gave generously to charities and believed in civil rights. Through the years as her star waned, West was alternately adored and shunned by the public. Most of the public loved her bawdy sense of humor, but women’s clubs and religious groups made it a point to put her movies on the “Do Not See,” list making public statements that they considered her immoral and obscene.
In her later years her appearances became less frequent, but in 1958 she was featured at the Academy Awards singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Rock Hudson. She appeared on the Red Skelton Show in 1960, and on the TV show Mr. Ed. She did some recordings, keeping up with rock and roll, one of which “Way Out West,” is for sale from Amazon and available on this page.
West wrote an autobiography “Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It,” which is for sale from Amazon and available on this page. She didn’t tell quite everything however, referring to one lover as “D.” There are people who claim the records show she eventually married this man. If so, it was Italian Guido Deiro, a Vaudeville headliner, though she never says it is so.
West was married twice, and rumored to have many lovers, but after her second divorce, she said, “Marriage is an institution, and I’m not ready for an institution yet.” Her last romance was with a muscle man, Chester Rybinski, who was part of her entourage onstage in the 1950s, as she starred in her own Las Vegas stage show. She sang while surrounded by body builders, one of whom was Mickey Hargitay, who became Jayne Mansfield’s husband. They became parents of Marissa Hargitay who stars on the television show Law and Order, SVU. Rybinski, who changed his name to Paul Novak, was with West until her death on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87. Novak said, “I believe I was put on this earth to take care of Mae West.”
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