On this day in 1927, the great American actress Mae West was charged with obscenity for her Broadway production Sex, and sentenced to ten days in jail. In her true spirit, West is reported to have worn silk underpants throughout her sentence.
West was born in Brooklyn in 1893 and made a name for herself as a young actress in vaudeville. She went on to become one of Hollywood’s most sought after actresses and is now considered one of the greatest female stars in history by the American Film Institute.
With Sex—the first Broadway production she wrote, produced, and starred in—West achieved her fame. She cast herself in the role of a prostitute in the play, and it caused such a scandal that she was accused of “corrupting the morals of the youth.” Although the provocatively titled Sex was critically slated, tickets sales were high, until one day the puritanical New York City authorities decided to raid the theatre and arrest West alongside a few of her fellow actors.
West was sentenced to ten days in jail on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). In classic West fashion, the sentence went remarkably well: She dined with the warden and his wife, who she charmed; titillated the press with saucy tales of how she wore her silk underpants; and was even allowed out two days early for exemplary behaviour. In fact, she attracted so much media attention that her career was considerably enhanced by her spell behind bars (much more so than contemporary Hollywood jailbirds).
Her great gift was her ability, and willingness, to satirise the prevailing social attitudes of the time, particularly America’s prudish attitude towards sex. West found further success in subsequent plays, especially Diamond Lil in 1928 and The Constant Sinner in 1931, before taking her lighthearted but bawdy approach to Hollywood, starting with her very first film, Night After Night, in 1932. It was on the silver screen that she reached the height of her fame.
Mae West was a glamorous American sex symbol of the inter-war years, and she never shied away from taboo-breaking naughtiness—her 1959 autobiography was even titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, which was a retort she had once uttered when told, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” Her sex appeal influenced culture all around the world, and can still be seen today: her image appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; her lips inspired Salvador Dali’s iconic Mae West Lips Sofa; and during World War II the life vests worn by Allied Air Force personnel were nicknamed “Mae Wests”—slang for “life vests” and, of course, “breasts.”
Credit: © AF archive / Alamy
Caption: Mae West never shied away from breaking taboo.