AVM

American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 49

Mae West

For more information about Mae West,

send for Vaudeville Times, Volume IX, Issue 3

 

The AVM recommends the full-length biography, Becoming Mae West by Emily Wortis Leider, now available in a Da Capo Press paperback edition, ISBN: 0306809516 or in the original hardcover.

1893 — 1980

Like many of the outstanding public personalities of her age, the public Mae West was a myth, a carefully crafted persona born of the real person but retailed to her public uncomplicated by any of its creator’s doubts, ambiguities, incongruities or contradictions. Like Eva Tanguay, Sarah Bernhardt, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Ethel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead or Greta Garbo, Mae’s stage character and public personality did not develop overnight or because of a single role.

Unlike many other famous public figures, the mythic Mae West was not in contradiction to the real person. Persona and person evolved together, each giving the other energy and direction. Yet what seems all of a piece is in fact disparate qualities married into a whole, and that was what made Mae West original.  She was short, about 5’ 1” but she loomed large through the use of platform shoes, poise and her innate ability to focus an audience’s attention solely on her. She not only defied society’s constraints but the conventions of glamour, sophistication and comedy of manners of her era.

Born at the close of the Gilded Age, she looked like an Edwardian dream girl yet exhibited a Jazz Age morality. She created indignant outcries for the tawdry but comic and vital Broadway plays she wrote to star in, became a sensational star of the golden age of the Hollywood studios and a progenitor of camp and ironic sensibilities whose fame outlasted her career and endures a generation after her death.