Kristeen Irigoyen-Hernandez aka Lady2Soothe Follow @OurVoicesEcho
Mary Jane “Mae” West was born on August 17, 1893, in Kings County, New York, delivered at home by her midwife aunt. Mae was the eldest surviving child of prizefighter father John Patrick West, known as “Battlin’ Jack West” and mother Mathilde “Tillie” Delker, a former corset and fashion model. Mae was five when she first entertained a church crowd social, subsequently appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at local talent contests and shortly thereafter began performing professionally in vaudeville. In 1907 at the age of 14. Mae first performed under the stage name “Baby Mae”, but she also tried various personas, including a male impersonator. Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in the 1911 revue put on by her former dancing teacher, unfortunately, the show folded after only eight performances. At 18, she was singled out and discovered by The New York Times reviewer who wrote a “girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
Mae in New York 18 years old
Mae was an early supporter of the women’s liberation movement and since the early 1920s supported gay rights. Years before her movie career she wrote a play about homosexuals called “The Drag.” It never opened, also she’d already been arrested for staging another controversial play. Mae believed gays were born gay and was vehemently against the belief therapy could “change” a person from gay to straight
In 1932 she was offered a film contract by Paramount Pictures despite being close to 40. A director let pick her leading man for the film “She Done Him Wrong”. As Mae looked out the window she spotted a good looking young man walking across the street and inquired about him. “If he can talk, I’ll take him!”, which is how Cary Grant was discovered. When Paramount balked at putting Black musicians on the screen, she insisted on the new sensation Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Belle of the Nineties (1934). By the second half of the 1930s, Mae’s popularity was affected by her dialogue and severely censored but she was a shrewd investor, produced her own stage acts and invested her money in large tracts of land in Van Nuys, a suburb of Los Angeles.
On April 11, 1911, seventeen-year-old Mae married Frank Szatkus in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The marriage was kept secret until a filing clerk discovered the marriage certificate in 1935 and alerted the press. In 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, she obtained a legal divorce which was granted on July 21, 1942. August 1913, Mae met Guido Deiro an Italian-born vaudeville headliner and star of the piano-accordion. Her affair went “very deep, hittin’ on all the emotions. Marriage is a great institution. I’m not ready for an institution yet.”
From its 1930 opening until her death Mae lived in the Ravenswood penthouse, during this time she was dating Black boxing champion William “Gorilla” Jones. The landlords of the Ravenswood apartment building didn’t allow “negroes” to visit the complex and complained, so West shut them up by purchasing the building and lifting the ban on African American guests and tenants.
Barely 5′ Mae didn’t drink, smoke or swear, loved sweets, hated to diet but exercised in her spare bedroom with various gymnastic accessories including five pound dumbbells, a contraption with handles and cords which worked like a human pulling machine, and a plain traction bar such as ballet dancers hang onto while toning up. The constant stream of White, Black, and Latino fighters who visited her at home were, she claimed, “the one departure I have made from the average citizen’s way of life.” She knew everybody in every town – judges, mayors, gangsters. Sweet, demure with a sensitive retiring side she’d say, ‘The world is about spiritual power, it’s about feeling.” She “quiet offstage, but when she got onstage, she lit up.
At age 61 she became romantically involved with Chester Rybinski, a wrestler and one of the musclemen in her Las Vegas stage show. Rybinski was former Mr. California and merchant marine, he was 30 years younger than Mae, later changing his name to Paul Novak and moving in with her. Chester/Paul discreetly arranged for treatment of the medical problems of her final years, diabetes and cataracts, and protected and reassured her as she became remote, defensive, and increasingly paranoid. She was convinced that “the forces” that had once protected her health and career had abandoned her, that the sun was her enemy, that Tennessee Williams, Mart Crowley, and Warren Beatty had stolen ideas from her early plays for Suddenly Last Summer, The Boys in the Band, and Shampoo. Their romance continued until her death at age 87 on November 22, 1980. Novak once commented, “I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West.”
During World War II, Allied aircrews called their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets “Mae Wests”. Her lips inspired surrealist artist Salvatore Dali to create the “Mae West Lips Sofa” an art deco shaped couch. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (Coco Chanel’s rival) designed a number of Mae’s costumes. In 1937 Schiaparelli released a perfume called Shocking which came in a bottle shaped like Mae’s torso. It’s also rumored Mae inspired a Coca-Cola bottle. She actually had special shoes, almost like a shoe within a shoe which is said to have changed her gate. The nine-inch platform heels she wore to make her five-foot, 130 lb. body appear taller and slimmer.
In 1977 I was employed by the William Randolph Hearst Publishing Company, one of the young men I worked with told me Mae West phone number and address was in the phone book, we looked it up and he called her. She was absolutely wonderful, genuinely friendly and funny as ever. I used to drive by the Ravenswood every day to and from work and although I never saw her, one time her chauffeur had pulled her white on white limo around to the entrance and was standing on the curb with the door open waiting for her to exit the building. Unfortunately, the traffic was heavy and the light changed from red to green and before I could get a glimpse I had to move on. But I’ll always remember almost seeing her!