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How censorship made actress Mae West an international star

As a collection of her possessions goes up for auction, Julia Molony tells why the acid-tongued iconoclast was destined for greatness

Hollywood icon: Mae West in the 1930s
Hollywood icon: Mae West in the 1930s

By Julia Molony

When she was born on a summer night in Brooklyn, Mae West's parents couldn't have predicted that she would grow up to become a grande dame of Hollywood. But she'd been destined to be a diva from the moment she took her first breath,in 1893.

She was the second child of prize-fighter John Patrick West and Matilda Doelger, a corset model; her older sister, Katie, had died at just a few months of age from a respiratory illness.

When Mae came along, her father was disappointed that she wasn't a boy. But her grief-stricken mother doted on her healthy daughter with a rare intensity. Young Mae was a bonny baby, with chubby cheeks, blue eyes and blonde hair. An only child until the age of five, she was the object of her mother's fierce devotion. The girl's every desire was indulged.

Mae's primary place in her mother's affections instilled an unshakeable self-confidence that was to endure throughout her life. Her sense of self was too secure to be rattled by the arrival of her two siblings, a brother and a sister.

"I was never jealous of my sister and brother," she said. "In my whole life, I've never envied anyone. I was too busy thinking about myself." Her mother delighted in treating her little girl like a doll, dressing her in lace and curling her hair, instilling a pride in and fascination with her own image. As a child, "I'd pose as I'd walk along and look at myself", West later remembered.

Her mother had trained as a dressmaker and instilled in little Mae a love of the finer things in life. An early photograph shows her posing on a bear skin,and she loved fine fabrics and jewellery.

Now, her collection of treasured possessions and memorabilia has gone on view to the public for the first time. Hollywood auction house Julien's yesterday hosted a sale of West's property, which has been brought to auction by her former secretary Tim Malachosky.

Sailing in: Mae West is interviewed on the deck of the Queen Mary ship on its arrival at Southampton in 1947
Sailing in: Mae West is interviewed on the deck of the Queen Mary ship on its arrival at Southampton in 1947

As a younger woman Matilda had herself harboured ambitions to become an actress, but her parents, respectable merchants of German descent, disapproved and forbade her from the stage. Matilda's daughter quickly became the focus of her own thwarted ambitions.

"My father wasn't as sure as my mother about me going on the stage so young," recalled Mae. "He said, 'let her have a chance, but if she gets stage fright, she'll have to wait till she's older'. Stage fright! Can you imagine? I didn't know the meaning of the word. Still don't. My mother didn't listen to my father. She knew I could do anything I wanted."

At home, Mae's career wasn't the only thing her parents disagreed about. They had married in haste when Matilda was still a teenager, and according to their daughter, her mother soon regretted her choice.

"My father had swept her off her feet," West once told a reporter, "and she always felt that she had made a big mistake, marrying him. She didn't want me to make the same mistake."

Matilda taught her daughter to disdain the female destiny of marriage and children in favour of seeking glory outside the home. It was Matilda who ferried her to dance classes and amateur-night talent shows at the local theatre, the Royal in Brooklyn. She was five years old the first time she performed.

Mae certainly delivered on her mother's dreams for her and the two remained close until Matilda died in 1930.

"I took her out on the stage with me for a curtain call before she died," West said in an interview.

"The success I had was worth it for my mother to come and take that bow with me. That meant more than any diamonds."

By the age of 13, she had gone professional on the vaudeville circuit, performing under her stage name of Baby Mae. Soon after, her acts began to reflect the sexual candour for which she would become famous. She pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in 'family-friendly' vaudeville, by incorporating aspects of burlesque into her act.

It was on-stage as a performer of vaudeville and burlesque that the star Mae West was born.

There she carefully honed her craft.

Later, she teamed up with fellow performer Frank Wallace as a duo, devising an act that West later said "was very flashy - loud opening, chic costumes, patter, comic love song (I Love It) and a good get-off.''

According to Wallace, the partnership apparently soon became more than just professional. In 1937, he turned up in Hollywood brandishing a marriage certificate, claiming he was West's legal husband. She was by now the second highest paid woman in Hollywood, and he wanted a cut.

West, for her part, always denied the union. She was successful in proving they'd never lived together, but in 1942 she was still obliged to seek a legal divorce.

It was a play she wrote herself that made her famous.

In 1926, she appeared in Broadway in the lead role of Sex. She had written the role of libertine and prostitute Margy LaMont as a personal showcase.

"I only knew two rules of playwriting,'' West said. "Write about what you know and make it entertaining.

"So that's why I wrote it the way I did, on a subject I was interested in - sex.''

The play was flagrantly provocative and caused an instant scandal. Variety called it "the nastiest thing ever disclosed on the New York stage". Of course it was a hit.

It was in its 41st week of performances when police stormed the theatre, arresting West and 20 other cast members. There ensued a noisy obscenity trial, which attracted the attention of the world's press.

West was eventually charged with "producing an immoral show and maintaining a public nuisance", fined $500 and sentenced to 10 days in a women's workhouse.

It was worth it. West left prison a global star.

"Censorship made me," she later quipped.

Success in Hollywood soon followed. She arrived, she later said, with a healthy lack of awe for Tinseltown and its studio moguls.

"I'm not a little girl from a little town making good in a big town; I'm a big girl from a big town making good in a little town," she said.

By the time she was cast in her first on-screen role, she was almost 40. Her first role was a small one, in the 1932 film Night after Night, but a scene stealer.

For her next, she took the lead, reprising the character of Diamond Lil from the hit play Diamond Lil she had written and starred in some years earlier.

Throughout her years in Hollywood she remained completely in control of her own image. Though many of the female stars of her age were grist to the mill of the studio machine, West remained master of her own destiny, writing nine of the 13 films she starred in.

"Being an actress and a writer both - that's the best thing you could be because you can be anyone you want," she said. "You just write yourself the part,and then you play it."

West had several intense affairs over the course of her life, but never married again. "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet," she quipped.

She was always devoted and loyal to her family, providing them with homes and jobs in Hollywood. But by her own admission, her most fervent devotion was saved for her audience.

"Do you want to know about my first love affair? It was when I was five," she said in an interview towards the end of her life.

"I made my debut in Brooklyn at the Royal Theatre. It was my first love affair with my audience and it's lasted all my life… no man could equal that.

"I ached for it, the spotlight, which was like the strongest man's arms around me, like an ermine coat."

Laughter lines: The best of West

Mae West's most famous quotes:

- On relationships:

"Men are like linoleum floors. Lay 'em right and you can walk all over them for years."

- On bad behaviour

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

- On dieting

"I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond."

- On fame

"It's better to be looked over than overlooked."

- On life

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."

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