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Bombshell Mae West did not begin her career in films until she was almost 40, became second highest paid person in America

Photo Credit: Allan warren - 
CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo Credit: Allan warren - CC BY-SA 3.0

Not every actress on the planet would have taken pride in the fact that Salvador Dalí, the greatest surrealist the world has ever known, designed a sofa inspired by her lips, known as Dalí’s West Lips Sofa. Well, that is actually what happened with the lips of the one and only Mae West, and it is a fraction of what the timeless actress left as her legacy to popular culture.

Some claim that the curvy bombshell inspired the bottle of Coca-Cola, and it is a fact that there was a perfume that, indeed, took the shape of her prominent torso. It was designed in 1937, by one of the greatest rivals of Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli. The perfume was named Schoking, which is probably a good word to use to also describe a major portion of Mae West’s overall unapologetic career.

It was, however, a long road for Mae West before she was offered her first motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures, back in 1932, by which time, the entertainer was already 38 years old. This fortunate meeting was what saved Paramount from bankruptcy.

In the beginning she did not have too many people supporting her career choice. Born in 1893, to John and Matilda West, it was only her mother, a former model, who gave her “the blessings.” The rest of the family did not much appreciate her or celebrate her later stardom.

Mae West, 1936
Mae West, 1936

Her first performance took place in a church when she was a little girl. By the time Mae reached her teenage years, she’d already walked the stage at the Hal Clarendon Stock Company, a professional in vaudeville performances, and it was at this point that she picked her first stage name, “Baby Mae.” After four years, she arrived in New York, making her first appearances on Broadway, the stage where she had her first big breakthrough as a performer.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1920s that West would start writing, producing, and starring in plays penned by her own hands. The juicy sexual jokes certainly did the trick in putting her at the center of attention, something that she openly craved. Her way with words often carried double meanings and also frequently got her into trouble for inappropriate behavior and serving as a “bad” role model for the public.

The first play she authored, entitled Sex, gained instant popularity, but it also put her in jail. She was sentenced to 10 days in prison and a fine of $500 for obscenity, an attribute that was to become intrinsic to her name. Strangely, she got out of jail two days before her prison sentence was through, as the reports said due to good behavior.

Of course, spending several days in jail did very little in preventing West from writing and producing more material that subtly or overtly played on themes of sexuality. She would remark later on that her experience of prison, and meeting the people there, served as an inspiration for her in building some of her vivid characters.

If there is one character, though, who cemented her path to success and eternal fame, that would be Diamond Lil. At first, this was a character that she played in a production staged on Broadway. It was such a huge success that the show was performed more than 300 times solely on Broadway, with West appearing in lavish clothing from the late 19th century, wearing diamonds and making sure her hair was all golden and wavy.

Mae West
Mae West

The success of the Diamond Lil play lasted for a while, until fortunes changed for the worst as the Great Depression overwhelmed the country in the early 1930s. West had to seek better luck elsewhere, away from New York, so she moved to Los Angeles in 1932. Despite it being uncommon for women her age to get any good roles in Hollywood, she was quick to land her first contract with Paramount Pictures.

One of those contracts also meant adapting Diamond Lil for the big screen, the film adaptation entitled She Done Him Wrong. The film was produced despite the fact that several of West’s plays, Diamond Lil included, were actually prohibited from being adapted as films by the Hays Offices; the reason being that they were immoral.

However, as it turned out, doing the movie was a decision that Paramount would never regret. The film had grossed more than $2 million, allegedly helping the company out of bankruptcy during a time when all the country was crumbling in the aftermath of the stock market crash. Mae West simply managed to entertain Americans and make them laugh at the peak of the Great Depression.

Publicity photo with W. C. Fields for My Little Chickadee (1940).
Publicity photo with W. C. Fields for My Little Chickadee (1940).

As a gesture of gratitude, supposedly Paramount even named a building at their lot after Mae West. By 1935, and aged 42, West became the Hollywood star with the highest salary, and she was also second in line after the newspaper magnate William Hearst as the person with the highest salary across the whole of America.

By this time, West’s status as a star was cemented. She kept on starring in more movies as the decades of the 20th century went by, many of which she wrote herself. In the long run, even her once immoral jokes became embedded as part of American pop culture.

Read another story from us: Why the fiercely independent Katharine Hepburn hid her 26-year affair with co-star Spencer Tracy

She would pass away from natural causes two years after her last role in the 1978 film, Sextette, in November 1980, aged 87. Her figure and life story as a liberated woman never afraid to voice her opinion will always be a reminder to people that it is never too late to go after their dreams.

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.