Courting Mae West

The play "COURTING MAE WEST: Sex, Censorship & Secrets" is based on true events during the 1920s when actress MAE WEST was arrested and jailed in New York City for trying to stage two gay plays on Broadway. Maybe she broke the law - - but the LAW couldn't break HER!

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Mae West: # 15,929

The play COURTING MAE WEST, based on true events in the life of MAE WEST (during 1926-1932), dramatizes her difficulties and legal woes. Here's some background on the raid on West 47th Street at the Biltmore Theatre on 1 October 1928, and Mae West's arrest shortly after midnight.

• • In 1860 the New York City Police Department built a station house at 345 West 47th Street, and an inexpensive-looking residence was erected in the adjacent lot. [Homeless men and women were offered bare-bones shelter there temporarily, and these deplorable conditions were famously exposed by photographer Jacob Riis.] Due to its location in Hell’s Kitchen and proximity to the theater district, the station house remained very busy.
• • Mae West was brought here when arrested for her 1928 play: "Pleasure Man."
• • New York Times scribe Meyer Berger gave readers a look at that block and Mae's misadventure in his book The Eight Million – Journal of a New York Correspondent [NY: Columbia University Press, 1983]. Here's an excerpt from his chapter WEST SIDE: That Was West Forty-seventh.
• • The war [1917-18] and the advent of Prohibition, wrote Meyer Berger, was a "mad combination that left West Forty-seventh frenzied and breathless. Theaters and night clubs, subways, ever-increasing motor traffic, homicidal bootleggers and drug addicts, beggars and peddlers, overran the precinct. Night encroached on day with the glare of millions of electric lights. West Forty-seventh was never out of the public prints. Men and women read about it in far-off countries and came to stare at its wretched bulk. After the war the pace grew dizzier and dizzier. Offenders against the law, piddling fellows and arrogant gang leaders, bootblacks and men like Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz, crossed its worn threshold in ceaseless parade."
• • According to Meyer Berger, "Just after midnight on October 2, 1928, the big desk room was cluttered with fifty-five actresses and mincing male players from the cast of Pleasure Man, being booked for 'participating in an indecent performance at the Biltmore Theatre, 259-263 West Forty-seventh Street,' when the door swung to admit a large, self-assertive woman, generously curved and making the most of it. When she identified herself to the desk lieutenant, he took up his pen again, in cramped fingers, and wrote in the blotter, 'Arrest 15,929, Mae West, Hotel Harding, West Fifty-fourth Street, White, Single, U. S., authoress,' and booked her on the same charge. A footnote shows she was 'bailed by S. Silverman, $500 on Home and Lot, value $23,000, 708 Quincy Street, Brooklyn.' . . ."
• • With the development of new midtown police facilities in the 1960s, the West 47th Street police station known to Mae West as the 16th precinct was demolished.
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• • Illustration • • Biltmore Theatre • • Mae West's play was raided • • 1928 • •

Mae West.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Mae West: Judge

October in New York is an ideal time to highlight an Italian-American jurist who became a judge in October 1929, and who presided over an infamous obscenity trial at Jefferson Market Court (General Sessions) just a few months later — — a courtroom drama involving the actress-playwright MAE WEST.

• • • • Here's what The Herald Tribune reported on 4 April 1930:
• • NEW YORK: The Jury drawn from a special panel to pass on Mae West's guilt for presenting "Pleasure Man," a play described by the state as "indecent, improper, immoral, and obscene," was dismissed by Judge Amedeo Bertini in General Sessions court today [4 April 1930]. The jury failed to agree on a verdict after 10 hours of deliberation. "Pleasure Man" was raided and closed on 1 October 1928, after one performance at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, and the case — — involving Mae West and eleven co-defendants of the cast — — has been pending since then. . . .

• • Who was Amedeo A. Bertini? And why did such a raucous raid in OCTOBER 1928 not go to trial until MARCH 1930?

• • Nathan Burkan, the high-profile lawyer hired to defend MAE WEST — — and keep the repeat offender out of Jefferson Market Jail — — did his best legal foot-dragging to stall the case from coming to trial. Meanwhile, the witnesses' memories were not as sharp after a year-long hiatus, and much of the cast had joined the Navy to avoid going to court.
• • Mae West, in mourning for her mother Matilda (who had died in January 1930) was often accompanied by Jim Timony, her brother Jack, and her sister Beverly.
• • Another supporter, the speakeasy queen Texas Guinan [1884-1933] was in court to cover the proceedings for the newspaper New York American. Texas was disappointed that Mae West did not take the stand. Nathan Burkan kept Mae out of the hot seat, arguing that she only penned the play - - but did not perform in it, obviously, since Mae was starring in her other play "Diamond Lil."
• • Meanwhile, Amedeo A. Bertini [1882-1931] was having his own headaches, dogged by accusations that he bought his way into the Supreme Court.
• • After a 1928 financial scandal had bumped Judge Francis X. Mancuso off the bench, in October 1929 a friend of Jimmy Walker (and also a pal of F.X. Mancuso) was nominated to take his place: Governor Roosevelt appointed Tammany-team-player Amedeo Bertini to the post.
• • Born in 1882 in Greenwich Village, Amedeo A. Bertini was the American son of two Italian immigrants who had left Northern Italy in 1873 and settled on the south side of Washington Square. His affable father Bartolomeo Bertini, the proprietor of the Campidiglio Hotel [135 Bleecker Street, near Thompson St.], became well-known in Italian-American circles; Mayor Hugh J. Grant appointed Bart Bertini to serve on the committee when New York City celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus in 1892.
• • His son Amedeo, a boyhood buddy of Jimmy Walker, attended P.S. 35 on 13th Street, DeWitt Clinton High School, and Cornell University. He transferred to Columbia University, where he received his bachelor's and his law degree. The lawfirm of Bertini and Hirshon was headquartered downtown in the Woolworth Building [233 Broadway, near City Hall]. Politically well-tooled, Bertini was a member of the Iroquois Club, Tiro a Segno, and the National Democratic Club. He had raised $75,000 for the Italian Hospital in N.Y.
• • In 1929, the position of a Supreme Court Justice paid $22,500. Before accepting the judgeship, however, Bertini had become wealthy. He and his family resided in a two-story penthouse on the roof of an apartment building he owned at 37 Washington Square West. Bertini's tenants included Charles L. Kohler, Tammany leader of the Tenth Assembly District.
• • Mae West's trial began 16 March 1930. It had its share of entertainment value. Cast member Chuck Connors II sang the controversial "She's the Queen of the Beaches" for Judge Bertini and the jury. Though somber and bereaved, Mae West had to stuff a black handkerchief in her mouth to keep from laughing at this performance.
• • Actor Alan Brooks [1888-1936] — — who played the title role in "Pleasure Man" — — swore on the witness stand that he was astonished to discover that his character had died from being castrated. The debonair 42-year-old leading man testified in smart-looking spats and a gorgeous suit.
• • Judge Amedeo Bertini dismissed the Wales Padlock Law as ineffective, saying that it was impossible to accurately stage a play with ambiguous meanings in front of the jurors. [No kidding. . . .] He warned Broadway producers to police themselves better, however.
• • Variety exulted with a banner headline: Mae West Beats It!

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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • 1930 • •

Mae West.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mae West: Arresting Drama

A young Mae West fan drew this.

It's a portrait of actress Mae West on 9 February 1927 when she was arrested and brought to Jefferson Market Police Court on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village.

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• • Illustration • • Mae West • • 1927 • •

Mae West.