Mae West: Frank Rich's Errors
• • Rich's fascinating feature is here, in its entirety. It behooves us to clarify the account, however, and correct errors of fact made by Frank Rich directly underneath his text.
• • • Mae West “Sex” Capade! • • •
• • • Plays prostie on the Great White Way, wears silk undies in jail • • •
• • • By Frank Rich, New York Magazine, on 1 April 2012 • • •
• • • • • • 1927 • • • • • •
• • • Frank Rich writes: In a 1925 — 1926 New York theater season with acclaimed new plays by O’Neill (The Great God Brown), O’Casey (Juno and the Paycock), and Coward (Hay Fever), critics agreed that the rock bottom was Sex, the first Broadway vehicle written by and starring the voluptuous vaudeville trouper Mae West. Sex was “street sweepings,” in the verdict of The New Yorker, and “a crude, inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted,” according to the Times. The paper’s review did helpfully note that the show’s “one torrid love scene” lived up to its title. An ad warning patrons who “cannot stand excitement” to “see your doctor before visiting Mae West” didn’t hurt either. The play outlasted nearly all the competition. Variety christened its heroine, a Montreal lady of the evening with a fondness for sailors, “the Babe Ruth of stage prosties.”
• • • Frank Rich writes: Politics turned a hit into a Jazz Age phenomenon. When New York’s rakish mayor, Jimmy Walker, took a Havana holiday in February 1927, the acting mayor, Joseph V. (“Holy Joe”) McKee, raided three risqué Broadway shows. West was the prime target: Sex, then in the tenth month of its run, had been seen by 325,000 theatergoers. To the delight of the tabloid press, its twenty actors were hauled off to a police station in Hell’s Kitchen. The star spent the night in the Jefferson Market Women’s Prison.
• • • Frank Rich writes: West bailed out her company. The court had offered to drop charges if she would close the show. But she knew that in showbiz, crime paid. The grand jury’s claim that her “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” would abet “the corruption of the morals of youth” was better than any rave review. Festooned with white roses, she rode a limo [sic] to incarceration on Welfare Island and boasted of wearing silk underwear throughout her eight-day stay there. When Liberty magazine paid her $1,000 for an exit interview, she used it to start a Mae West Memorial Library for female prisoners.
• • • Frank Rich writes: A later West play — — The Pleasure Man, awash in female impersonators and homosexuality — — would be raided and shut down at its second Broadway performance [sic] in 1928. Undaunted, she eventually revived Sex and toured the Depression-era Midwest without incident, before arriving in Hollywood, where, paired with Cary Grant and W. C. Fields, she hit superstardom as she was reaching 40. The Bushwick-born, self-invented West (1893 — 1980) wrote the Ur-text for Madonna and Lady Gaga, repeatedly breaking gender and sexual barriers over a marathon career as a writer, performer, free-speech provocateur, and showbiz entrepreneur. Her pioneering playbook for turning scandal into profits remains the gold standard in American pop culture to this day. [ Download the Complete History of Scandals ]
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• • Corrections about Mae's ride to the Workhouse in April 1927 • •
• • A New York City police van drove Mae West along with two Black inmates and two police matrons to the Women's Workhouse. There were no flowers and no limousine mentioned in any news accounts nor in Mae's own article about the experience, printed in Liberty Magazine.
• • On 20 April 1927 several newspaper headlines read: "Mae West Goes to Workhouse to Start Sentence" and the subhead explained further: Actress-Author of "Sex" Taken to Welfare Island With Two Negresses.
• • Here is one front page headline: MAE WEST GOES TO WORKHOUSE IN VAN WITH TWO NEGRESSES. In the middle of the bridge, a huge elevator lowered the vehicle onto the island.
• • Here is another front page headline along with a news item: MAE WEST BEGINS TEN DAYS TERM IN PRISON — — Mae West, the star and the co-author of SEX, and two negresses and two white women as fellow passengers left Jefferson Market Women's Prison today for the workhouse on Welfare Island where she will serve nine days of the ten days sentence imposed yesterday for giving an obscene performance. Clarence W. Morganstern manager of the production and James A. Timony are serving their ten day sentences at the Tombs. ... [Source: Associated Press, printed in Frederick News Post on 20 April 1927 on the front page]
• • Corrections about "The Pleasure Man" police raid October 1928 • •
• • Mae West's play "The Pleasure Man" was staged at the Biltmore Theatre. The raid at the Biltmore is dramatized in Act I, Scene 1 of "Courting Mae West." At the Royale Theatre, as Mae puts on her costume and prepares to go onstage as Diamond Lil, Texas Guinan comes backstage to tell her police have already surrounded the playhouse on West 47th Street and are prepared for a raid on opening night, Monday, 1 October 1928.
• • Producer Carl Reed and lawyer James Timony secured an injunction. "The Pleasure Man" was able to give a second performance on Tuesday, 2 October 1928, then the police padlocked the show for good.
• • Headlines in The N.Y. Times on Tuesday, 2 October 1928 (front page) — —
• • • • RAID MAE WEST PLAY, SEIZE 56 at OPENING; Police Arrest Entire Cast of "Pleasure Man" After Last Act at Biltmore Theatre. INDECENCY IS CHARGED Law Hits Actress-Author a 2nd Time — — Playhouse Is Surrounded After Show. No Theatre Attaches Held. Police Guard Exits. RAID MAE WEST PLAY, Order Treated Lightly. Author Freed on Bail. 21 Seized in Raid on "Sex." WEST PLAY A "HODGE-PODGE." "Pleasure Man," With Vaudeville Background, Scrambled in Theme. NY Times. Oct 2, 1928. p. 1 (of 2 pages)
• • Headlines in The N.Y. Times on Wednesday, 3 October 1928 (page 33) — —
• • • • COURT STAYS POLICE on MAE WEST PLAY; Writ Bars Interference Until Friday and 'Pleasure Man' Is Performed to Full House. CASES OF 56 UP TOMORROW Cant Pleads Not Guilty and Bail Is Continued — — Walker Revealed as Instigator of Raid. Seeks Conference With Warren. Arrests May Still Be Made. Author Appears Concerned. NY Times, Oct 3, 1928. p. 33
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •• • The legal battles fought by Mae West and Jim Timony are dramatized in the play "Courting Mae West: Sex, Censorship, and Secrets," set during the Prohibition Era. Watch a scene on YouTube.
Courting Mae West
• • Photo: Mae West • • in court, 3 October 1928 • •NYC