In honor of Mae West's 125th birthday, the Egyptian Theatre will screen her bawdy classic She Done Him Wrong on Saturday, August 18, with an introduction by author Michael Gregg Michaud.
Did you know that Mae West released a holiday album in 1966 called Wild Christmas? Among the songs were - of course - an especially suggestive version of “Santa Baby,” and such innuendo-filled tunes as “Santa Come Up and See Me” and “Put the Loot in the Boot, Santa.”
Award-winning former L.A. Times film critic Kevin Thomas was all of 30 when he was assigned to interview West about the Christmas disc at her famed white and gold apartment at Hollywood's Ravenwood apartment building. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted until her death in 1980 at age 87.
They were such good friends that Thomas would accompany West to all of her personal appearances, including the time in 1971 when she received a Woman of the Century honor from UCLA. “We went out there for that occasion,” recalled Thomas. “Reagan was governor and one of the kids called out at the Q&A session, ‘What do you think of Governor Reagan?’ And without missing a beat she said, ‘I don’t know much about politics, but I know a good party man when I see one.’ It brought down the house.”
And whenever she encountered fans, said Thomas, West quickly put them at ease, recalling a time that a couple got into an elevator at her favorite restaurant in Chinatown. “Just before the door closed, this pleasant middle-aged couple steps in,” said Thomas.“Then they realized they had stepped into an elevator with Mae West. They were just flummoxed. She immediately put them at ease’- ‘Oh, how are you doing?’ I don’t think they ever forgot it.”
West, who was born on Aug. 17, 1893, was a force of nature. On the stage since the age of five, she was a hit in vaudeville and began writing her own plays in the 1920s.
Petite with an hourglass figure, platinum hair, and a swagger that defies description, West never met an innuendo she didn’t like. Notable examples include “It’s not the man in your life that counts - it’s the life in the man,” "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted," "A man in the house is worth two in the street," and "I've been in more laps than a napkin."
“I only knew two rules of playwriting,” she once said. “Write about what you know, and make it entertaining. So that’s why I wrote the way I did on a subject I was interested in: sex.” And it was her 1926 play Sex that caused her and 20 members of the cast to be arrested in New York. After a trial by jury, West was found guilty of a performance that “tended to corrupt the morals of youth and others,” and sentenced 10 days in prison.
She created her iconic character Diamond Lil, a Gay Nineties Bowery saloon singer with a heart of gold, in her 1928 hit Broadway play of the same name. Five years later, West recreated Diamond Lil for her pre-Code box office blockbuster She Done Him Wrong, which co-starred neophyte Cary Grant. Nominated for Best Picture, She Done Him Wrong will be screening Saturday afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre in honor of West's 125th birthday. Author Michael Gregg Michaud will introduce the screening and sign copies of his book Mae West: Between the Covers.
She Done Him Wrong and her other 1933 ribald comedy I’m No Angel (also with Grant) saved Paramount from bankruptcy and from “losing their 1,700-movie theater chain,” said Thomas. “And Paramount paid her particularly luxurious.”And by 1935, she was the highest-paid star in Hollywood.
Thomas notes that eventually, one couldn’t separate the actress from her character.“The key thing to understand about Mae is that she was probably the most quoted playwright since Shakespeare,” he explained. “One of the lines she said of Diamond Lil - I think is the most revealing of everything - is ‘I’m her and she is me.' Mae strove with every ounce of her being to maintain the Diamond Lil image. The hourglass figure image. The whole image she had created over a lifetime in show business and took a long time to discover how to present that image and how to preserve it. That was a lifetime’s work. I think she was saying that the truest thing she ever said about herself.”
West had always had interest in wrestlers, boxers, and muscle men. And in the 1950s, she and her manager (and one-time lover) Jim Timony decided it was time for her to embark on a nightclub act. “Timony died about that time,” noted Thomas “But she went ahead. She decided she would do something different for the women in her audience. She was always saying way back in the ‘30s, she wanted to draw women to her films as well as men. She was pretty secure she could attract the men, but she wanted something for women. She decided she would have a body builder chorus line, wearing togas and sandals.”Among those were recruited included Paul Novak and Joe Gold (of Gold’s Gym.)
“She launched it in Vegas in ’54,” said Thomas. “She took it out on the road six times. Toured the country very successfully in 1960. As Joe told me, ‘I couldn’t really believe it. Paul is falling in love with her.'”Thomas said that Mae and the much younger Novak, who died in 1999 at the age of 76, were a real couple and that they loved each other dearly. "But her closest confidante Dolly Dempsey told me - it was a remarkable remark - Mae loved Paul, but didn’t know it.”
However, Thomas remembered a touching moment in San Francisco for the premiere of her poorly received 1978 film Sextette. (West only made two films after 1943: Sextette and the 1970 X-rated bomb Myra Breckinridge.)“The Orpheum Theatre was packed,” he recalled. “They turned people away. I was in the wings when she came out on stage afterward. She got a huge ovation. I don’t think for the film as much as just herself coming out on stage. She was really transported.”
After the premiere, Thomas joined West and Novak in their hotel suite. “It was a really privileged moment,” said Thomas. “She had gotten such love and admiration. She really felt alive. The room was packed with flowers. Her favorite psychic Richard Ireland was staying at another hotel. She said, ‘Paul, call Richard and tell him to come on over to the suite.’ He went into the bedroom and placed the call. The two of us were left alone. She looked at me and said, full of emotion, ‘He really is a good guy.’ It was a clear expression of her love for him.”
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.