When Mae West Went To Jail For ‘Sex’ (Nov, 1959)
The Adam & Eve sketch from 1937 may be heard here.
When Mae West Went To Jail For ‘Sex’
The Come Up ‘n See Me Sometime girl turned a bare cell into a $1 million publicity sell.
By MICHAEL MATTHEW
MAE WEST, THE GREATEST teasetress of them all—the naughty-hipped seductress who turned bluenoses red with the line “C’m up’n see me sometime,” and who made the public believe, “I can do more with my voice and eyes than another woman can do turning herself inside out”—failed to bewitch the authorities only once.
She landed in the cooler which she promptly turned into a gilded cage.
Described as the “Love Goddess,” and the “High-Priestess of Sex,” Mae West has come to represent what psychologists consider the “titillator of the American libido.” When asked her opinion of psychologists, it was rumored her reply was: “What they know about sex couldn’t excite a mosquito. They’re a pack of brain-hole peepers!”
Playing a bit part in her first movie, she founded her Hollywood career on one line.
When a checkroom girl saw Mae’s furs, she gasped, “For goodness sake!” Mae winked: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
When she was signed to portray a sultry honky-tonk keeper opposite W. C. Fields in My Little Chickadee, Hollywood and the fans expected verbal fireworks to explode. No one had ever been masterful enough to top the barbarous sarcasms of W.C.,—a high-ranking star of the day.
But when the haughty hussy hit town, Hokumville was stunned with disbelief when she converted W.C. Fields into an ardent admirer. He respected her talents and was disinclined to tangle with a woman whose reputation for cutting wit was as outrageous as his own. He was ordinarily a cherubic cut-up when on the movie set, but he became subdued and gentlemanly when Miss Mae approached the cameras. Some claim that when she stood beside him a flirtatious twitch developed in his mammoth nose. The movie was a box-office smash and they remained fast friends.
Mae West began her career playing child roles. She played her first grown-up role as a chorus girl in an Ed Wynn show and from that bit part on, there was no stopping her. While the average chorus girl is lost in the mass of cavorting pulchritude, the magnetism of Mae West was quickly felt.
Men watched her with perspiring imaginations and women glared at her with envy. A star with rare and remarkable brilliance was being born and even today many people boast, “The second I spotted her I knew she had more than what it takes.” Her reputation as a scathing wit began to show when one evening she was overheard to demolish a snazzy-suited masher with: “Your mother should have had children.”
She once commented about her own character: “I used to be Snow White but I drifted.” When an enterprising statistician discovered that Miss West had the exact proportions of Venus de Milo, she laughingly remarked, “I’ve got it on her. I’ve got two arms and I know how to use them. Besides, dearie, I’m not marble.” And no mathematician has yet been able to disprove her erudite theory on geometry: “A curved line is the loveliest distance between two points.”
Though she is loved for her kindness to unknown and struggling performers, a noted movie director once stated, “Hell hath no fury like Mae when scorned.” He was probably thinking of the time when Miss West, angered by the crude antics of a loud-mouthed actor, said: “That guy’s no good. His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”
Though she was usually aware of just how far she could carry her personal crusade to make “sex” a national necessity, she has, now and then, miscalculated. In 1937, appearing as guest star on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show, Miss West created a furore that almost shattered the airways.
In a skit about the Garden of Eden, Miss West was assigned the role of Eve opposite Don Ameche, who was Adam. Bergen was the snake in the grass. The script was cleared by NBC and the rehearsals went smoothly. But when Miss West, the mistress of vocal innuendo who can make the phrase “how now, brown cow” sound like an invitation to an evening of delights befitting a sultan—performed her far from subtle reading and salty ad-libs she was banned from the air waves for twelve years. Radio listeners who were fortunate enough to hear that program have never forgotten her memorable reading.
When her play Sex (written by Mae under the pseudonym of Janet Mast) opened in 1926 at Daly’s Theater in New York, a horrified gasp arose from the theater going public—but front row seats quickly became more valuable than blue-chip stocks. Sex and censorship became the noisy topic of the times. If all the newspaper headlines were cut out and laid end-to-end, the ballyhoo could have been read in China.
The New York Times in its review the next day suggested that since the play was laid in a Trinidad brothel, in Montreal and Westchester County, “the authorities of all these places have ample cause for protest.” The aforementioned locales did not take the Times’ advice—but, spurred by puritanical citizens and prodded by opportunistic politicians, the police raided the show ten months later. (Why they waited so long, no one knows.) The Queen of Curves was carted off to court and charged with “corrupting the morals of youth.” Miss West indignantly denied the charge and claimed her play was “educational.”
But on the night Sex was raided by a Deputy Chief Inspector and ten stalwart policemen, the mistress of the quick-quip was unusually unquiptive—allowing the producer, William Morgenstern to do all the talking. Amid the bursting of flash bulbs and hordes of cheering sidewalk spectators, Miss West and twenty others in the cast were coralled and helped into taxis and driven to Night Court where they were received by a magistrate and by Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee.
Then the farce got underway.
The courtroom was crammed and jammed by chattering spectators and noisy with the popping of flash bulbs. The Acting Mayor consulted with the battery of lawyers and arranged bail. Then he approached the bench to sit beside the magistrate while the festive prisoners were arraigned.
(It was rumored that McKee had, several days earlier, sent out warnings of the impending police action to all concerned in order to be certain the victims were prepared with sufficient money for bail.) Murmured opinions filled the courtroom. “Mae West will wrap the law around her luscious finger.” One enthusiastic fan whispered to her, “Knock them dead with a wiggle, Mae.” Another excited beholder crackled, “Remand her to my custody, Judge. There’s plenty room in my house.” Miss West, clad in a gown designed to set off her hour-glass figure, waved an arm glistening with diamonds, indicating to her admirers that she would stand pat and defend the public’s right to enjoy Sex.
She was released on $1,000 bail while the other performers were required to put up only $500. McKee brought the fracas to a grand climax by declaring that “. . . the policy of the city … is to make the criminal court the arbiter of what is decent and what is not decent on the New York stage.” Miss West, moving with her famous undulating stroll, left the courtroom free on bail.
After the raiding of Sex and two other plays, The Captive and Virgin Man, the drive against so-called obscenity and nudity spread like a plague and raid-happy cops had a field day. In a Brooklyn dance hall seven young women were arrested for not wearing stockings, although the dancers were otherwise “more or less clad in satin.” Street corners were cleared of curbstone Romeos. Ladies of the night ran for shelter.
But though they were facing trial, the plays continued. On February 13, 1927, the newspapers reported that Sex and the other two raided shows were playing to jammed houses. The name Mae West became synonymous with SEX. Wherever she went people pointed and said, “There goes Sex.”
On February 16, Magistrate G.W. Simpson ordered the trial of the Sex company, charging them with putting on an indecent show. The trial was to be conducted in the Court of Special Sessions.
Testifying before the magistrate, Inspector James Bolan cited his personal and tempered opinions against the play. He read from a long list of notes and often paused to collect his thoughts, attempting to express in chaste language the shocking goings-on in Sex. (Scores of spectators left because his notes were not as lurid as they anticipated.) Bolan, a naive drama critic, referred to “sugar daddy,” as “sugar dandy” and quoted a line as, “Don’t call this place a dump.” He was quickly corrected by Assistant D. A. James G. Wallace who amended the line to, “Don’t call this joint a dump.”
Wallace was accused of bias and of trying to hold the court in session for as long as he could so as to make the actors miss their evening performance. But quick action on the part of the defending attorneys closed the proceedings at an early hour. However, Wallace became a key figure in the court drama. With a loud and garish display of histrionics, he managed to bring the state’s case to a triumphant conclusion.
In court, on March 5th, the Sex company pleaded not guilty. Miss West, who had been seemingly withdrawn and uninterested throughout the previous proceedings (often keeping herself busy by applying her make up and blowing court dust from the fur collar of her coat, finally broke her long silence to state, “I think that Sex is one of the cleanest plays on Broadway. There is no nudity, and no obscene language in the whole play.”
(She must have overlooked the fact that in one scene she was stretched across the lap of her leading man in a string skirt which, when the strings were caused to separate, * revealed a skimpy undergarment resembling a G-string.) After much legal maneuvering on both sides, the trial finally got underway on April 2nd, before Justice Donnellan. Miss West, powdered, bejeweled and ravishingly. gowned, listened to the declamatory statements hurled by Wallace who, after a bombastic tirade, almost got into a fist fight with the defense attorney hell-bent on protecting Miss West’s good name. The mobbed courtroom _ waited for one of Miss West’s famous outbursts of temper, but she remained unruffled and little more than silent—as though waiting for an opportune time to begin blasting away at the puritans of the law.
But as the trial came to an end, the leading man, Barry O’Neill, appeared apprehensive. Fear began to pale the rugged countenance of a man who had been a lieutenant on a British minesweeper during World War I.
James A. Timoney, officer of the corporation which owned the play (named the Moral Production Company) pulled a rosary from his pocket and held it as though in reverent prayer. Wallace seemed to literally gyrate as he made a ringing and denunciatory summing up. Miss West remained calm and rather cheerful and tried to bolster up the lagging spirits around her with warm smiles and cute quips.
On April 4th, the verdict came down: “GUILTY!”
The leading man buried his face in his hands and was heard to sob. Other men had tears in their eyes. Timoney fingered his rosary. Miss West, still calm, though somewhat bitter, exclaimed: “Anyone who needs a dirty play ought to call on (Wallace) for suggestions.” She contended that it was not the content of the play—but the manner in which Wallace had presented the case that had brought in the adverse verdict.
A delightful remark made to a Times reporter by a chorus girl, gained a great deal of public attention.
“Why, the chief sources of amusement among us between scenes were discussions on the music of Beethoven and Bach, Shakespeare, and all the world’s most famous philosophers and literati.”
On April 22nd, called “The Day Sex Was Jailed,” Mae West, Timoney, and Morgenstern were fined and given ten days each in the workhouse. Donnellan, in delivering the sentences, said, “. . . the play is clearly obscene, immoral, and indecent . . . We are not a puritanical people, but we are a moral com- munity . . . New York … is the most moral city in the universe.”
Miss West nonchalantly rouged her cheeks, freshened her lipstick and, with great aplomb, undulated across the room, commenting: “. . . that prosecutor Wallace could make The Rosary look like a suggestive play if he talked five minutes on it.”
But while the trial was over—the shenanigans were far from finished. The darling of the headlines turned the simple act of going to jail into a colorful extravaganza. She drove to ” jail in her flashy $20,000 limousine followed by throngs of cheering admirers. Her arm was limp from signing autographs. People pleaded for a strand of her hair, for a button, a scented garter. One passionate devotee begged, “I’d sell my soul to kiss your little finger.” Mae, gracious but still quippy, remarked, “Give a lover like you a finger and you’ll want more than you can hand-le.” Her parting remark was “Give my regards to Broadway.”
While the law found a way to lock up the symbol of sex, the law could not tarnish her brilliance. From the moment she stepped into the Welfare Island workhouse, the drab structure glistened with her personality. The blue cotton uniform which made boards, boxes and bags of the other women, seemed to be transformed into a sheer negligee on Mae. Her bare gray cell took on the aura of a royal boudoir. She asked no favors, no special treatment, and performed the menial tasks without complaint.
She distributed the gifts sent to her among the other less fortunate prisoners. An expert on matters of the heart, she gave advice to the lovelorn and bolstered their sinking spirits with hope. The only rancor she expressed was against Wallace and District Attorney Joab Banton, whom she denounced in strong terms.
“Jail life is not bad after all,” she confided. “It may be the making of me.
“They say I’m a terrible woman, but I’m not really. I never drink or smoke.”
After serving her sentence she presented Warden Harry Schleth with $1,000 to buy books for the jail library. The warden, though obviously appreciative of the gift, commented flatly that he would exercise “liberal” censorship over the choice of books. Miss West’s reply was either unheard, or unprintable . . . though she did admit that her term in prison had provided her with enough material for a dozen plays.
Upon leaving the workshop, she was greeted by a group of New York society women, who as representatives of a charity committee, were eager to hear her views on prison life. Miss West, standing beside a black “pie wagon” in which she had once ridden, delivered a most enlightening lecture on the subject— and other varied topics that wilted the starch in the more prissy ladies. It was noted that two of the women almost fainted. It was not noted whether they almost fainted from thrill or shock.
Mae West, the high priestess of sex, the gaudy-glamour gal who put an extra pulse-beat in the American male’s libido, the fabulous woman who helped chase sex from the shadows and into the light of open-mindedness, went on to more daring and greater accomplishments. She was finally immortalized during World War II when the British Royal Air Force gave the name of Mae Wests to their bulging life jackets. Said Mae proudly, “It makes me feel like I started a second front of my own.”
Going strong today and packing them in wherever she performs, Mae West, past sixty, is still able to make many a younger actress envy her sex appeal. In her night club act, surrounded by half a dozen muscular young men who make Greek statues look like lumps of clay, she comments, “It’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men that counts.”
Mae West is living proof that you can take the woman out of Sex, but you can’t take sex out of the woman!