Today in 1980 died the long-lived, quick-witted, and amply proportioned actress Mae West.
n. an inflatable life jacket, originally one issued to R.A.F. servicemen in the Second World War
—Oxford English Dictionary
Mae West once coyly asked a police escort “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?” Her buxom figure and unapologetic bawdiness made her a box-office star and a favorite of World War II British flyboys who notoriously named their life jackets after her, alleging that they “bulged in all the right places.”
Given her extraordinary career as a sex symbol that extended (perhaps regrettably) all the way into the 1970s, it may be difficult to believe that Mae West was born way back in 1893 in Brooklyn. Then Mary Jane West was the daughter of a prizefighter and corset model and was a professional vaudevillian by the time she was fourteen. Her “Baby Mae” character segued into male impersonation, blackface, and suggestive and salacious shimmying. Her big breakthrough came when she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in her first Broadway play in 1926—titled, simply, Sex. It was hugely popular, but the entire crew was eventually arrested for obscenity, and West spent two days in prison—“in her silk underpants,” she later confessed—before being released for good behavior. Subsequent plays brought on fussbudgeting from the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice (see Comstockery) and more police attention, but by that point, West was a star.
West was already thirty-eight-years old when Hollywood came knocking in 1932, and she stunned everyone by successfully rewriting her roles to carve out a full-figured niche for herself. In her film debut she famously responded to a young girl’s breathless comment “Goodness! What lovely diamonds!” by saying “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie” (which would eventually become the title of her best-selling autobiography). Audiences adored her, and the conservative Production Code officers loathed her. She made nine more films in the thirties and early forties before switching to radio and getting herself banned from NBC radio after her “Eve” character told Don Ameche’s “Adam” that “I feel like doin’ a big apple.”
West maintained her sex-bomb persona into her twilight years, turning down the starring role in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard at nearly sixty because she was convinced she was a sexy as ever and would not be convincing as a has-been actress. She recorded three rock-and-roll albums in the late 1960s, including the double-entendred Great Balls of Fire in 1968 (at seventy-five), and starred in her last film Sextette in 1976 (at eighty-four) in which she played an aging sex symbol that everyone wants to bed, including her former husbands George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, and Tony Curtis, and an entire unidentifiable U.S. “athletic” team.
West died at home in 1980 at the age of eighty-seven, and her name is still used to this day to reference certain military life jackets, as well as the unfortunate, bulging, two-lobed appearance of a malfunctioning parachute. Most modern actresses would likely eschew having their torsos compared to inflatable rubber vests or parachutes, but West once advised women to “cultivate your curves—they may be dangerous, but they won’t be avoided.”