On August 17, 1893, Mae West, who became the highest paid actress in Hollywood by 1935, was born in Brooklyn to a prizefighter turned police officer father and former corset model mother. West was famously known for her skin-tight gowns, signature blonde hair, and double entendres. (“Women like a man with a past, but they prefer a man with a present.”)
Now widely regarded as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, West began her career, ironically, in the church, singing at a social at age five. By age 14, she was a seasoned vaudeville performer. In her 20’s, she started writing and starring in her own risqué shows. Her 1927 show, “Sex,” landed her in jail for 10 days with a hefty $500 fine for breaking obscenity laws. Of the attempts to suppress her voice, she quipped, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Although a career performer, she didn’t land a motion picture contract until she was 38. She wrote nine of the 13 films in which she starred and was also a muse to other designers and artists including Elsa Schiaparelli (Coco Chanel’s rival) and Salvador Dali (he designed a painting and a sofa in her likeness). West’s image even appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. (When the group asked if they could use her image, she replied, “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?”)
West’s witty, buxom and bawdy ways paved the way for women to own their sexuality in a way unheard of before. (“Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”) Nobody owned Mae West. She was Hollywood’s most independent spirit.