Diamond Girl: How Mae West Brought ‘Sex’ and Scandal to Broadway

PODCAST Mae West (star of I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong) would come to revolutionize the idea of American sexuality, challenging and lampooning ideas of femininity while wielding a suggestive and vicious wit. But before she was America’s diamond girl, she was the pride of Brooklyn!  In this podcast, we bring you the origin story of this icon and the wacky events of 1927 that brought her brand of swagger to the attention of the world.

1The Brooklyn girl started on the vaudeville stage early, inspired by the influences of performers like Eva Tanguay. She soon proved too smart for the small stuff and set her aim towards Broadway — but on her terms.

West’s play Sex introduced her devastating allure in the service of a shocking tale of prostitution.  It immediately found an audience in 1926 even if the critics were less than enamored. But it’s when she devised an even more shocking play — The Drag — that city leaders became morally outraged and vowed to shut her down forever.

From Bushwick to Midtown, from the boards of Broadway to the workhouse of Welfare Island — this is the story of New York’s ultimate Sex scandal.

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The Bowery Boys #182: Mae West: ‘Sex’ on Broadway

Picture at top:  Mae West in a publicity still for her Broadway hit Diamond Lil. (Courtesy Museum of City of New York)

Inset: The poster for Sex by Jane Mast (aka Mae West)

Special thanks to Esther Belle from The West (a Mae West-inspired coffeehouse and bar in Williamsburg). We recorded an interview with her about the legacy of Mae West but weren’t able to use it. But it will be available for Patreon supporters!

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A young Mae West, already a seasoned performer by her teenage years.

Courtesy Notes On The Road
Courtesy Notes On The Road

 

From Mae West’s vaudeville days, a piece of Tin Pan Alley sheet-music she performed n the stage:

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A saucy promotional still from Sex

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From the original program for Sex:

Courtesy Playbill Vault
Courtesy Playbill Vault

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Mae West at the Jefferson Market courthouse:

Original caption: Cast of Tried By Jury. New York, New York: Photo shows scene in courtroom of general sessions part II at start of members of company. Mae West and Barry O'Niel, in productions leading roles, can be seen at extreme left. March 28, 1927 New York, New York, USA
Original caption: Cast of Tried By Jury. New York, New York: Photo shows scene in courtroom of general sessions part II at start of members of company. Mae West and Barry O’Niel, in productions leading roles, can be seen at extreme left. March 28, 1927 New York, New York, USA

 

Mae West in the original photography for the 1928 production of Diamond Lil.  She attempted during this period to open the controversial show The Pleasure Man but it was shut down after two days. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

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Another odd shot from Diamond Lil, of Mae reclining in a golden swan bed. (source)

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

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Mae West in the 1949 Broadway revival of Diamond Lil.  Once a provocateur of the stage, she settled into her larger-than-life personae in later years, formed mostly from her successes in this role (and its film version She Done Him Wrong). (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Members of the cast of The Pleasure Man being arrested by police, 1928.

Courtesy Queer Music Heritage -- http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-arts6.html
Courtesy Queer Music Heritage — http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-arts6.html
Courtesy New York Daily News
Courtesy New York Daily News

Mae West (and a young Cary Grant) in She Done Him Wrong

In the hilarious I’m No Angel:

Ladies and gentlemen, Mae West and Mr. Ed:

And her last film — the camp classic Sextette