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

 

5

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

  • R. Mark Desjardins

    Greg and Tom, I’ve been researching the life and times of Mae West and am near completing a manuscript entitled “In Search of Mae West.” Over the years I’ve heard and read many accounts of West’s antics and I have to say your tribute is factual and outstanding. Interest in Mae West appears to be at an all time high with the proposed Bette Milder HBO Documentary film currently in the works. As well, there is a documentary film just released entitled “When Bette Met Mae” and a Canadian play entitled “Go West Young Man,” which documents a young Craig Russell starting up a Mae West Fan Club before becomes a celebrated female impersonator who channelled West liberally . As Miss West took great delight in quipping, “Those who are easily shocked need to get shocked more often!” Her spirit is undoubtedly basking in this well deserved attention.

  • Katie Custer

    Hey there! I’m pretty sure the young portrait is Clara Bow. You can tell by her down sloped eyes, cleft chin and the age timeline. This looks very very early ’20s, and in 1913 Mae was 30 yrs old. Thank you!

  • Katie Custer

    KATIE BAD AT MATHS

    20 yrs old, not 30.

  • Amy

    Young Clara Bow, 1921.