Mary Jane West, every ounce a Brooklyn girl, was born 125 years ago today in the Eastern District of the city of Brooklyn — on Bushwick Avenue, in Greenpoint, to be precise.
“The Brooklyn I was born in,” she later wrote, “was still a city of churches, with their great bronze bells walloping calls to the faithful from early dawn, and a city of water-front dives where the old forest of the spars of sailing ships was rapidly being replaced by funnels and the Sand Street Navy Yard already had a reputation for girl chasers. Gentlemen, and deer, ran wild in Prospect Park.”
Few entertainers have embodied the raucous spirit of living like Mae West. Born of the saloon, bred by vaudeville, West came up with a dialect and image that was both satire and cartoon. Along the way, she transformed the Broadway stage, trashed the ghosts of Victorian morality and became a Hollywood icon by being nobody’s idea of a common woman.
Her influence on modern culture is profound — from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna (with whom she almost shares a birthday), from the drag queen scene to the sexual liberation movement.
Celebrate her life by learning more about it! We have an entire episode devoted to West’s New York years, in particular her scandalous Jazz Age years on the Broadway stage. Listen to it here or find it wherever you get your podcasts:
And tomorrow — Saturday, August 17 — head down to Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village for WEST FEST, an all-day celebration of Mae West’s extraordinary legacy.
Why Jefferson Market Library? This branch of the New York Public Library was once a courthouse, and it was here that West was convicted on obscenity charges for her play called simply Sex.
As Mae herself would say:
You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
At top — publicity show from Every Day’s A Holiday