Wednesday, April 19, 2023



A poster for the play that landed Mae West in jail
"Jane Mast" was a pen name for West herself

Today, April 19, 2023, is the 96th anniversary of a New York judge sentencing American icon Mae West to 10 days in jail after she was convicted on charges of "obscenity and behavior designed to corrupt the morals of youth."

Yes, gentle reader, it's always about protecting the children.

According to an article on the PBS website:

West came up in the world of burlesque prior to her arrival in Hollywood. As her career struggled, she took the bold step of writing a play in which she had the starring role of a sex worker. West probably knew that Sex would be controversial at a time when American culture was coming under increasing scrutiny and censorship, even though her play was less about sex and more about the power dynamics between men and women. Despite being panned by critics, the play was a sensation that drew large audiences.

A website called Village Preservation explains:

Her bawdy 1926 play Sex, the story of a Montreal prostitute, filled the house for a year before New York’s deputy police commissioner raided West and her company, charging them with lewdness and the corrupting of youth. The star spent the night in the Jefferson Market Courthouse and the tabloids went crazy, and on April 19th, 1927, was sentenced to ten days in jail.

However, Mae spent only eight days in the slammer. She got two days off for "good behavior," a phrase the star probably found libelous. 

Village Preservation goes on:

The court offered to drop the charges if she would close the show, but West was too savvy an entrepreneur to go quietly. Her instincts told her that in the business of show, crime pays.  She used the opportunity to ride to the prison in a limousine, report from inside prison that she was enjoying dining with the prison warden, and let loose to the tabloid press that she wore silk panties under her prison uniform.  And that was “marketing gold!”

There is contradictory evidence about those silk panties though. According to PBS, West "later said that the only thing that bothered her about [her jail time] was that she had to wear cotton underwear."

A year later, West would get busted for yet another bawdy play, one called The Pleasure Man, which included a scene with (gasp!) drag queens! 

She and the whole cast were accused of "unlawfully, wickedly and scandalously, for lucre and gain, produce, present and exhibit and display the said exhibition, show and entertainment to the sight and view of divers and many people, all to the great offence of public decency."

Well clutch my pearls and call Ron DeSantis!

But the trial, which took place in 1930 ended in a hung jury.

I bet Mae liked that!

But the notoriety of her obscenity trials helped launch West's Hollywood career. Again from Village Preservation:

Due to her newfound notoriety, West, despite being 38 years old at the time, found herself starting a movie career when Paramount Pictures offered her a contract at $5000 a week ($80,000 now). What’s more, they allowed her to re-write her lines in the films...  Within three years she was the second highest paid person in the United States behind only William Randolph Hearst.

Of course, some watchdogs of public morality still took umbrage to West's work. 

According to a 1936 column in the Rochester Journal:

With this record of police raids, indictments, conviction, a fine and term in the Workhouse on Welfare Island for criminal offense, Mae West was approached by the moving picture business as a fit subject to introduce into the wholesome homes of the country and present to the young people of clean moral families.

There's no panic like a moral panic. And again, we must protect the children!

But this is a music blog, so let's have a musical tribute to one of America's sexiest jailbirds and public menaces, Miss Mae West:

This one's from 1933 and called "I Like a Guy What Takes His Time."  She performed it in her classic 1933 movie She Done Him Wrong:

Also from She Done Him Wrong, this one's called "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone":

Here's "I Found a New Way to Go to Town," from West's 1933 film I'm No Angel

Finally, here's "He's a Bad, Bad Man" from the film Goin' to Town (1935):

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