Come up and seize me sometime: the arrest of Mae West

Mae West was arrested for -what else – sex. BUT not the sex you’re thinking about… Sex the play

You see, long before Mae West was lighting up Hollywood, with her trademark heavy innuendo, she was in New York, trapped in a brutal battle with the law, fighting to promote equality, freedom of speech and,of course, sex.

So let’s jump into the arrest, incarceration and surprising rebirth of, Mae West:

1959 article on mae West arrest
1959 article on Mae West’s arrest

By the 1920s Mae West was a theatrical veteran. Now in her thirties, she’d trod boards across New York, learning her craft from burlesque acts, musicians, dramatic actors and everyone in between.

Yet, though her name was known, Mae had never actually had a big break. As she delved further into the years after the big 3-0, younger models started taking what, until then, had always been Mae’s roles. It was starting to look like her dream of a big break was never going to happen.

BUT Mae West wasn’t the kind of woman that would go down without a fight. So she decided to make her own big break.

Mae started writing plays, and after knocking out a couple of practice pieces under the pseudonym, Jane Mast, she wrote what she knew would be her ticket to the big time. This being Mae West, the play was -of course- titled:

 

SEX

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Like she’d have called it anything else…

Sex follows the ups and downs of sex worker, Margy LaMont. When writing her, Mae West was adamant that Margy would be totally different to other sex workers that had previously been portrayed on stage.

Margy is funny, likeable and smart as hell; more importantly, at no point in the play does she need saving, nor does she repent; instead she pushes back against the idea that her work as a sex worker somehow makes her lesser.

Naturally, there was only one actress Mae West had in mind for this plum part: Mae West.

And so, in April 1926 (thanks to a donation by her Mum) Sex opened in New York.

Posters for the shows included strap lines like :

‘SEX WITH MAE WEST’

Because, you know, subtlety.

late in the run poster for Sex
A late run poster for Sex

Sadly for Mae, Sex was not met with favourable reviews.

Not only was the shows subject seen as obscenity of the highest order, the shows star made things worse by adding race into the mix.

Mae West had insisted that Sex include what was then known as ‘black music’. This combined with the shows scandalous stance on gender and sexuality, was just too much. And sex soon proved the perfect breeding ground for a powder keg of riotous fury.

BUT nothing seemed able to stop Sex. Despite the constant bad press, audiences kept coming. In a year where New York’s other big plays included work by the likes of Noel Coward, it was Mae Wests little Sex engine that could, that outlasted them all.

Mae West bad gif
Truer words were never spoken

Sex wasn’t the only show Mae was running. Inspired by her friends, many of whom were LGBT+ and often forced to keep their sexuality and relationships hidden, Mae wrote her next play, Drag.

Drag’s hero, Rolly Kingsbury, is a closeted man who is stuck in a loveless marriage, and has to put up with arguably the worst family in the world; his Dad is a homophobic judge and his Father in Law is a conversion therapy pioneer (I told you they were the worst family ever)

Drag looks at Rolly’s use of his wife as a ‘beard’, his secret relationships with men and his family’s horror that Rolly could ever be one of ‘them.’

Oh, and the whole thing ends in a HUGE drag ball before *spoiler* Rolly is killed, which his Dad (a judge remember) covers up as a suicide, for fear of having Rolly’s sexuality discovered and the family’s honour tainted by homosexuality.

Yeah. I think we can all agree that this play was just a tad controversial for the 1920s (*cough* understatement of the year *cough*)

yes drag gif.gif
Thank God, Drag gets semi-regular reprisals, because it sounds like an amazing ride that I need to get on!

But the plot wasn’t enough for Mae. You see with Drag , Mae wanted to do something never done before. She wanted to cast LGBT+ actors.

This was theatrical treason.

You see, allowing anyone on the LGBT+ spectrum to perform on stage was actually banned by the actors union at this time.

But you know by now that a little thing like that wasn’t going to stop Mae.

So she set up open auditions in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, ensuring she got the cast she wanted; casually going against every rule in the book to do so.

Drag opened out of town in January 1927, to packed out houses
….until it was shut down after 2 weeks

no cute gif
Fricking no fun 1927

After Drag, The Society for the Prevention of Vice and other groups against obscenity, were out for Mae’s blood.

First a play on sex workers and freedom of sexuality AND THEN a play that promoted open homosexuality?!?!? It simply wouldn’t stand, Mae West and her corrupting plays HAD TO GO!

The axe fell in February 1927, just 1 month after Drag debuted. The police stormed Sex, carrying out a mass arrest of Mae and her company before completely shutting the play down.

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Front page of the New York Daily Mirror

BUT those that thought arresting Mae West on obscenity charges and the threat of prison time would put an end to her, were about to be proved veeeery wrong.

Mae decided that rather than her demise, her arrest was going to be her making.

So she rocked up to court in the most amazing outfits, gave every interview going, wrote articles, signed autographs and made sure everything she said and did in court got headlines.

At one point the judge point blank asked Mae:
‘Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’
To which she innocently responded:
‘On the contrary, your Honor, I was doin’ my best to conceal it.’

Mae West at the trial for Sex
Mae during her Sec trial, just casually wearing a stoll to court

After successfully turning her arrest and subsequent trial into one long press call, Mae was sentenced to 10 days in prison. So naturally Mae transformed what had been a press call into a press tour.

She arrived at New York’s Welfare Island (now Roosevelt island) in a limo, wearing a spectacular outfit.

Once inside and behind bars, Mae made herself comfy. She befriended the other inmates, as well as the staff, even dining with the Warden and his wife.

Of course she leaked all of this to the press, including the little tidbit that she ensured that under her prison uniform was the finest silk underwear.

Mae also took the opportunity to highlight how shitty the treatment of New York’s women prisoners were. Keen to make it clear that though she was dining with the warden, everyone else was treated like dirt. She then put money where her mouth was, donating to actually help make things better inside.

Throughout, Mae continued to hustle. Transforming what should have been her downfall into her long sought after big break; seriously I cannot understate how much she was smashing this! Bitch was taking busted up lemons and turning them into champagne!

By the time Mae West walked out of those prison gates she was an American Icon.

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Moral of the story thus far – do not try to mess with the West!

Pretty much as soon as her days in the jail house were over, Mae was back at work, creating a new play.

The Pleasure Man was essentially a re-do of Drag. However in an effort to prevent another shut down, Mae turned the shows lead into a straight guy… though she made sure that the shows epic drag ball remained.

The play had its Broadway debut on 1 October 1928.
As soon as the curtain fell, the entire cast was arrested.

Despite the arrest of the entire cast, a matinee performance was allowed the next day.

Once more the police flooded the theatre; one of the drag queens performing managing to squeeze in a speech on police oppression, before the arrests started up again.

As the cast were dragged away, the police were met with a wave of boos from a crowd that had formed outside the theatre.

cast of Pleasure Man during their arrest
Two members of The Pleasure Man cast during their arrest

At The Pleasure Man trial, Mae and her 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’

Mae West defended her work to the end; eventually seeing the charges dropped. However the fight had cost Mae $60,000 (that’s just under $1million today!)

Mae West and the cast of Pleasure Man
Mae West with some of The Pleasure Man company

By 1930, the trials were over and Mae West had turned to Hollywood. Thanks to her constant work, she was now one of the most in demand actors in the world.

Mae West would become one of cinemas longest standing icons, known for her heavily innuendo laced jokes, as much as she was her business smarts; even becoming one of America’s highest earning individuals.

But Mae’s fight for equality, for alternative lifestyles to be explored and celebrated and for taboos to be dropped, has been forgotten. And that’s a damn shame, because as Mae West would say:

 

‘Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often’

This was interesting where can I find out more? You should definitely read Mae’s plays! Sex, Drag and The Pleasure Man are all in print (link here) and as the plays are still performed, you might even be able to find a performance near you (let us know if you do!!!) 

 

How brothels built America

Fact: Sex workers helped build America. These women came to the Wild West/The Old West (whatever you want to go with) and smashed every expectation of womanhood.

They became business oligarchs, they built entire communities and forged their own independence.

It’s a one hell of a tale! But before we dive it it, let’s quickly knock out the basics:

How did the West come to be?

Around the mid 1800s there was a huge boom in the amount of land being built in the South West of America. Most of this land was built for mining. As new sources for coal and metal mining were discovered, towns sprung up overnight to house the influx of workers that appeared to mine it.

Suddenly you had entire towns with 1000’s of men and maybe a dozen or so women. Now you don’t have to be good at maths to see that the ratio here is a little off.

Having spotted the er…supply and demand issue, business minded women start arriving in these towns and setting up shop as sex workers.

Soon these women were earning in one day what they might otherwise earn in a week as a factory worker or clerk.

buisness gif
GOOD buisness

There were of course risks….a lot of risks. But in the Old West it was these women were effectively working at the same risk level as a working men had. Communities, rules and laws were still being worked out, which meant that murder, beating and work caused incidents/deaths we’re sadly not rare hazards for any gender or line of work!

Yes the risks were high, BUT the clients were many, the going was good and soon the cash was flowing!

So, women started opening their own brothels. This in turn led to women buying land, companies and eventually building business empires of their own.

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The original boss bitches  

Soon entire towns revolved around one damn good brothel.

This wasn’t luck. The ladies running these brothels had business smarts for days. Seriously they could have smashed The Apprentice (and probably Donald Trump too…)

One of the best examples of this is Mattie Silks: 

Mattie Silks, who became America's youngest brothel owner at just 19 and ran a successful brothel in Denver
Mattie Silks: admittedly looking v awkward here

A small town girl, Mattie opened her first brothel at just 19. This made her the youngest madam in America.

She invested her profits back into the business, as well as growing her income and holdings by buying real estate and land.

These buisness smarts meant that in just a few years Mattie was running one of Denvers most popular brothels. Patrons were greeted with luxury surroundings and a full orchestra – because this wasn’t just sex…it was Silk sex, and it was classy AF.

But Mattie didn’t stop at having a leading chain of high end brothels. She paid her staff a salary that made them some of the highest paid women in the country.

pay it back.gif
Yes Mattie pay it back!! 

OK, so, by now you might be thinking – sure these women created businesses that made them some of the richest women in the country and bought tons of new income to the growing West. But is that really building America? Don’t you need stuff like, schools, hospitals and churches, as well as places to have sexy time?

Why yes.

And they did that too.

These women had made themselves pillars in their communities. They weren’t just there for the money, they wanted to make a difference.

Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Diamond Jessie Hayman, opened her brothel doors to feed, clothe and shelter anyone that needed help. And Diamond Jessie was far from alone!

Here are just a few examples of how America’s sex workers made a difference:

Lou Graham, donated money to build up Seattle’s schools and also saved countless businesses and banks during a period of depression.

Anna Wilson’s will requested that her huge mansion be turned into Omaha’s first emergency hospital.

And former slave turned influential brothel owner, Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant, campaigned tirelessly for the de-segregation of streetcars in San Francisco.

These women were doing way more for their communities than just providing cash and a good time. They were building them up, and turning them for shit holes to sustainable home steads!

Mary Ellen Pleasent
Mary Ellen Pleasant

And you best believe these communities didn’t forget the women that helped make them!

In 1890, Wyoming refused to become a US state, if it’s women were not allowed to keep the vote (which they had been granted in 1869) saying:

‘We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women’ 

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Yes Wyoming!!! 

This was really interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell (great name!), it has an amazing section on this.

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