A personal essay by Greenpoint’s Nora Olsen
One of Greenpoint’s most famous daughters is Mae West, the legendary actress, singer, and sex symbol who broke all the rules. On stage and on screen she always portrayed women who enjoyed men and sex and didn’t feel like settling down. Famous for lines such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” and “A hard man is good to find,” she could make even the most innocuous remarks sound bawdy. She was considered a scandal, and many tried to censor her. She couldn’t be silenced and her popularity grew. She was curvaceous at a time when women were supposed to be sticklike, and was over 40 years old in all of her movies.
She was born on August 17, 1893 in Bushwick, where she was brought up until moving to Greenpoint. Like most working-class Brooklyn people at the time, the family frequently moved from one tenement to another. The Wests lived on Meeker Avenue, Conselyea, Humboldt, and Varet Street, to name a few.
She was molested repeatedly as a child, at ages thirteen and under, by teachers and an elderly actor. Sadly, her own mother, who was so encouraging about Mae’s acting and singing ability, also encouraged her to have sexual experiences before puberty. Mae left school at thirteen to pursue a full-time career in Vaudeville. Her early acts included male impersonation. After finding success on the stage, she broke into the movies. She became an international sex symbol, but she stayed true to her roots. She never gave up her Brooklyn accent or working-class speech.
What many people don’t know is that Mae West was also a writer, producing plays, screenplays, and novels. Mae West wrote “The Drag,” the first play about trans-gendered people. It was also the first play in which gay actors got to portray gay characters; auditions were held in gay bars. She also wrote about prostitution and interracial romance, subjects that remain controversial to this day. Throughout her life, she constantly fought censorship. She usually wrote her own dialogue for her pictures, an unheard of achievement for an actress at that time. Her movies remain as funny today as they were in the thirties and forties.
Mae West’s work was considered so salacious that in 1927 she was arrested on charges of indecency, based on her Broadway show, Sex. She played a prostitute; the opening scene was set in a brothel and she sang “Honey, Let Yo’ Drawers Hang Low.” For this, Mae West was locked up in the Women’s House of Detention, ultimately convicted of “corrupting the morals of youth.” She was unfazed and commented that she expected it would be the making of her. She served ten days in the Women’s Workhouse on New York’s Welfare Island. She made friends with many of the other inmates. In fact she continued to support some of these friends financially for the rest of her life, as well as supporting her family.
Like all white performers at the time, Mae West borrowed material from African-American performers. She learned and adapted the comedic style of actor Bert Williams. But unlike most white entertainers, she always publicly acknowledged the origins of her material. She became extremely well-known for her shimmy, an African-American ragtime dance that had previously been performed by countless Black dancers including Ethel Waters. Another white performer, Gilda Grey, claimed to have invented the shimmy herself. Mae West proclaimed that was a flat-out lie and that it was a Black dance. She also demanded that African-American actors, and musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, be included in her movies.
She became rich in a graceful way, buying fabulous clothes and jewelry, but her values were unchanged. In 1935, the management of the Hollywood apartment building she lived in did not allow her African-American boyfriend, middleweight boxing champion William Jones, to come upstairs. So she bought the building.
For the last twenty-five years of her life she had a relationship with the devoted Polish-American bodybuilder Paul Novak. He was thirty years younger than Mae. Towards the end of her life, she faced opposition from people who didn’t like the idea of a sexy senior citizen still interested in making love. But she continued to do movies, TV appearances, Las Vegas shows, albums, and other projects until her death at 87 in 1980. Mae West proclaimed that her beauty secret was no smoking, no drinking, and a daily colonic procedure.
Next time you are at Photoplay or one of Greenpoint’s other fine video shops, rent one of her movies. Or catch “She Done Him Wrong” or “I’m No Angel” at the Film Forum in Manhattan this summer. Pick up a biography of her at the Greenpoint branch of the library (107 Norman Avenue). Get to know and love Mae West, Greenpoint’s famous daughter, for yourself.
About Nora Olsen:
After seeing "I'm No Angel" and "She Done Him Wrong," I did some research on Mae West and was delighted to find she was from Greenpoint. A lifelong New Yorker at age 29, I have lived in Greenpoint for four years. I love my neighborhood and plan to live here forever. I used to live on Box Street but recently moved near Monsignor McGolrick Park. I live with my girlfriend and my cat. I have been writing seriously for several years and just completed a young adult novel, tentatively titled "The Triaminic Heart."