Controversial enough to be jailed, bawdy, talented, end endlessly quoted, Mae West is the pop archetype of sexual wantonness and ribald humor. In her book, Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, Jill Watts looks at the ways West borrowed from African-American culture and helps us understand this endlessly complicated woman. In the telling excerpt below we learn about how West’s first Broadway play SEX came to fruition.
One day, Mae West and some friends sat stuck in New York City traffic. In a rush, she ordered her driver to take a shortcut past the waterfront, and as her car rolled past the docks she spied a young woman with a sailor on each arm. West described her as attractive but with “blonde hair, over bleached and all frizzy . . . a lot of make-up on and a tight black satin coat that was all wrinkled and soiled. . . .She had runs in her stockings and she had this little turban on and a big beautiful bird of paradise.” Mae remarked to her companions, “You wonder this dame wouldn’t put half a bird of paradise on her head and the rest of the money into a coat and stockings.” But as her friends speculated that the bird of paradise was probably a seafaring John’s recompense and that this woman of the streets at best made only fifty cents to two dollars a trick, Mae grew enraged. Certainly she was worldly enough to know about prostitution, yet she recalled, “I was really upset about that.” She insisted it disturbed her to witness such exploitation of a woman—and also to realize that a woman could be so ignorant of her potential for exploiting her exploitation.
Mae continued to ponder the waterfront waif. “I kept thinking, ‘Fifty cents! How many guys would she have to have to pay her rent, buy her food?’ ” She claimed she dreamed of the woman that night, awakening the next morning still contemplating her hard luck. “And then I said,” she told Life magazine, “Is it possible? Is this the play I am going to write?” She realized that she had mentally “remade” this scarlet woman, envisioning her on a path that led out of the slums to a better life, a transformation easily achieved on stage. Inspired, she set out to write a new play.
For some time, West had searched for a vehicle for a Broadway comeback. She had spent several years reviewing scripts, rejecting them all as unsatisfactory. But in 1924, about the time she received her waterfront inspiration, a client of Timony’s, John J. Byrne, showed up with a one-act vaudeville skit called “Following the Fleet.” Hearing that West was searching for a scarlet-woman vehicle, something like Somerset Maugham’s Rain, he had composed a story of a Montreal strumpet who makes a living by seducing British sailors. On West’s behalf, Timony purchased Byrne’s sketch for $300. He then charged the writer $ 100 for acting as his agent and pressed him to invest the rest in a real estate deal.
In December 1925, working again with Adeline Leitzbach, West expanded Byrne’s sketch into a three act play that she called The Albatross. In it, she took a prostitute from Montreal’s red light district to the mansions of Westchester County, New York. Energized by her waterfront muse, West claimed ideas spilled forth on paper bags, stationery, envelopes, and old scraps of paper that she forwarded to Timony’s secretaries for transcription.
But Mae’s dedication wavered. To keep her on the task, Timony began locking her in her room, refusing to let her out until she had finished writing. It not only forced her to work but prevented her from seeing other men, demonstrating the great degree of control he maintained over her. Her acceptance of this treatment indicates that the private Mae West had yet to achieve the forcefulness and confidence of her fantasized stage presence.
After The Albatross was drafted, Timony and West set out to find backers. Their first choice was the Shuberts, and she sent them her script under a pseudonym, Jane Mast. She quickly received a curt rejection note. In fact, none of Broadway’s producers, big or small, were interested, so West and Timony decided to raise the money and produce the play themselves. Timony put in a share and later convinced Harry Cohen, a Manhattan clothier, to kick in a loan of almost $4,000. As producer, he recruited C. William Morganstern, the former proprietor of Pittsburgh’s Family Theater, where West had performed in 191 2; his most current endeavor involved producing Broadway’s Love’s Call, one of the biggest disasters of 1924. But funds still fell short, and Tillie, with the help of Owney Madden, supplied the balance. Timony then incorporated their endeavor as the Morals Production Corporation.
Recruiting a director proved difficult. Several candidates turned down the job outright, insisting that the script was too bawdy for legitimate theater. Another prospect demanded extensive revisions. West immediately rejected him. Finally, Timony arranged for a meeting with Edward Eisner, a small-time director whose most recent undertakings had been total flops, one a comedy rated by a reviewer as “monotony.” West presented her script by reading it out loud to him, since he had conveniently forgotten his glasses, and as she finished, she claimed he cried out, “By God! You’ve done it! You’ve got it! This is it!”
Finding a cast was also a challenge, for West was attempting her Broadway comeback in the midst of controversy. For several seasons, the Great White Way had hosted a series of “sex plays,” including Lulu Belle, the story of a mixed-race prostitute who slept her way to Paris, and The Shanghai Gesture, the chronicle of a madam of a Chinese brothel and her rage against men. These productions stirred a call for a cleanup of the city’s stages. As a result, career-minded actors and actresses, fearful of negative backlash, steered ‘clear of Mae West and similar ventures. Beyond this, the Morals Production Corporation’s salaries were not competitive, forcing West to sign up a cast of unknowns. On a tight budget, she used Beverly as her understudy, acted as barber to male cast members, and borrowed old scenery from a former burlesque producer.
Securing a theater proved to be another problem. Booking space on Broadway was costly and competitive; shows had to demonstrate potential profitability. Disappointingly, all the venues in Manhattan’s theater district were either occupied, not interested, or too expensive. Finally, Timony discovered one possibility: Daly’s Sixty-third Street Theater, a small off-Broadway house. Daly’s had a reputation for experimentation; in 1921, it hosted the successful all-black revue Shuffle Along. Even more important, the management agreed to waive normal up-front charges in exchange for 40 percent of the show’s profits.
During rehearsals West’s play took final form. While she already had a completed script, at Eisner’s suggestion she retooled it, urging the cast to improvise and reshape their roles. For her part, she found Eisner a catalyst for the exploration of her full range of talents, making her more aware of her performance’s verbal and nonverbal nuances. As she remembered, he observed, “You have a quality—a strange amusing quality that I have never found in any of these other women. You have a definite sexual quality, gay and unrepressed. It even mocks you personally.” While Eisner may have been a third-rate director, he understood West’s strongest asset, a style that rested in signification and communicated sensuality that was both serious and satirical. With his guidance, she further honed her ability to offer conflicting messages and double meanings.
West’s play continued to evolve until just before the curtain rang up on its first tryout performance in Waterbury, Connecticut. Just hours before opening, she had another inspiration. After listening for weeks to Eisner rave about her “sex quality, a low sex quality,” she had a revelation. She insisted that the manager replace The Albatross on his marquee with a new title — SEX. Her first night in Waterbury produced excellent box office, bringing in several thousand dollars.
Shortly afterward, the company traveled to New London, Connecticut, for more trial performances. Despite the play’s bold new title, the opening night’s audience numbered only eighty-five by curtain time. But, West insisted, the following day’s matinee was a great morale booster. That morning, the U.S. naval fleet arrived in port, and that afternoon sailors, lured by the sign reading SEX, lined up around the block for tickets. Their reception was more than enthusiastic. “Believe me,” West told a reporter later, “I’ll never forget the Navy.”
SEX returned to Manhattan and, promoted with ads reading “SEX with Mae West,” opened at Daly’s Theater on April 26, 1926. The premiere was well attended, but the production still had some rough spots. One actor’s collar kept springing up, a window shade refused to stay rolled down, and a loud bang offstage interrupted one scene. The sound effects for a champagne cork’s pop occurred several conspicuous seconds after the bottle had been opened. But the play’s blunders were minor in comparison to its “frankness.” One reviewer complained, “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.” Early in the program, several patrons left in disgust, and by the third act, empty seats dotted the theater. Judging by the newspapers, the opening night audience’s reaction was mixed. Some sat quietly stunned, while others roared with laughter, shouting out their approval at choice moments.…
Early on, SEX’s future looked dim. The Morals Production Corporation had little money for a publicity campaign, and within the first week attendance lagged. The reviews were disappointing. The more stodgy New York dailies agreed to downplay SEX’s sensationalism and blast it as inept and amateurish. One of these, the New York Times, branded SEX as “feeble and disjointed,” declaring that Montreal, Trinidad, and Westchester possessed “ample cause for protest.” The New Yorker was far less kind, declaring it a “poor balderdash of street sweepings and cabaret sentimentality unexpurgated in tone.” Variety summed up the reaction of many, proclaiming SEX a “disgrace,” with “nasty, infantile, amateurish and vicious dialogue.” While the play was attributed to the mysterious Jane Mast, no one was fooled. All blamed Mae West for what one reviewer condemned “as bad a play as these inquiring eyes have gazed upon in three seasons.”
But with the help of word of mouth and several lurid reviews in the city’s tabloids, curiosity began to draw New Yorkers to Daly’s little off-Broadway theater. Before long, more and more came. When writer Robert Benchley attended, he noted that “at the corner of Central Park West and Sixty-Third Street we ran into a line of people which seemed to be extending in the general direction of Daly’s Theatre . . . and what was more, the people standing in line were clutching, not complimentary passes, but good, green dollar bills.” Within a few weeks, SEX was a hit, seats in the house went for top dollar, and it began to turn a nice profit. While it slipped during the hot summer, its low overhead helped SEX generate strong returns for the rest of the year.