|< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies|
< Return to Religion of the AFI's Top 50 Screen Legends
< Return to Famous Catholics
The Religious Affiliation of Actress
West is listed on the "Famous Catholics" web page at: http://www.geocities.com/catholic_prayer/fc_list.html
From: Jill Watts, Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, Oxford University Press: New York, NY (2001), pages 4-9:
...of all of her grandparents, John Edwin made the strongest impression on Mae... John Edwin was a pious man. A devout Methodist, he fell to his knees in prayer at each meal and at the end of family visits... Despite his enigmatic early years, later records show that in 1852 John Edwin took a wife, a twelve-year-old Irish Catholic immigrant named Mary Jane Copley. The daughter of Julia (nee Copple) and Martin Copley, Mary Jane had come to the United States in 1848, joining thousands who fled Ireland during the potato famine. At the age of fifteen, she bore a daughter, Edith, who was probably born in Brooklyn... Mary Jane eventually bore eleven children... [including Jack West: Mae West's father]
Watts, page 81:
...Jack West spent his formative years on the Lower East Side's rough streets... In addition to his immersion in a culture of violence, Jack also confronted festering ethnic and racial bigotry. Nineteenth-century New York City became home to peoples of many rces, ethnicities, and nationalities... These tensions were promoted and augmented by the dominant culture's denigration of anyone who failed to fit the mold of white Protestant Victorian America. Jack West, even if his father was not African-American [something that isn't clear], must have experienced some of the bruising effects of the ehnic prejudice directed at Irish Catholics. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants defined the Irish as a seprate, nonwhite race, desparaging them as "savage," "bestial," and "lazy," degrading stereotypes strikingly parallel to those thrust upon African Americans... In a sense, the dominant culture pressured Jack West and his family to "pass," to deny their heritage and seek inclusion in the white and Protestant Victorian middle class...
[page 7] Sometime in the late 1880s... Jack was sidetracked from his ambitions [as a boxer] by a young German immigrant, Matilda Delker. Known by her friends as Tillie, she was the daughter of Christina and Jacob Delker, who were married in Germany in 1864. She as born in 1870, probably in Wurttemberg... She arrived in the United States in 1882... Several factors probably compelled the Delkers to leave Germany... Anti-Semitism may have driven them out--Mae had even the most discerning observers convinced that her mother was Jewish--but by the time the Delkers reached America, they were Lutherans. It is more likely that they were drawn to the United States by economic success enjoyed by relatives...
[page 8] Tillie [Mae West's mother] met resistance as she aspired to follow in [Lillian] Russell's footsteps. An acting career for a newly arrived German girl... was a remote dream, especially with parents who forbade the pursuit of such a disreputable profession... Mae claimed that Tillie secured a position as a "corset and fashion model," a profession accessible to an immigrant seamstress with unsteady English. If true, Tillie pursued this without her parents' consent. It was far from respectable; buyers were known to make sexual advances, and she could not have rejected their demands and kept her job long.
She may well not have rejected them... young working-class girls of Tillie's generation, known as "tough girls," commonly rebelled against their parents' standards and experimented with premarital intimacy. In Tillie's adolscent world, crowded tenements and eroded parental supervision allowed young people to experiment with sex. The ritual of working-class dating, in which young male suitors footed the bill for their impoverished dates, often resulted in an exchange: cultural amusements for sex. Ultimately, it would be Tillie who nurtured Mae, shaping her attitudes toward sex, men, and money. Mae recalled her parents battling over her early flirtations with boys. "My father used to want me to come home and all that, but my mother used to say, 'Oh, let her go, she can take care of herself.' " Mae recalled. "I guess she wanted me to learn all that right at the beginning." In many ways, Tillie was not only the motivator for Mae West's libertine ideals but the prototype for her sexually transgressive persona.
Tillie's youthful defiance soon met is end with Jack West. Initially, the couple formed a passionate bond... Mae told an interviewer, "my father had swept her off her feet."
...Jack and Tillie had much in common. Both rebelled against parental expectations, Jack through sports and Tillie through her dreams of a theatrical career...
On January 19, 1889, in Greenpoint, Battling Jack West and Tillie Delker took their wedding vows before a local minister with Jack's sister Julia acting as maid of honor.
West established a close rapport with [Texas] Guinan, who was warm, kind, and generous. Unlike Mae, Texas was outgoing and made friends easily. Believing she was a reincarnated "wise, Oriental soul," Texas was fascinated by Eastern philosophy and spiritualism, and she may have beenone of the first to introduce Mae to these religious alternatives. In late August 1926, Mae and Texas hosted a seance to contact the recently deceased Rudolph Valentino's spirit. One guest remembered Texas leading the gathering as Mae sat quietly observing. But just as they seemed to make contact with the silver screen's most celebrated lover, a loud crash broke the link. When the lights came up, entangled in a mess of folding chairs were two latecomers, Texas's brother Tommy and Owney Madden.
Watts, page 115:
While she was in Chicago, Mae's pain grew worse and more frequent, occasionally forcing showtime delays or longer intermissions. Another physical and some X-rays showed nothing unusual. However, the attacks grew so miserable and frequent that exploratory surgery was looming... Hoping to keep Mae working, Timony arranged for treatments from Sri Deva Ram Sukul, a healer and president of the Yoga Institute for America. The Sri arrived at Mae's hotel room and, after questioning her, held her hands and prayed in Hindi. He then had her stand up and pressed his hands against her stomach for several minutes. He declared her cured and departed. From that moment on, Mae insisted, the pains disappeared.
Watts, pages 116-118:
...1929... Mae learned that her mother's condition had worsened. Prevented from returning home by the tour, she dispatched New York's best doctors to Tillie's bedside and sent Timony to search for the Sri... Mae arrived on January 17, finding her mother clinging to life. Timony's search for the Sri had failed, so she summoned more doctors... On Sunday, January 26... with her devoted daughter nearby, Tillie West, the force that had nurtured an American folk icon, passed away...
Watts, pages 242-244:
[page 118] Tillie's passing devastated her older daughter. Mae claimed she cried out for her own life to end; it took her father and another man to subdue her... For three days, as Tillie's body lay at a local mortuary, Mae West was unable to speak... Finishing this run of Diamong Lil was painful. Each night after her performance, Mae broke down and cried in her dressing room. She was inconsolable: "I turned my face to the wall. Nothing mattered." Mae closed the Woodhaven house; she could not bear to see any of Tillie's photographs or possessions. And rather than seeking solace in spiritualism, she retreated from the mystical. Journalist Bernard Sobel, who had joined her at an earlier seance, dropped by for a visit and noted her total indifference toward the occult. Mae concluded that the afterlife was a lie; she maintained no hope of ever seeing her beloved mother again.
In the early 1940s, [Mae] West was one of Hollywood's wealthiest women... Although her career was at a standstill, she enjoyed continued national and international fame. Yet, she claimed, she felt a void in her life. She told of a suitor, an unnamed notoriously violent gangster, who had compelled her into a phase of introspection--to weight good against evil, much as Lil [her character in Diamond Lil, which had religious themes, including Lil's decision to help the Salvation Army] had done. Between fall 1941 and spring 1942, she decided to devote her energies to investigating spirituality and the possibility of life after death.
Watts, page 258:
Since her mother's death, West had remained skeptical about faith. She claimed she rejected the concept of eternal life and had spurned seances as chicanery. However, despite these statements, she clearly maintained some curiosity regarding spiritual matters. Soon after her father's passing, she hosted a seance at the celebrity desert resort La Quinta. She claimed it was conducted by aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose husband, George Putnam, worked for Paramount and had overseen Go West Young Man's premiere. Mae believed that she had made contact with her father using spirit tapping, in which the deceased supposedly tap out out messages for the living. Her interest in the supernatural, was also piqued whe, in the late thirties, Sri Deva Ram Sukul showed up at Jim Timony's Hollytown Theater. Mae was delighted, and the Sri joined her inner circle, always close at hand to give her advice.
West's work indicates that the sacred was never too far from her mind. She wrote of her continued interest in the "closeness of goodness and evil embedded" in the human soul. Since Diamond Lil, Mae had explored the juxtaposition of purity and wickedness, reaching a climax with Klondike Annie, a film that clearly indicated her ongoing preoccupation with religion. Mae also dabbled in astrology, numerology, and fortune telling and always adhered to a rigid set of superstitions. Despite her condemnation by the Legion of Decency, she also claimed she attended mass with Jim Timony, which she described as "restful and inspirational." Mae's mind was not always on sin; she did a fair amount of contemplation of salvation as well. Her frustration with mainstream religions came from the lack of tangible, definite proof of the hereafter. Unlike sin, salvation did not appear to manifest itself as experiential. "It was not that I was jaded," she wrote. "It was only that I had no answers to serious things."
Mae's spiritual journey took her toward religious alternatives. In the fall of 1941, she discovered an advertisement in a Los Angeles newspaper for a spiritualist convention where a Universalist minister, the Reverend Jack Kelly, was lecturing on extrasensory perception. She dispatched Jim Timony to investigate, and he returned with glowing reports of Kelly's remarkable abilities. After meeting Kelly and testing his ESP, she began studying his teachings and techniques. He became Mae's frequent guest when in Los Angeles, and she supported his ministry with generous contributions.
Still seeking assurance of eternal life, West became determined to develop her own pychic abilities. She solicited assistance from the Reverend Mae M. Taylor of the Spiritualis Science Church of Hollywood, who instructed her on communicating directly with the spirit world. Taylor taught a meditative technique that encouraged practitioners to banish all conscious thoughts so that "the inner voice" could be clearly discerned. West worked diligently to achieve a meditative state; for three weeks she sequestered herself each day in a darkened room, striving to cleanse her mind and seeking a connection with the spiritual realm.
Finally, in the third week, she claimed to have a breakthrough. She began to hear psychic voices, and before long their images became clear. In later years, she told of her first visit from a small female child named Juliet, who greeted her with "Good morning, good morning, good morning, dear." Next came a deep masculine voice, emanating, she asserted, from her solar plexus; his speech, peppered with "thees" and "thous," was completely incomprehensible to her. She received a visitation from her mother, dressed in black, telling her, "There's so much to do . . . there are so many to bring over." According to her recollections, the visions became so frequent that she could hardly sleep at night. Finally, one night a ring of spirits, mostly men attired in Victorian dress, floated agove her bed, continuing to chatter. She told one interviewer that, exhausted, she pleaded, "I have to get my sleep. I'm a working girl! Could we cut down on the visits?" While they appeared less regularly, she claimed to have visions for the rest of her life.
It is possible that West manufactured such stories, either as jokes on prying journalists or as a challenge to conventional religious thought. However, she took her spiritualism seriously. While some would classify Mae's visions as signs of instability, her interest in unconventional religious beliefs and spiritualism was not entirely out of the ordinary. Los Angeles, and in particular Hollywood, boasted a variety of nontraditional sects and cults, many focusing on mind power, positive thinking, and spiritualism. Traditionally, religious alternatives like spiritualism drew many women. Such belief systems provided channels by which female believers could not only explain the unexplainable but also rebel against the mainstream male-dominated religious hierarchy. Women were able to assert more power in nontraditional faiths, and, no doubt, such options were enticing to someone like Mae West, who had made a career out of resisting patriarchy. Significantly, it was not Kelly, but a female psychic who assisted Mae in finding the spiritual forces within her. And her first voices were polar opposites, male and female, that emanated from her body--a metaphor for the double-voicedness that had long graced her work.
It is also not surprising that West grew frustrated with mediums and decided to contact the spirit world herself. Characteristicaly, she needed to be in control not only of her material but also of her sacred affairs. She was not going to surrender ecclesiastical authority to anyone, especially to the men who dominated conventional religious institutions. She cited I Corinthians 12:7 as her inspiration: "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal." In this configuration, everyone, regardless of gender, race, or class, had access to God's inner-dwelling spirit. In all realms, Mae had made a claim to parity and authority. Finally, after years of struggling with faith, she found a satisfactory route to spiritual equality.
Satisfied that she had found evidence for faith, Mae emerged with renewed energy. Not surprisingly, her quest involved issues of identity. She embraced the notion of reincarnation, revising it to include that Catherine the Great was a "pre-incarnation" of herself. She decided that she was destined to play the Russian empress. Reinvigorated, she plunged into the project, this time determined to stage it as a play... The year 1943, according to her numerological computations, equaled eight, her lucky number.
Come On Up [a live stage show] helped keep her [Mae West's] career alive, but it also fulfilled a very fundamental need in the Westian psyche. Since childhood, she had needed to perform, and she had spent most of her fifty-three years onstage; it was, by her own admission, the place where she was most alive. It was safe and secure, always scripted and with no need for spiritualists or mediums to forewarn of pitfalls and suprises.
Watts, page 262:
On January 15, 1949... [Mae West] began to experience familiar abdominal pains. They grew so intense that her staff rushed her to a local hospital... West and company returned to New York. She claimed she summoned the Sri who again healed her. Yet cast members noted that she continued under a doctor's care; a physician was always available in the wings.
Watts, page 285:
 West continuedto remain aloof rom the Hollywood scene, withdrawing into her small circle of family and acquaintances. With more time to pursue her interest in spiritual matters, she invited close friends and family to her beach house or the Ravenswood for seances and demonstrations of psychic power.
Watts, page 289:
 Shortly after her release from the hospital, her brother, John, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Both Mae and Beverly were devastated. A funeral service was held, and he was interred with Tillie and Jack in the Brooklyn family crypt. A month later, for the first time, Mae drew up a will... Shortly afterward Mae claimed that her brother's spirit visited her, hovering above her bed, his eyes filled with tears. She maintained that she looked away and without a word he disappeared. With a psychic's help, she interpreted his appearance as an expression of his remorse for disappointing her by failing to settle into a career. She insisted that she mentally assured him that she "was glad he lived his life as he wanted to."
West's well-known belief in spiritualism combined with her reclusiveness and advancing age presented another challenge to her star image.
Watts, page 246:
...1944... that summer, West launched into rehearsals [for the stage show she wrote and starred in, Catherine Was Great]. Surrounded by her entourage, including Jim Timony and the Sri, she began preparing for a tryout run in early July...
Watts, page 300:
In his personal papers, [Musgrove] saved a script that he helped author for Rona's Reports, radio spots on Hollywood happenings delivered by columnist Rona Barrett, a friend of Mae's who shared her interest in spiritualism.
Watts, page 303:
Ideologically, Musgrove and West were incompatible, but it was his professional hand that guided her through the final years of her life. Musgrove also thought that West's involvement in spiritualism and the psychic world was a little wacky, yet her interest in such matters continued to grow. As Myra Breckinridge [a film she starred in] drew her back into the public eey, she began inviting more people to seances and demonstration of ESP at her beach house. The wide-ranging guest list included fans, Hollywood notables, some of those involved in Myra Breckinridge, and Hollywood reporters. Nevertheless, Mae remained exceptionally shy and extremely protective of her private world. When longtime acquaintance Sidney Skolsky attended a session, he noted that Mae graciously received each guest...
Watts, page 314:
Soon [Mae West's] personal physician arrived. He announced that nothing more could be done. [Paul] Novak summoned a priest from the church just down the block, who gave Mae a blessing. Only a few minutes later, at 10:30 A.M., Mae West passed away [at the age of 87 years old].
From: Mae West page on "Find a Death" website (http://www.findadeath.com/Deceased/w/Mae%20West/Mae%20West/Mae%20West.htm):
...At Musgrove's urging, Paul Novak organized a private service. On the afternoon of November 25, one hundred of Mae's family, friends, and acquaintance gathered at Forest Lawn's Old North Church to memorialize Mae West.
...That night Mae's body was flown home to Brooklyn, and the following morning Paul Novak and Dolly Dempsey arrived at Cypress hills for the interment. Two priests and a bishop offered short prayers and blessed the casket.
Her funeral was invitation only, at the Old North Church in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills. 100 mourners attended. Mae was laid out in a white negligee in an open casket. The lower half was covered in white roses. A Presbyterian minister characterized her as a "good woman," and that "goodness had everything to do with it," a play on her famous line. As mourners left, "Frankie and Johnnie," the song she sang in Diamond Lil, was being played on the organ.
Watts, page 10:
...Mae was psychic, and taught Celebrity Psychic Kenny Kingston to read tea leaves.
...on August 17 [Tillie] gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Named Mary Jane for her grandmother, but called Mae by family members... Tillie... insisted that her daugher [Mae] be "humored" and coaxed, never harshly disciplined according to standard Victorian childrearing practices. Mae attributed the evolution of her unique personality to this special treatment.
Mae West's hyper-sexualized persona stemmed, in part, from the way she was introduced to sexuality through sexual molestation as a pre-teen and young teen child. From Watts, pages 23-24:
As a stock performer [Mae West] had led a life apart from her peers for almost four years. Now she had to integrate into the working-class adolescent world. She briefly returned to public school at age thirteen. Outside of her cousins and immediate family, she made few friends, having an especially hard time relating to girls her own age. Mae later claimed that Tillie [her mother] had discouraged such friendships--they were not expedient. "Girls seemed a foolish investment of my time," Mae remarked, insisting that she felt attention was better spent on boys. "I liked all the boys," she bragged, "and kissed them all."
Watts, page 26:
Despite Mae's boasting, she also expressed mixed feelings about sex... On many occasions, Mae alleged that she had become sexually active early, wanting to experiment before puberty to avoid pregnancy, but she gave several different accounts of her first sexual encounter. In one, a young music teacher, who gave her lessons while she sat on his lap and he kissed her, initiated her on the front steps of her parents' home. In another, she claimed to have seduced a retired actor who was ignorant of her extreme youth. She also told of a schoolteacher who introduced her to sex when she was only thirteen. "He got me to stay after school. I helped to correct papers and htings," she remembered. "I was too young to feel anything, you know. But I liked it because he was paying me attention. I always wanted attention."
It is possible that all of these early sexual encounters took place. Much of Mae's youth was spent among adults, and enacting sensuality [in her stage show] made her a likely target for abuse. Despite her later insistence that she was the aggresor in these affairs, she also indicated that she felt exploited. She related her earliest sexual encounters dispassionately, with a curious detachment that would always mark her attitude toward intimacy. This ambivalence reflected the reality that Mae West's first exposure to sex was traumatic; she was a victim of what now would be recognized as child molestation. In each case, adult men used her for gratification. Her rationalization that her teacher's special attention was reasonable compensation was belied by her decision to quit school at exactly the same time. She did not really seem to covet the attention he offered.
Clearly, Mae West's earliest sexual experiences were emotionally damaging. Late in life, she discussed what she identified as her first sexual dream. She claimed it occurred sometime between the ages of ten and twelve. Although she insisted that she was not frightened by it, her account conveyed a nightmarish tone. In it, a "giant male bear" entered her bedroom, walking on his hind legs. "He came forward, toward me, and stepping up on the front of the bed, he leaned his paws high on the wall against which my bed rested." He then proceeded to have sex with her. She often insisted that the dream was pleasurable, but to one female interviewer she confessed that it "worred me for a long time." Indeed, she revelaed to a close associate that when she reached adulthod, she was plagued by such intense dreams about sex that she required sedatives so she could sleep.
Despite her growing resentment of gender inequalities, Mae claimed that her interest in boys intensified. Tillie [her mother] attempted to control even this aspect of her life, urging Mae to experiment but avoid commitment. Tillie knew that romance led to marriage and babies, a death blow to a woman's theatrical career, but she also had to confront Mae's budding curiosity about the opposite sex. "Mother preferred that I divide my attention among several boys," Mae recalled. "She encouraged it." And Mae was not the type of girl to say no, especially to her mother.
In 1909 or 1910, Mae West joined with Frank Wallace to create a successful touring song-and-dance act together. Wallace was a nineteen-year-old song-and-dance man from Queens, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He became the only man West ever married, although it wasn't much of a marriage. Watts, pages 30-31:
Enchantment's road tour took [Frank] Wallace and [Mae] West into the heart of the Midwest, well beyond Tillie's protective supervision. Tillie [Mae West's mother] had continued to attempt to direct both Mae's personal and professional lives, cautioning her away from romance. "My mother never approved of a single boy friend I had," Mae later told a reporter. "Whenever I showed up with one who wanted to take me to the altar, my mother didn't like him and when I saw that, somehow or other I soured on him, too." While Tillie must have been proud of her daughter's favorable reviews [in her show with Frank Wallace], she would undoubtedly have been alarmed to know that, once on the road, Wallace proposed marriage. Mae claimed that she turned him down repeatedly and continued affairs with other cast members, members of the crew, men she met in hotels, and male fans from the audience. "Marriage was the furthest thing in my plans," she recalled.
Watts, page 58:
By the time the tour reached Milwaukee in early April 1911, West's attitude had changed. She contended that Etta Wood, an older cast member... took her aside, insisting that her promiscuity would only get her into "trouble." "Sooner or later something's going to happen to yu," Wood reportedly warned. "Marry Wallace and be respectable." Mae claimed that Wood's advice forced her to think hard. She concluded that she "could get married and still see other guys." Then if she got pregnant, she would "have somebody to blame it on."
So on the morning of April 11, 1911, Mae West and Frank Wallace were marrid by a justice of the peace in Milwaukee. Only seventeen, she lied on her marriage license and stated that she was eighteen, Wisconsin's legal age for marriage... Immediately after the ceremony, she made Wallace swear not to tell her parents and to keep the marriage secret once they returned to New York. He claimed the troupe's manager gave them the night off for a honeymoon, but Mae remembered that she spent it alone in her room in a noisy hotel. She later vehemently insisted that they had never lived together as man and wife.
...The tour ended in the summer of 1911. Mae returned to her family in Brooklyn, and Wallace went back to Queens. Although he kept his promise and remained silent about their marriage, he began to badger Me to settle down with him. She clearly felt no attachment to him. "It's just this physical thing," she remembered telling him... Soon Mae realized that to preserve her career and her relationship with her beloved mother, she had to get rid of Frank Wallace.
Mae broke the news to Wallace that their professional partnership was over, insisting that her mother had demanded that she go solo. Next, she arranged, or so she claimed, for him to join a road show booked for an extended tour. Wallace departed reluctantly, and with that, he was out of her life. "Marriage is a career and acting is a career and you can't mix two careers," West later rationalized. "An actor's marriage isn't like other marriages. . . . We don't think about marriage as something going on and on, with children from generation to generation. It's often just a passing whim."
Significantly, the psychology professor, a student of Schopenhauer, understands her best, declaring Gloria "a paradox." ['Gloria' was Mae West's character in The Ruby Ring, the stage production she created.] During his verbal battle with her, he observes, "You merely play with words." His assessment indicates that West had not only absorbed signification's language games but also knew exactly what she was doing with them.
Financial backing from crime boss Owney Madden, a Catholic, was instrumental in advancing Mae West's career. Watts, pages 66-67:
Tillie [Mae West's mother] ...was almost certainly acting as a front for one of New York's most powerful crime bosses, Owney Madden... For most of his life, he had been involved in crime... [in] Hell's Kitchen... as a young man he assumed leadership of New York City's most violent gang, the Gophers. In addition to theft and burglary, Madden's gang provided protection and secured votes for Tammany Hall... After his release [fron Sing Sing prison] in 1923... Madden quickly moved in on the bootleg trade, made lucrative by the federal Prohibition laws that had gone into effect in 1920.
Watts, page 82:
Madden quickly amassed a fortune. He provided the public with Madden's No. 1, one of New York's most popular beers--for both is quality and the dire consequences of rejecting it. Although it was deadly to cross Madden, he was known to be polite, gentlemanly, and cautious. He had powerful friends in both City Hall and the New York City Police Department. Some New Yorkers believed that he really ran the city. Many in the working class and underclass regarded him as a Robin Hood. He was famous for helping out friends and strangers and also for his charitable contributions to the Catholic Church.
...How the Wests came to know the powerful bootlegger and gang chieftain is not certain. However, they had long maintained ties to organized crime and could have easily been acquainted with Madden even before his stay in Sing Sing... Forging a relationship with Madden during the 1920s was one of the smartest moves Tillie had made thus far. It catapulted the Wests into a profitable financial arrangement... Tillie must have hoped that Madden would open doors for her talented daugher... One of the hotel's residents claimed for a time West and Madden were romantically involved. In later years, when pressed about his relationship with her, Madden simply smiled fondly.
...Jane Mast's latest comedy-drama, The Drag. This was not West's first exposure to the gay subculture... she had known many gays during her long career in burlesque, vaudeville, and the theater. Now, though, Wes claimed she had become curious about homosexuality because of an actor whom she met during her run in SEX [her previous stage show]. She found him enchanting; he sent her flowers. But her interest waned after she learned that he had been married and fathere da child, was divorced, and was also bisexual... this experience compelled her to study differing psychological interpretations of homosexuality. Although she became familiar with Sigmund Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, she favored Karl Heinrich Ulrich... She also subscribed to psychologist Havelock Ellis's theory that homosexuals were "inverts," bon with drives that had been turned inward. Although West stated that she believed homosexuality "a danger to the entire social system of western civilization," she also expressed sympathy for most gay men, whom she perceived as female spirits burdened with men's bodies... she also divided homosexual men into two categories. The first, "born homosexuals," she found acceptable, a result of biological makeup. The second she labeled "environmental" homosexuals... these were secretive degenerates driven by acquired urges for unnatural sexual thrills.
Watts, pages 86-87:
If the debate [about homosexuality, in the play The Drag] seemed contrived, perhaps it reflected West's internal conflicts over both men and sexuality. When questioned later about her sexuality, she claimed that she would have "recoiled in horror" to disvoer homosexual leanings in herself. She insisted that she spurned friendships with lesbian women because she found them "rather morbid." (It was not true, for she befriended seveal...) "I am all woman," she insistd emphatically in 1970... The Drag was equally ambiguous, pro-gay in some moments and homophobic in others.
Watts, page 79:
SEX debuted just as many civic and religious leaders escalated their calls for censorship of the stage. Leading the charge was John S. Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), dedicated to ridding the country of books, newspapers, magazines, artworks, or plays the group deemed obscene. Sumner wielded a considerable power and counted John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan among his supporters. [More]
Watts, page 152:
Although Hollywood had been under Will Hays's watch for almost twelve years, he had been fairly powerless over filmmakers. During a series of Hollywood scandals in the 1920s, studio heads had appointed him to assure the public they were committed to clean entertainment and self-regulation. They paid his salary and, in turn, often ignored his dectates. Throughout his tenure, Hays had been the target of criticism, particularly from moralists who decried what they contended was the increasing salaciousness of Hollywood film. In 1930, after pressure from the Catholic Church, other religious denominations, and several social agencies, the Hays Office adopted strict standards known as the Production Code. Authored by Father Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley, a devout Catholic and owner of the influential Motion Picture Daily, the Production Code of 1930 banned most depictions of sex, violence, interracial relationships, drugs, alcohol, and numerous other topics. But Hays still had little power--outside of persuasion--to enforce the Code. Studios habitually disregarded it. Such was the case with [Mae West's production] Diamond Lil; Paramount was determined to proceed with the project regardless of Hays's opposition.
Watts, pages 170-171:
Of more concern were charges leveled by Catholic leaders who actively pressed for stricter film regulation. In February 1933, Father Daniel Lord, the co-author of the 1930 Production Code, sent Hays a stinging letter, branding [Mae West's film] She Done Him Wrong as "the filthy Diamond Lil slipping by under a new name." He warned that Catholics, tiring of Hays's permissiveness, would demand either political or ecclesiastical oversight of Hollywood films. While by some estimates an average of 60,000 Americans filled theaters weekly for She Done Him Wrong, several states excised portions of the film, more evidence to Catholic leaders and other censorship advocates of the indecent nature of [Mae] West's work.
Watts, pages 184-185:
In spring 1934, just as West's latest film was getting off the ground, pressure on the chief censor escalated. Growing impatient with what they considered escalating cinematic licentiousness and the studios' evasions of the Production Code, Catholic leaders mobilized. In November, the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., organized the Legion of Decency, dedicated to combating indecency in films. The Legion threatened to boycott movies deemed immoral by the church and required parishioners to pledge to patronize only wholesome films. Soon Protestant and Jewish leaders threatened the film industry's tradition of self-regulation as well as the profits that the recent movies had generated. It became apparent that for Hays to survive and for the industry to retain some measure of independence, the censor's office would have to be drastically reorganized.
Some excerpts from the description of religious themes in West's production Belle of the Nineties, from Watts, pages 191-192:
The first step consisted of demoting Wingate, whom Catholic leaders and other reformers viewed as thoroughly ineffective. In Wingate's place, Hays appointed Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic and former journalist with strong connections to the church's leadership. Breen was allotted broad oversight of all Hollywood productions, fortified by a new system that permitted distribution of only those films bearing the censors' official certificate of approval. On the one hand, Hays hoped Breen would appease the Catholic Church. On the other hand, since the studios paid Breen's salary, they felt certain that they oculd court him as they had previous Hays Office representatives. But it became clear that Breen felt no allegiance to Hollywood. In fact, he despised and distrusted his studio bosses. Virulently anti-Semitic, he privately referred to the Jewish studio heads, who led the industry, as a "dirty, filthy lot," contending that they were "crazed with sex." Although press releases identified [Mae] West as of Irish, German, and French background, rumors that she possessed Jewish heritage circulated widely and could not have helped in her dealings with Breen.
Brother Eben's revival takes place just beneath Ruby's window, where he sings, "Pray, children, pray and you'll be sved," as a crowd grows. From the throng, Jasmine shouts, "Bow down, bow down," and Ruby strolls on her balcony surveying the scene below. The entire flock breaks into song, declaring, "If the Good Book say so, it's so." Ruby then begins to sing along, but a different tune. In blues style, she laments, "I"m going to drwon, down in those troubled waters, they're creeping around my soul." (The song borrowed from several African-American spirituals.) The camera begins to switch between the balcony and the street below, where the worshipers are seized by the holy spirit, finally superimposing their images on Ruby's as they join with her in song.
Some information about Mae West's production Klondike Annie, which had strong religious themes, as did some of the other shows West created, including Diamond Lil. West wrote or co-wrote most of her stage productions and films. Watts, pages 216-217:
This passage, clarly intended as a statement about sin and redemption, also demonstrated West's reliance on primitivism, for in her view its emotionalism was not confined to erotic passion but included its apparent opposite, religious fervor. In this configuration, the black characters are closer not only to nature but to God as well. Ruby asks Jasmine to pray for her, as if her black maid was an intercessor or saint. Thus Jasmine becomes the spiritual sperior who calls Ruby to worship, commanding her to "bow down." Racial separation prevents Ruby from attending Brother Eben's revival; she can only participate from afar as she looks on longingly. But together Ruby and the throng deliver songs of suffering and redemption. When Ruby sings about drowning, worshipers below wave their arms and sway, appearing to drown along with her. As she declares that the "troubled waters" will "wash away my sins befor emornig," the crowd's jubilation climaxes. Baptized together, Ruby and the throng find redemption as their images become fused, the camera superimposing them in a visual symbol of racial intermixing. What West could not accomplish on film with sex, she did with religion.
Doll does not begin her spiritual renewal until freed from all Chinese ties, signaled when Fah Wong disembarks just before Sister Annie boards. For the most part, Doll's conversion occurs through a linguistic match with Annie. And as Annie declines, Doll blossoms, growing in both allure and spiritual strength. By the time the ship reaches Nome, Doll has, in syncretic fashion, absorbed some of Annie's faith. Yet Doll emerges even more powerful than the evangelist, for she possesses the best of both the spirit and the flesh.
Michael Wolfe, the American writer who became a convert to Islam, was fond of the following quote from Mae West: "Anytime you take religion for a joke, the laugh's on you." [Source: Michael Wolfe page on "Islam for Today" website; http://www.islamfortoday.com/wolfe1.htm; v. 22 May 2005.]
In the final stage of the conversion tale, the convert spreads the word. Doll's particular spirituality, a combination of the sacred and the profane, revises normal expectations regarding faith and provides her with an eclectric presence that furthers her evangelical efforts... in her masquerade, Doll injects a renewed energy into their faith. With her raucous and demonstrative revival, she rejects dreary conventionality and religious formalism. This disruption of tradition creates a sacred space of empowerment. Doll seizes the pulpit, unseating ecclesiastical patriarchy, leading the entire town and its most hardened sinner, herself, to salvation.
Doll's reformulation of faith signifies on American society's relegation of sex and religion to polar extremes of the moral spectrum. Essentially, Doll resolves Diamond Lil's greatest dilemma, proving that sex and salvation need not be mutually exclusive, that the sexually experienced woman is not necessarily an evil woman. In West's re-vision of spirituality, the strongest believer is both religious and sexual.
Webpage created 23 June 2005. Last modified 23 June 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: email@example.com.