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Bad Girl, Good Behaviour

Rogues Gallery Uncovered

Episode 10

Mae West

Rogues Gallery Uncovered

Bad behaviour in period costume

A non-judgmental unbuttoning of the scandalous lives of history’s greatest libertines’ lotharios and complete bastards

This podcast contains adult themes and a touch of colourful language. It also contains a performance of an Irish accent that is so terrible as to almost warrant criminal proceedings. If this is likely to cause offence and/or feelings of violence please do not proceed any further.

Bad Girl Good Behaviour

Inventing sex, becoming an icon and outraging everybody


Mae West

If you are a new listener let me just say a quick hello and welcome to the gallery and to gin soaked old rogues who have been with me for longer thank you for sticking around and I hope you continue to enjoy the podcast

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Please don’t let the Irish accent negatively influence your decision in offering any support …even though it really is shocking


The following tale, is written in the present tense of the period in which its set…. and as such, may contain attitudes and opinions of the protagonists and their times which would today be considered unacceptable.

As I’m not a permanently offended 1930s moral zealot and uptight busybody – with an inability to say the word “sex” those attitudes and opinions are obviously not mine

New York 1927

Well, I must say, that It’s the dirtiest play I have seen in a very long time – an affront to all decent god-fearing people – an abomination – they should lock them all up and throw away the key.

It’s called - excuse my language – “Sex” ..and it was written by a shameless floozy by the name of Mae West who – if we don’t stop her right NOW - will drag America and possibly the entire world into a rancid pit of vice and filth, from which it may never claw itself free.

It would be bad enough if it were a man peddling this depravity but a woman!….it goes against everything decent

Fortunately, a Christian jury of 12 upstanding men have quite rightly just sent her to jail and if you ask me, it can’t be for long enough.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Ms West has been performing on the Vaudeville circuit since she was 14 – and you know what those girls are like!

Her father was a prizefighter and private investigator while her mother modelled corsets, so make of that what you will.

Mae first started acting in so-called “Cheap Theatres” in New York City where the plays were usually full of lewdness and violence and more often than not based on some scandal that was in the newspapers at the time – it was for the working classes after all.

It was there she learned that the best way to grab an audience was by shocking them.

So she behaved in a tough, aggressive some might even say “masculine” manner…I mean “really” a woman who isn’t ladylike is hardly a woman at all in my book

This was before they got the vote of course, which is where I think everything started to go wrong.

Do you know when she was performing in Connecticut, in 1912 her outrageous behaviour on stage attracted a raucous crowd of Yale university students (men obviously) who used to run down the aisles shouting “Boola Boola” before she started her act. – but then, that’s students for you.

This upset so many people that she was fired, and it even made the news - the headlines read “Wiggles cost mae west her job.”

Speaking of dancing – and I use the term loosely - her first real brush with infamy came six years later in 1918.

Mae West liked spending her time in “jazz clubs” - if you know what I mean, in the company of men no respectable woman would ever associate with – and was quite brazen about it too, seeing nothing wrong in doing exactly as she pleased.

“I will not conform to the old-fashioned limits they set on a woman’s freedom of action,” she said. “I see no indecency or perversion in the normal private habits of men and women.”

What utter nonsense

It was in these clubs that apart from developing a liking for ungodly-fornication-music she learned how to perform a “dance” called the “shimmy sha-wobble” which she brought to the Broadway stage.

Imagine if you can a more depraved sight than a woman standing perfectly still while shaking her entire body to an accompaniment of obscene “jazz” music. – it’s like the last days of ancient Rome.

They should make the shimmy illegal; I’m writing a letter!

But West not only encouraged outrage and scandal but positively thrived on it becoming more famous as she did so.

It’s almost as if she was using the notoriety to publicise herself, but obviously a girl like that can’t have been so intelligent.

Anyway, it must have worked, because by 1924 Mae West was a well-known if controversial stage performer.

But while she was notorious for rewriting and ad-libbing most of her lines to make them more amusing and “bawdy” she had yet to write a full play.

By all accounts that changed when she saw a woman who was obviously a prostitute touting for business on the New York waterfront.

She described her as having “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. . . . runs in her stockings and she had this little turban on and a big beautiful bird of paradise.”

West overheard her companions debating how much the woman would charge for each sexual encounter deciding it would be somewhere between fifty cents and two dollars.

She contemplated just how many men she would have to service every day just to pay the rent, and grew angry not only at how the prostitute was being exploited by society but also at how the harlot was allowing herself to be used by men rather than exploiting them herself… if!

So, West began work on a story about a Canadian trollop who escapes a life of pleasuring sailors to find love with a man who knows about and forgives her sordid past.

The kind of future she no doubt wished the girl on the docks would one day enjoy.

And If that wasn’t morally reprehensible enough, the play also showed police officers as sometimes being corrupt and wealthy members of polite society as being cruel hypocrites more concerned with their reputations than the lives of others – both of which are of course totally untrue.

Naturally, no respectable backer would put their money into such a shameful enterprise, nor director oversee it, theatre host it or cast perform in it….

So over the next year or so West did it all herself, obtaining finance from, its rumoured local gangsters, recruiting a director so desperate for work that he didn’t ask her to make the script less risqué , finding an off Broadway theatre that hosted “experimental” productions and hiring a young cast who were encouraged to improvise around their roles.

It was going to be called “The Albatross” but West changed the title to “Sex” just before the opening night.

Obviously its not the kind of thing I would ever pay money to go and see but when I saw the poster advertising it as “the story of a bad little girl who was good to the navy.” I knew I would be so disgusted and outraged that I just had to buy a ticket.

The poster even had a warning written on it saying, “If you cannot stand excitement, visit your doctor before seeing Mae West in ‘Sex’.”

I’m surprised more people didn’t take notice of it and stay away.

The opening night was I must say sparsely attended and many people walked out in disgust.

The reviews were of course appalling

“We were shown not sex but lust” one reviewer wrote—"stark naked lust.”

Another described it as “poor balderdash of street sweepings and cabaret sentimentality unexpurgated in tone.”

Variety said it was “A sink of moral turpitude”

The Milwaukee sentinel advised “Fumigation needed” and no less a publication than billboard said it was

“poorly written poorly acted horribly staged - the cheapest most vulgar low show to have dared to open in New York this year and a disgrace to all those connected to it”

So imagine my surprise when once these reviews began to appear crowds started flocking to the theatre to see what all the fuss was about

There were lines of people stretching all the way along 63rd Street - I simply don't know what was wrong with them.

Anyone would think they found sex and scandal appealing.

By the beginning of this year three hundred and twenty five thousand of them had seen this Sodom and Gomorrah a play which was being touted as a Jazz Age phenomenon.

The Catholic Church the Society for the suppression of Vice and noted millionaire newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst were all publicly clamouring for it to be shut down.

Hearst by the way is vehemently against immorality on the public stage and I consider rumours that he is currently enjoying an illicit affair with the actress Marion Davis to be just that, otherwise he'd be the most unconscionable hypocrite.

To make matters worse, West had opened yet another play while sex was still being performed

entitled “drag”

It was even more shocking if that's possible in that it featured unabashed homosexuality and the recreation of a drag queen’s ball while at the same time mocking those who condemned the lifestyle as immoral.

You know I could almost feel the bowels of Hell opening up beneath me.

Thank the Lord then for acting New York Mayor

Joseph v McKee sometimes known as “holy

Joe” for his god-fearing morality.

He took advantage of the actual mayor of New

York Jimmy Walker - who had much looser morals - going on holiday to Havana to order the ex along with several other theatre performances he considered to be obscene to be raided by the police

As they waited outside to arrest up anybody would think that miss West was looking forward to all the controversy - as if she knew that at the frankly over-the-hill age of 33 her mala laksa toot may one day make her a star shameful it said

that after her performance she naturally played the lead role of prostitute Margie Lamont miss West retired to her dressing room to prepare for her big moment of being led away by the police

Variety I believe said that West played a fallen woman so convincingly that she could fool a travelling salesman's convention - but I don't know what that means.

Dressed in her best furs she was led through the gawping crowds and along with her entire cast bundled into the back of waiting taxis to be ferried to a police station in Hell's Kitchen.

Once there she was charged with unlawfully preparing advertising giving presenting and participating in an obscene immoral and impure drama play exhibition show and entertainment.

I would have added moral genocide to the list myself.

if found guilty she could have faced a year in jail but was told that all charges would be dropped if she closed the play.

West however refused and positively demanded that she be tried before a jury.

Then she bailed out not only herself at a cost of one thousand dollars but also her entire cast before preparing her day in court.

I asked myself what possible good could come from the luring press attention the trial would create

West would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country with her shame laid bare for all the world to see.

I can only hope that at her trial she will feel the full weight of the law pressing down on top of her.

New York April 1927

I have to say that that was one of the dirtiest trials I have seen in a very long time.

miss West of course was being charged with performing in a play which was obscene immoral and impure.

the court, however, was told that there was no nudity or obscene language in the play so it was the task of vice squad detective sergeant Patrick keneley to prove to the jury just how filthy it actually was.

in his lilting Irish brogue sergeant keneley described certain scenes from the play including one in which Miss West engages in a particularly lascivious dance.

in this episode the prostitute dances before the sailors of the fleet and the officers in a way that causes ensign Jones the same character who had solicited margie l'amour to commit an act of prostitution with him to say you'd make a bulldog break its chain the set dance having been performed by the defendant Mae West by moving her buttocks and other parts of her body in a way as to suggest an act of sexual intercourse.

When asked to demonstrate by the defence Miss West's movement to the court a visibly distressed sergeant Connolly declined.

the prosecution excused this decision by reminding the jury that everyone in the police force is not a dancer.

The defence’s reply of not an actor - alluding to his delivery of the plot - was met with much laughter from the assembled audience, which I found most infuriating.

Sergeant Connolly was asked if he'd glimpsed Miss West's navel during this wanton display.

He replied that he had not but had seen something in her middle that moved from east to west, which got even more laughter.

I nearly exploded with fury.

All the while miss West sat casually rouging her lips as if this was all part of the show.

Has she no shame?

When she was finally found guilty and sentenced to 10 days at a woman's workhouse she simply smiled and sashayed across the courtroom.

I heard her say give my regards to Broadway to reporters who were posturing around the proceedings like jackals.

I'd like to see how brazen she is in ten days’ time.

I don't believe it she's been released two days early.

I heard that she told a reporter it was the first time I ever got anything for good behaviour.

What's worse her performance in the courtroom and the damning descriptions of her morally corrupting play have made her even more famous than before.

Prison warden Henry schleff said that she ev