Mae West - Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen (2016)

Mae West

Before Marilyn and Madonna, there was Mae West (1893-1980). The first iconic sex symbol of Hollywood, West was an American actor, singer, playwright, and screenwriter whose career spanned seven decades. She was known for her signature wiggle walk and writing all of her own lines, particularly her memorable double entendres.

With a start in vaudeville, West made a name for herself by writing and starring in her own plays—the first, in 1926, was entitled Sex. Enforcing a moral code in entertainment was big in that era, and she served time for corrupting the morals of youth—a theme that would follow her for her entire career. She continued to write racy comedic plays that touched on subjects of pleasure and sexuality, including her 1928 play Diamond Lil; it became a Broadway hit, and she took that luxury-loving persona all the way to Hollywood.

West got her first studio contract from Paramount Pictures at the age of forty—and became a silver screen icon shortly after. Her starring roles in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were rumored to have saved Paramount from bankruptcy and made her the second-highest-paid person in the United States at the time (just after William Randolph Hearst).

West was a longtime advocate for equality for all people; when one of her boyfriends, boxing champion Gorilla Jones, was denied entry to her apartment building because of segregation, she bought the building and lifted the ban. In the 1950s, she performed in her own Las Vegas stage show, surrounded by bodybuilders. One of those muscle men, Paul Novak, thirty years her junior, became her longtime companion until her death.

“When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”