She was the queen of innuendo. With her slinky walk, hourglass figure and sassy turn of phrase, Mae West was once Broadway’s and Hollywood’s grandest sex icon. She was also among the most persecuted. The New York police department raided the platinum blonde’s shows, threw her in jail and leveled tremendous fines against her. Why? According to one New York playwright, it might have had something to do with the fact that West was half-Jewish.
“It was so patently unfair,” said Linda Ann Loschiavo, author of the new play “Courting Mae West: A Comedy About Sex, Censorship and Secrets.” The show will have a reading on February 7 at the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village — the same location where West was booked for obscenity 77 years earlier when the building was a courthouse.
West, the daughter of a German-Jewish mother and an Anglo-Irish father, was a relatively unknown burlesque performer before she plunged into the murky waters of suggestive but “legitimate” theater. She had been scrupulous about submitting to the censors the plays she wrote and starred in, Loschiavo told the Forward. “At the time, there were play juries,” Loschiavo said. “You had to put your manuscript before the play juries and they would say, ‘This is all right,’ or ‘You have to make these changes,’” before giving plays a theatrical license.
West’s plays were approved by these juries — and there was no shortage of much more lewd and lascivious theater around the city — but that didn’t stop vice squads from raiding her shows and charging her with obscenity.
“Was it because she was an ambitious Jewish-American female on the rise?” Loschiavo asked in an e-mail she sent to the Forward. That’s Loschiavo’s theory, anyway.
“Courting Mae West” grew out of Loschiavo’s fascination with the courthouse on Sixth Avenue, in the building that now houses the Jefferson Market Library. Back then it was the only night court in New York, and hundreds of famous and infamous figures passed through, including Harry K. Thaw, Star Faithful and Ethel Rosenberg.
West was brought in during a run of her play “Sex” in 1927. She was sentenced to 10 days at the Women’s Workhouse on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). Her experiences meeting prostitutes, robbers and various unsavory types gave birth to her next play, “Pleasure Man,” which was also closed down; West was fined $20,000 because “Pleasure Man” used the word “homosexual” and featured two men dancing together on stage.
“This was in the days when the average teacher’s salary was $950 a year,” Loschiavo noted. “They weren’t even fining bootleggers that much. No other actress got locked up. What’s at the bottom of that?”
Loschiavo sees the West case as a microcosm of something larger. “My play really is a history play about what happened in New York City in 1926, 1927, 1928 and 1929 — West was a great conduit,” Loschiavo said. West’s arrest, she added, sparked a media frenzy. “There were 15 daily newspapers back then, and everyone was competing for headlines.” It was, Loschiavo said, “the Michael Jackson [story]” of its time.