Playwright Examines Mae West’s Legal Dramas

By Max Gross

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.