Mae West understood that sex, controversy and a juicy tabloid trial can be great for a career

She pulled out a pistol and pointed it at the pimp. Then she picked up the phone and called the cops.

“Hello, police headquarters?” she said. “Will you kindly send someone here immediately to take a desperate character?”

When she hung up, the pimp begged her not to hand him over to the cops. Give me a chance to run, he pleaded, and I’ll never bother you again.

“Alright, rat, I’ll give you the chance,” she said. “Why, if I didn’t have a certain amount of refinement, I’d kick your teeth all over this floor. Now blow, bum, blow.”

The pimp turned and ran—right off the stage of Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre in Manhattan. After his exit, Mae West finished the final scene of her play, Sex. In the scene, her character, a hooker named Margy, rejects the rich guy who wants to marry her and takes off with one of her customers, a sailor with a heart of gold.

The curtain fell, the audience applauded and West took her bows. Then she hurried to her dressing room and prepared to deal with the real policemen who were waiting to arrest her. They had arrived early in the play but agreed to let the actors finish the show and change into street clothes before busting them. West wanted to look her best in court, so she wiped off her greasepaint and put on her black cloche hat and her knee-length fur coat.

Outside, a crowd gathered to gawk and cheer as West walked out of the theater and stepped into a taxi for the ride to court.

The charge was “unlawfully preparing, advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, immoral and impure drama, play, exhibition, show and entertainment” and it carried a penalty of a year in jail. She pled not guilty, and demanded a jury trial. Bail was set at $1,000. She posted it and walked free.

It was February 9, 1927, and Mae West was 33, which is getting old for a song-and-dance girl. But she figured her arrest and trial would generate enough publicity to make her a star.

She was right. Like countless entertainers who came after her, Mae West instinctively understood that sex, controversy and a good juicy tabloid trial can be great for a career. Years later, long after she became the highest-paid woman in America, she summed up her rise to stardom: “Censorship made me.”

“Mae West courted excitement,” wrote her biographer, Emily Wortis Leider. “She loved big cities, form-fitting clothes, lipstick, jazz, sex in taxis, intrigue, gun-toting bootleggers, boxers lathered in sweat, and cops who read her the riot act.”

She was born in Brooklyn in 1893, the daughter of a prizefighter and a corset model. She debuted on stage at the age of 5 and as soon as she felt the spotlight, she never wanted to leave its glow. “I had to have the spotlight more than anything else, shining full on me,” she told an interviewer 80 years later. “I ached for the spotlight, which was like the strongest man’s arm around me, like an ermine coat.”

In her teens, she traveled the vaudeville circuit, singing and dancing and displaying a natural talent for comedy. She also exhibited a penchant for the outrageous and the forbidden. In Chicago, she hung around black juke joints, listening to sultry blues and learning a sexy dance called the shimmy. In 1918, performing in a revue, she introduced the shimmy to Broadway. “Mae West stopped the show with her shimmy dance,” Variety noted, “then made a speech, then another.”

Her “speech” was no doubt comic, and she probably wrote it herself. She insisted on rewriting her lines to make them funnier and sexier. She did the same with song lyrics. She wanted everything to fit the persona she had created for herself—a sassy, sexy, wisecracking New York hussy who craved men but shunned marriage.

That persona was an exaggeration, but not by much. West married at 17, then bolted, preferring many paramours to one husband. She particularly enjoyed frolicking with muscle-bound men, like boxers and weightlifters, and dangerous men, like gangsters and bootleggers. “I would not conform to the old-fashioned limits they had set on a woman’s freedom of action,” she wrote in her 1959 memoir. “I saw no indecency or perversion in the normal private habits of men and women.”

In 1924, one of her boyfriends, a lawyer named James Timony, bought the rights to Following the Fleet, an unproduced play about a Montreal prostitute, and West rewrote it as a vehicle for herself.

In her version, the play had everything—brothels, bribery, blackmail, crooked cops, knockout drops, jewel theft, suicide and plenty of torrid but clothed lovemaking. Margy, the heroine, was not the proverbial “whore with a heart of gold,” she was a whore with a will of iron, a wisecracker who loved sex but refused to knuckle under to any man, not even her pimp. In other words, she was Mae West, which explains why she periodically stopped the show to sing the blues and dance the shimmy.

After changing everything else about the play, West changed the title to something more memorable: Sex. Later she explained her theory of playwriting: “You’ve got to hit them in the eye with it.”

In 1926, Timony produced the play, with backing from another of West’s paramours, gangster Owney Madden, a bootlegger who owned the famous Cotton Club and hired Duke Ellington’s orchestra as its house band. They rented Daly’s Theatre and opened on April 26, 1926, counting on controversy to sell tickets.

“I hope the police do get after it,” Timony said. “That’ll mean business.”

The reviews were, as they say, mixed. The New York Times called it “crude.” The Daily Mirror called it a “monstrosity.” The New Yorker pronounced it “dreary.” And Billboard judged it “poorly written, poorly acted, horribly staged…the cheapest, most vulgar low show to have dared to open in New York this year.” On the other hand, Variety reported that West played a prostitute well enough to “fool a traveling salesman’s convention” and proclaimed her “the Babe Ruth of the Stage Prosties.”

Although the reviews weren’t raves, they sold tickets. Sex played to packed houses and became “a whacking hit,” critic Robert Benchley lamented, “solely because the papers had said that it was ‘vulgar’ and ‘bold’ and because someone had the genius to think of its name.”

Sex played to sizable audiences through the summer and fall of 1926 and into the winter of 1927, making plenty of money for West and her backers. But a backlash was building. The Catholic Church and the Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied for a crackdown on Sex and Broadway’s other bawdy shows. They were joined by the New York American, a tabloid owned by William Randolph Hearst, who was opposed to illicit sex in show business, but not the illicit sex he was having with the actress Marion Davies. “DON’T RELAX, MAYOR,” a headline in the Ameri­can read, “WIPE OUT THOSE EVIL PLAYS.”

New York’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, was a playboy fond of showbiz and showgirls. He wasn’t inclined to dispatch cops to raid theaters. He was also fond of vacations in warm places and in February 1927 he was in Florida, playing the ponies at Hialeah. In his absence, the acting mayor, Joseph V. “Holy Joe” McKee, ordered the police to raid three Broadway shows. The most famous —or infamous—was Sex, which had by then corrupted theatergoers for 40 weeks.

The day after the arrests, the producers of all three plays obtained an injunction permitting the shows to go on, at least until the criminal cases were concluded. Of course, the publicity of the arrests made for boffo box office, and a Times headline read: “RAIDED SHOWS PLAY TO CROWDED HOUSES.”

So West played Margy at night as she prepared for her upcoming show in court. “I enjoyed the courtroom as just another stage,” she wrote, “but not so amusing as Broadway.”

In court, police inspector James S. Brolin took the stand, pulled out a stack of yellow paper and read in a solemn monotone his official summary of the plot of Sex. It’s safe to say that, as a performer, Brolin was no Mae West.

“In this episode,” Brolin droned, “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 Margy La Mont to commit an act of prostitution with him—to say, ‘You’d make a bulldog break its chain’—the said 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.”

“Said dance” turned out to be a key to the prosecution’s case. The play had no nudity and no verbal obscenities, so the prosecution claimed that West’s dancing was what made it “obscene, immoral, and impure.”

Asked to describe the dance, one police witness said, “Miss West moved her navel up and down and from left to right.”

“Did you actually see her navel?” West’s attorney asked.

“No,” the cop said, “but I saw something in her middle that moved from east to west.” The spectators in the packed courtroom laughed. The judge pounded his gavel. “This is not a show,” he insisted. “It’s a trial.” It was both, of course, and it contained, according to the Daily News, “more amusing lines than there ever were in that rather dull play.”

In the end, the jury found West, Timony, co-producer Clarence Morganstern and 19 members of the cast and crew guilty. “This trial occupied the attention of the entire country,” Judge George Donnellan said when the defendants returned for sentencing. The judge denounced the play as “obscene and immoral” and announced that he wanted to show the rest of the country that New York is “the most moral city in the universe.”

Donnellan sentenced the defendants to 10 days in jail, but he suspended the sentence for everyone except Timony, Morganstern and West.

“Miss West was the coolest person during the imposing of sentence,” the Daily News noted. “She nonchalantly rouged her lips as she rose to leave, and swaggered across the courtroom.”

“Give my regards to Broadway,” West told reporters as the cops hauled her off to the women’s workhouse.

The newspapers of 1927, like the newspapers of 2011, delighted in stories of glamorous actresses heading for the hoosegow. In West’s case, the papers played up the horrors that the coarse cotton underwear and stockings issued to inmates would cause for a sex symbol accustomed to the finest of silks. The Times simply reported that West complained to the warden about the underwear. But the Daily News went further, describing—and almost certainly concocting—the scene in her cell when she donned the discount undies. “ ‘Ugh!’ she said as she pulled cotton stockings over the legs that helped make Sex infamous.”

When she emerged from the workhouse nine days later, she held a press conference with Warden Henry Schleth, who described her as “a woman of wonderful character.” She said her sojourn in jail and her conversations with the inmates provided her with enough material for “two or three plays.” Then she read a poem she’d written about herself and the warden and the underwear:

I was angry when I met him,
but the fault was all his own,
for he gave me funny undies
that scratched me to the bone.
I said, “Look here, Warden,
These things I cannot wear,
Just feel them,” and he answered,
“But that’s not on the square.
Not that I don’t want to,
But, good God, I wouldn’t dare!”

Shock and scandal had made Mae West famous. When she swaggered out of the workhouse, she had the spotlight she had craved since childhood. A year later she starred in another play she wrote as a vehicle for herself—Diamond Lil. It was her masterpiece, and she played the title character, a wisecracking prostitute who works a Manhattan dance hall in the Gay Nineties. This time, the reviews were raves and the play became a hit, running eight months on Broadway, then touring the country.

West continued to shock the prudes. She wrote The Drag, a play about gay men in the theater world, which included an elaborately staged drag queen ball. It played out of town; no New York theater would touch it. She wrote another backstage drama, Pleasure Man, about an actor who seduces showgirls, and it, too, contained a drag queen ball. It opened on Broadway in October 1928 and was promptly raided by the police, who arrested the entire cast, which didn’t include West. She was playing Diamond Lil that night, and when the curtain fell, she hustled to the police station to bail out Pleasure Man’s actors. While she was there, the police arrested her for writing the show. The case dragged on for years, extending her infamy, before ending with a hung jury and dropped charges.

In 1932, West moved to Hollywood, summoned by one of her paramours, George Raft, to co-star with him in Night After Night. She hated her lines and rewrote them, creating one of the most quoted scenes in film history. Playing a sassy, sexy woman (of course), she entered a snazzy nightclub, dripping with diamonds, and checked her fur coat.

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” the coat-check girl exclaimed.

“Goodness had nothing to do with it,” West replied.

That line became the first of West’s famous quotes. There would be many more, all delivered in her slow Brooklyn twang: “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” “It’s not the men in your life, it’s the life in your men.” “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

In 1933, she turned Diamond Lil into the movie She Done Him Wrong, which became a huge hit and made her the highest paid woman in America, and the country’s only 40-year-old sex symbol. She made nine more movies, including My Little Chickadee, with W.C. Fields, before her movie career petered as she hit 50.

She wrote and starred in another play, Catherine Was Great, which revealed that the famous Russian empress was a lot like Mae West. In the 1950s, she worked nightclubs, singing and joking while surrounded by a bevy of buff young weightlifters. In the 1960s, when she was in her 70s, she released two rock-and-roll albums. In the 1970s, she played a parody of her old self-parodying persona in the movies Myra Breckinridge and Sextette.

“Did you know I was in prison?” West asked a reporter during an interview when she was in her mid-80s.

“Yes,” said the reporter, Charlotte Chandler. “But you weren’t an ordinary prisoner.”

“I was never an ordinary anything,” West replied.

“How do you feel about censorship?” Chandler asked.

“I believe in censorship. If a picture of mine didn’t get an X rating, I’d be insulted,” West said. “Imagine censors who wouldn’t let you sit in a man’s lap. I’ve been in more laps than a napkin.”

She died in 1980, at the age of 87. By then, the battle against censorship on stage and screen had been won, thanks partly to her. She showed that a woman could not only talk about sex but joke about it. She also pioneered the art of using sex, outrageousness and controversy as a means of career enhancement, leading the way for countless performers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Howard Stern, Janet Jackson, Annie Sprinkle and Lady Gaga.

In 1992, 12 years after West died, a young song-and-dance girl who loved the spotlight and desperately wanted to be a superstar decided to publish an elaborate coffee-table book of kinky nude photographs of herself. The woman’s name was Madonna and her title for the book might have amused Mae West. She called it Sex.

Peter Carlson is articles editor of American History.