Famous Greenpointers: Happy Birthday Mae West!

Mae West – Greenpointer
A portrait of Greenpointer Mae West – illustrated by Rebecca Clarke

Mae West was a renowned stage actress, director, playwright and film star whose career spanned over seven decades. Born on Herbert Street in 1893 to a German mother, Tillie Doelger, with a voluptuous figure and to an Irish American boxer Battlin’ Jack West, she would’ve turned 122 years old today. From her mother she inherited her great figure and from her father she inherited his pluck and self-confidence and a penchant for wise cracks.

At the time of West’s birth, Greenpoint was in love with vaudeville. West was also influenced by her parents, who had a love for theatre. She first performed on stage at age five at the Royal Theater on Willoughby Street. Young Mae had a precocious talent and her parents were astonished at her ability to mimic the great Vaudeville actors of the day. Other girls asked for dollhouses, but Mae asked her father to build her a stage and soon the spunky little girl was wining amateur talent contests all over Brooklyn.

West grew up to become a Vaudeville actress and toured the states as a teenager. She was part of a change in female identities; On stage she often played the parts of a new wave of tough girls who defied traditional female roles and stereotypes. Her life was forever changed when in 1927 she wrote, directed and starred in her play “Sex” on Broadway. She combined sexuality with satire, at a time when puritanical prohibition America desperately needed a cure for its irony deficiency. The show was considered so shocking and indecent that West and her cast were arrested on stage. Her arrest caused a firestorm of publicity. The prosecutor offered to drop the charges if West would close the show, but West knew that the scandal was better than the best rave review. The show continued playing to sold out houses.

West was convicted of “Corrupting the morals of the youth” and sentenced to ten days. Mae turned the simple act of being incarcerated into an extravaganza. She rode to prison in a $20,000 limo as hundreds of her admirers threw roses and wished her well. Her stay in prison was covered by all the papers and West dined each night with the warden and his wife, who were also fans. West would go on to star in dozens of Hollywood films and her career into the late seventies. More than thirty-five years after her death, she still has legions of fans and is a special favorite of transvestites who often try to recreate West’s unique image.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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