In a previous piece I described how Mae West funded her scandalous 1927 play sex through her romance with the rich, handsome, but very dangerous gangster Owney Madden. However, it was the poor, but handsome bag man of the gangster who made West an American icon.
In 1927 the Acting Mayor of New York Joe McKee, scandalized by the drama’s frank sexual portrayals, had West and the rest of the cast arrested. The arrest was a publicity gold mine and sex and West were the words on the lips of all New Yorkers. When the cops jailed Mae the gangster’s connections with Blackwell’s Island warden earned Mae a private cell and silk underwear. She even dined with the warden every night and left after six days being let out early for good behavior. Upon her release she quipped, “It was the first time I ever got anything for good behavior.”
The arrest made the show the hottest ticket on Broadway. Each night Madden would send over his bag man to collect his considerable share of the show’s gate. Unfortunately, for Madden the bagman was a handsome young dancer named George Raft, who, like West, was a German-American New Yorker. The two were totally infatuated with each other and they began a short but impetuous affair.
Two years later Raft relocated to Hollywood, and his big break came in 1932 when he starred as the nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni in Scarface. Raft, though, had not forgotten Mae, and he would be responsible for West’s Hollywood career. He got a role in a film called Night After Night, starring as an ex-prizefighter who runs a nightclub. One role still remained to be cast, and Raft remembered Mae. He got her the part, even though Paramount Studios was reluctant to hire her. They signed her for two months at a generous $5,000 a week. Mae arrived in Pasadena, but she did not initially take to the film capital of the world. Having enjoyed acclaim in New York, she knew that in Hollywood she was a nobody.
But she still had Brooklyn sass and would use it to her advantage. She hated the script for Night after Night and demanded to rewrite it to fit her personality. Film was different than the stage, and censors would not allow her to do some of the risqué things she did on Broadway. She compensated by coming up with wise-cracking double entendres and thinly veiled sexual references that the audience adored. They would make her a star. Her first lines in the film were legendary. She entered Raft’s nightclub in furs and jewels. “Goodness, what lovely diamonds,” exclaimed a hatcheck girl. “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” replied Mae. It was the start of a career that would last decades and propel her to stardom.