Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White


"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Mae West invited and promptly captured the imagination of generations. Even today, years after her death, the actress and author is still regarded as the pop archetype of sexual wantonness and ribald humor. But who was this saucy starlet, a woman who was controversial enough to be jailed, pursued by film censors and banned from the airwaves for the revolutionary content of her work, and yet would ascend to the status of film legend? Sifting through previously untapped sources, author Jill Watts unravels the enigmatic life of Mae West, tracing her early years spent in the Brooklyn subculture of boxers and underworld figures, and follows her journey through burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and, finally, Hollywood, where she quickly became one of the big screen's most popular--and colorful--stars. Exploring West's penchant for contradiction and her carefully perpetuated paradoxes, Watts convincingly argues that Mae West borrowed heavily from African American culture, music, dance and humor, creating a subversive voice for herself by which she artfully challenged society and its assumptions regarding race, class and gender. Viewing West as a trickster, Watts demonstrates that by appropriating for her character the black tradition of double-speak and "signifying," West also may have hinted at her own African-American ancestry and the phenomenon of a black woman passing for white. This absolutely fascinating study is the first comprehensive, interpretive account of Mae West's life and work. It reveals a beloved icon as a radically subversive artist consciously creating her own complex image.


Mrs. Crane Brittany: Have your ancestors ever been traced? Cleo Borden: Well—yes. But they were too smart. They couldn't catch 'em.

—Mae West as Cleo Borden, Goin'to Town, 1935

In the early 1970s, rumors circulated that after Mae West's death, her deepest secret would be revealed publicly for the first time. A few wagered someone would finally verify that the celebrated symbol of brazen female sexuality was not really a woman but a man. Others speculated that a source would confirm that West had African-American roots, that one of her ancestors had passed for white. Mae toyed with those bolder journalists who confronted her with the persistent rumors that she was a man, and when one writer, John Kobal, questioned her on her racial background and preference for the blues, she admitted only that “her affinity for black music was because it's the best there is.” But all those who anticipated a bombshell at her death were to be eventually disappointed. In 1980, at the age of eighty-seven, Mae West died and was buried with the secrets that she was believed to have so carefully guarded throughout her life.

Mae West's death certificate, signed by a physician and an undertaker, confirms that she was all woman. It is more difficult to rule out the possibility that she had African-American ancestry. While three of her four grandparents were undisputedly European born, the ethnicity of her paternal grandfather, John Edwin West, is harder to pinpoint. He first appears in public records only after the Civil War, in 1866, when the Manhattan city directory shows him living on the Lower East Side, one block from the notorious Bowery.

The one sure fact about John Edwin West is that he had been a seafarer— a rigger who worked on whaling ships. The rest of his background remains a mystery. His recorded birth date varied between 1819 and 1830;his birthplaces . . .

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