The Psychedelic Sixties started with the Swinging Summer of Sixty-Six in Southern California, popularized by the Beach Boys and the Beach Party – certainly more a notion of the imagination and movies, perhaps than reality for most young Americans at the time.
Especially those sending loved ones to Vietnam – or being sent themselves.
Car, clothes, music, dancing – Pop Art starting popping. Few places better characterized the change Pinpointing the exact date is nearly impossible – nothing ever happens overnight, so May 1, 1966 is as good a day as any to pin its beginnings.
At least, Mae West would have liked that.
Of course, she was already world-known, famous for having helped save Paramount from bankruptcy during the height of the Great Depression. She had done revivals of her famous Broadway hit, Diamond Lil, and a new one about Catherine the Great – called Catherine Was Great.
And throughout the 50s she sold out the Sahara in Las Vegas with a reverse girlie show, “Sumthin’ for the gals!” she declared it.
Her friend the famous seer Criswell, even predicted she’d be one of the first women to land on the moon. She liked that.
She’d been called a lot of things – but she seemed to take greatest offense not to being called “old” (she knew that was ridiculous) but “outdated.”
Every May Day was Mae Day to Mae West (in fact, everyday was Mae Day to Mae West). And that was an original song she recorded on her first rock-and-roll album that year. Because by 1966, she wanted in on the action.
It may have started when a local reporter asked her, “Miss West, what do you think of the Sexual Revolution?”
Barely containing her outrage, she snapped, “Think of it?! I invented it! My God! I was the original Daughter of the Sexual Revolution!”
She may have also been still steaming from an earlier photo session with the legendary photographer Diane Arbus.
The actress was livid at the lighting used, but it also depicted her looking more dated. “The nerve of her! Don’t she know I’ve got friends in Chicago who can make sure she never walks again?!”
And with that, she seemingly if not actually went out and got a guitar and strummed some strings.
Soon after the Arbus session, she dumped her 50s yellow curled permanent and got herself a sleek gold Brigitte Bardot vibe.
To complete her transformation, she tried out a mini or two, and put on some pants.
Most importantly, Mae West hired a garage band called Somebody’s Children and recorded her first rock-and-roll album. She was 73 years old.
She didn’t care what the critics said – she was enjoying her life.
And she didn’t stop there.
Long before Madonna tried it, Mae West did a smooth version of Santa Baby: before the year was done, she had worked overtime to turn out her first holiday album, Wild Christmas.
Within two years, the world’s longest-living hipster landed herself on the cover of the world’s most widely-read magazine at the time, Life magazine, in an unprecedented two-page foldout.
All this, converging with a Sixties generational nostalgia for 1930s which included her old movies along with ganster films and Marx Brothers comedies being shown at college campus midnight shows, led to her great return to Pop Culture, not as a new version of her old self, but a new version of her new self.
After two decades of not making a movie, she was the headlined star (a fact which apparently still unnerves its lead Raquel Welch) of the controversial film Myra Breckenridge (1970), based on the novel by Gore Vidal and one of the first x-rated films.
To be fair, Mae West didn’t take kindly to Racquel Welch showing up for their press pictures in a red hooded costume on their first meeting.
“Who’s that dame think she is? Little Red Ridin’ Hood or something?”
Most critics at the time panned the film as an incomprehensible perspective of how the world had gone to hell in a handbasket, but nobody didn’t like Mae West performing what may be the very first evidence of what was to become known as modern rap music.
She did a hip-hop number riff on the famous Otis Redding song, Hard to Handle. You can watch it below:
She wasn’t done.
Mae West went down to the University of Southern California, honored at a film school tribute. She was invited back several times, and not only checked once checked out what was up with coed form life, but made her way to fraternity row, where Sigma Chi declared her their Sweetheart on May Day, 1973. She was down with the kids in a big way. Y’know?
At the 1970 press conference she gave in New York for the premier of Myra Breckenridge, the press basically asked her – what’s happening?
Why aren’t you doing anything for Women’s Lib?
“They ain’t never asked me to, see? You don’t need pants to be liberated. In fact, they’re confining. Dresses feel better.
Why do you think most people don’t look well on the Black Panthers?
“’Cause it depends on how you look at them.”
What do you think of our sending a man to the moon?
If we can send a man to the moon – why don’t we send all of ’em.
Do you support President Nixon?
I’m not sure. But I know a good party man when I see him.
Mae West made one other movie, Sextette (1979) when she was 86 years old and played the wife of actor Timothy Dalton, then young enough to be her great-grandson. It was generally panned, with especially vicious remarks by New York Times critic Vincent Canby, who employed both ageist and misogynistic terminology.
She didn’t care. As she told a friend, driving back from the premier. “Oh, that was yesterday! I have to think about tomorrow.”
When one critic described her having as “delusional existence,” a colleague of his smiled back, “Yeah, and she sure is having fun existing in it.”
She did acknowledge the passage of time, however. A story still told by an elderly woman who works in a Larchmont Boulevard shop, not far from where West lived told of the legendary actress going to dinner one year for her birthday, apparently at a famous old restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard called Perino’s.
Some reporters were tipped off, and asked her questions and took her picture as she was leaving. Someone shouted to her, “How does it feel t be 75 years old?”
She seemed not to hear it, but before her car pulled from the curb, she crooked her finger to call the reporter over.
“Lemme tell you something. When I was 65, I thought 70 sounded old. Now – 70 is looking pretty good.”
She died in 1980, at age 87 years old.
- Bella Donna: Mae West (bellasugar.com)
- Mae West – Style Icon (waldina.com)
- Mae West proving she was still ‘Hard to Handle’ at the age of 77 (dangerousminds.net)
- Mae West: A Moment for One Hell of a Woman…(& a tribute to her predecessor) (nymphobrainiac.wordpress.com)
- New Mae West Collection! (zazzle.com)
- This Day in History: Mae West is Sentenced to 10 Days in Prison for Writing, Directing, and Performing in the Broadway Play “Sex” (todayifoundout.com)
- Film: My World Of Flops: (Insert Double Entendre Here) Case File #10: Sextette (avclub.com)
- Madonna and Mae West: Did the Legendary Vamp Inspire the Material Girl? (celebs.gather.com)