Mae West Nude, Getting Naked, Fighting Father Time…and Living

Mae West at age 40, in 1933.

In her later years, Mae West spoke out against nudity in feature films – not on a moral basis but because she felt it didn’t allow the imagination to wander. “Never drop the seventh veil,” she once said about actors appearing naked in film or on stage.

She also felt that – well, as she put it, “The sex parts, they ain’t got no personality.”

Mae West at age 33, in 1926 – showing skin but not dropping the seventh veil.

In a scene from her play Sex.

In the 1920s, when she was in her thirties and starring in her famous “sex comedies” on Broadway, one of which brought the paddy wagon and landed her in jail, she was charged with “corrupting the morals of youth.” She was never charge with personal “indecency” because she never took off her clothes on stage. Nor did she ever appear bare in any of her films during the 1930s or the last two, in the 1970s.

But she had no problem doing so in private. On the white piano in her living room, she even kept a nude white marble statue of her voluptuous self. And when she was especially svelte in her mid-40s, she also had no problem being photographed in her bedroom, working dumb-bells for the camera while dressed in a tight one-piece bathing suit.

Mae West, working out at her Ravenswood apartment.

Mae West, working out at her Ravenswood apartment.

Mae West mid-1930s.

When she returned to again star in a feature film, Myra Breckenridge (1970) at age 77, Mae West began granting numerous interviews to a wide variety of publications. Increasingly, when reporters asked about her age, she became frustrated with the numerical obsession over the date she was born. “You can go look that up,” she’d said with impatience. “I look 26 and I feel 26.”

Chowing at her favorite Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, 1972, at age 79.

In one sense, of course she was exaggerating – but she was not delusional. She was making a point: until she died, she retained the same ironic sensibility she’d developed at that age. It showed in her humor, her pleasure in making other people laugh, her honest understanding of the complexity and full range of human sexuality and, most of all, her many plans for many future projects.

It also showed in that skin she rarely exposed. Not only to the public, but to the sun.

From her mid-thirties on, she was practically obsessed with keeping out of the sun. Her large picture hats weren’t for styling alone. Early on in life, she realized how excessive sunlight could permanently damage the skin. She rarely went out midday because of it and she kept the shades drawn in her apartment.

Celebrating her 65th birthday with old New York friends in Las Vegas, 1958.

As the calendar years would mark her as being in her 60s, 70s, and 80s, Mae West also fought time by resisted the increasingly popular method of plastic surgery.

With great pride, she would show off her hands which had no age spots and were plump rather than withered and flashed her full set of natural teeth.

In 1964, at age 71.

Although she did, on occasion, use an old technique of something like a tight headband which drew up her facial skin slightly, she had no hesitation in lifting her real white-blond hair (beneath a yellower hairpiece) to show off the areas of her neck and ears as evidence of no surgical marks. Of course she used cosmetics expertly, but the truth was she did look unusually younger than what her calendar years would have accustomed people to expect. “You’re never too old to be young,” she advised those born the same time she was but who lacked her joy in life.

Mae West in 1948, age 55.

Mae West always emphasized that it was her attitude and state of mind which, to her, truly, genuinely kept her “ageless.”  Lacking any shame over the reality that the calendar years were going by for her at the same technical rate they did for everyone else, she celebrated her birthdays with gusto each and every year with a trusted, hand-chosen crew of friends, be they long-time or recent, who despite enjoying her as a persona, loved her as a person.  As she repeated in various versions, “Father Time will make you bitter if you don’t show him who’s boss. Maturity isn’t dictated by a calendar.”

Mae West in 1977 at age 84 on the set of her last film, with one of the Beatles, Ringo Starr, who appeared in it.

And those who best knew West and engaged with her in daily conversation on routine matters attested to the fact that her insistently positive attitude was no put-on. It was the way she viewed life – perpetual motion forward.  She also protected herself from what she called “negative forces.”  While as imperfect as all humans, given to bouts of jealousy, and obsessive about keeping unflattering images of herself from being published, she nevertheless came to learn, over time, that to preserve her upbeat perspective she she to steer clear of negative people who pity themselves and those who harp critically, sarcastically, and jealously about others. She also worked on not becoming that sort of person. The surprising level of rage she expressed towards actress Jayne Mansfield, when the younger woman began a genuine loving relationship with Mickey Hargity, one of the bodybuilders in her  Las Vegas act, had shown West she was just as capable of diminishing herself.

Mae West’s brother John, her manager-partner Jim Timony, her father, Mae West and her sister Beverly – all of whom she brought to Hollywood and supported for the rest of their lives.

She also practiced a patient love, never abandoning her care of an alcoholic and dependent sister, Beverly West, and looking after the lifetime well-being of her earlier chauffeur, Chalky White, a former prizefighter and African-American – and his mother. 

Startling as it might seem, she also kept her phone number publicly listed, so ant one of her millions of fans could always get a message to her through the switchboard of her apartment building. Whether in writing, by phone or in person, she gave each individual one undivided attention, feeling that without their respect she would never have been successful. She was assiduous in responding to every fan letter she received. While many have looked at the number of gay male friends she had, West also had close, non-sexual friendships with just as many men who were not and, further, maintained friendships with their wives and with other women her age, whom she’d known for decades. Her most emotionally intimate relationship was with Paul Novack, some twenty years her junior; although they lived as if they were a married couple, West never perceived herself as “belonging” to any other person except herself. “Marriage is a great institution,” she said famously. “I’m just not interested in becoming institutionalized” (the more common version of her quip was, “I’m just not ready for an institution”).

Mae West pictured during the Circus party she gave for 200 Los Angeles orphans, May of 1933 (CORBIS)

From at least the 1930s onward, West often used her days off from the movie set or the theater to surprise orphaned children with a special day of fun at the zoo or the circus. In Hollywood, she was troubled at the sight of nuns standing at the bus-stop two blocks from her home, at Melrose and Rossmore avenues. It prompted her to donate her older-model Cadillacs to the convent for their use. As she put it, they gave up not just sex, but “their whole lives” for God – at the least, they shouldn’t have to wait for buses. Such  a perspective, however, wasn’t all that kept her animated and engaged. She also had a healthy vanity.

By keeping that famous nude statue of herself always on display, she maintained a daily visual reminder of her ideal self. Although she had to watch her weight and her sugar levels, especially after developing diabetes, she continued exercising with small dumb-bells to maintain her musculature. As much as anyone can ever really know what another person is truly thinking, she convinced many an interviewer that when she looked in the mirror, she viewed herself as an ageless person.

With a wisdom behind her wit, the diversity of sophisticates drawn to her is no wonder.

Fellini directs Anita Ekberg; he wanted West for Juliet of the Spirits. (pixmule.com)

As young girls in the 30s future Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret did Mae West impersonations. (thepastonaplate.com)

As young girls in the 30s future Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret did Mae West impersonations. (thepastonaplate.com)

Among her most famous and youngest fans were the sisters Elizabeth and Margaret, the future Queen of England and her sister, the Princess, who nostalgically associated her with their childhood years in the 1930s and got a kick out of imitating her. The surrealist Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini considered her an American icon and tried in vain to cast her in Juliet of the Spirits. 

Elvis Presley was especially fascinated by the cadence of her rhythmic speech patterns and when they ran into each other in the hallway of an office building, suggested they record a song or two as a duet.

Tennessee Williams, a West friend. (photographer unknown)

Tennessee Williams, a West friend. (photographer unknown)

George Bernard Shaw named West, himself and Tennessee Williams as the three most important playwrights of the earlier 20th century – and the last of that trio took up her invitation to “come up and see me.”

For many years, in fact, Mae West maintained a correspondence with Shaw, Fellini and Williams. Unfortunately, except for Shaw, all were notorious for disposing of paper once it was read and it seems unlikely that the letters she exchanged with them all will turn up.

The Roosevelts. (FDR Library)

In Washington, she had several generations of famous fans. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt, insisted on screening her in I‘m No Angel for White House guests. Eleanor Roosevelt hosted her at a private party for women reporters, and West performed in a stage sketch – as a Republican Presidential candidate.

Longworth backstage, in her Mae West stance.

Longworth backstage, in her Mae West stance.

Eleanor’s cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth recalled that she always went to see Mae West whenever the actress was appearing on stage in the nation’s capital and often visited her backstage after the performance.

Despite being from entirely different backgrounds, both women (West was nine years her junior) grew up just miles apart and eschewed conventions like organized religion and formal education early on.

Forty years later, in 1976, First Lady Betty Ford, recognizing Mae West as a pioneer feminist and knowing how much Queen Elizabeth loved West, invited the actress to the Bicentennial state dinner in the Queen’s honor, where Longworth was also a guest.

West, who intensely mistrusted air travel considered going but told friends, “It’s a hell of a long way to go for dinner.”

Mae West at age 86, in 1979, in front of her piano where her nude statue stood.

But there was perhaps no greater evidence of Mae West’s utter lack of shame about the nature of herself than her nude painting – and how she didn’t mind getting naked at home.

In her favorite bedroom, at the Ravenswood Apartments in Hollywood. (photographer unknown)

As recently discovered in an old clipping file of material on her, she herself tells the story of how she came to pose for the nude painting which hung in her living room. She had just been lying in bed nude one afternoon at her Ravenswood Apartment in the Larchmont section of Hollywood, California.

It was in 1976 that she told the story to Angelica Huston for Interview magazine. The only error in West’s recollections was that she stated she had posed for the painting in 1926 at the time of her scandalous Broadway show Sex. By the calendar, that would have meant she posed when she was 33 years old.

Her New York swan bed. (cliqueypizza.com)

Apart from the obvious fact that she was then living in New York and not in her Hollywood apartment, as she stated, her rigorous memory for details about her own biography, suggests Mae West intentionally lied about the year it was painted. It seems to have been a subtle way for her to acknowledge her own aging – by giving herself a backdoor compliment.  

In fact, as proven by the artist’s dated signature on the canvas it was actually made 13 years later, in 1939. Mae West was then 46 years old. Blurring the dates of the calendar years that her photographs were taken seemed to be a purposeful tactic she used. Attempting to precisely date many of the photographs illustrating this article, for example, became an elusive task.

With her pet monkey in her Santa Monica beachhouse bedroom. (Diane Arbus)

Part of a collection of pictures she she sent over the years to a longtime New York woman friend, the dates on the verso seem to have been randomly written – in purposeful conflict with the more accurate time they were taken, as suggested by the place, clothing and events. Yet nothing better illustrates and makes relevant Mae West’s point of view about birthdays:  they are just about numerical dates, she was an individual person.

This Friday, August 17 marks her birthday.

In any event, here is the clipping with her recollections about the nude painting  – and the painting itself.  It is one of the first times it has ever been published.

Mae West explains how she posed nude in a 1976 interview.

The Mae West nude painting.

Mae West was a joyous woman who loved to laugh and make others laugh.

And, in the spirit of a birthday, of a celebration of living, here is footage from 1976 of Mae West very much alive, granting her only known television interview, to Dick Cavett, Made four years before she died, she reflects on her work as a writer, the emotional trauma she endured upon her mother’s death and her time in prison. The greatest evidence of her astounding memory, however, is her instant recall of a poem she wrote at age 15 years old.

Perhaps more revealing than any story she tells, however, is the abstract remark she adds, that the way she often responded to a factual question with a witty observation, as was true with how she led her whole life, was saw her life was all just a manifestation of “my mind.”


Categories: Americana, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Legends, Pop Culture

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14 replies »

  1. Carl, How appropriate that you should post Mae West’s thoughts on how to maintain a youthful outlook on life today. A long time friend sent me an email outlining his “throwing in the towel,” because at 60 he feels he is now “invisible” to those younger than himself. He is now content to sit on the sidelines and “watch” the youthful parade pass by.

    Mae West’s inner beauty and youthfulness flowed from NOT sitting on the sidelines, but reaching out and trying new things. While she never strove to reinvent herself, she was current, hip and open minded. That NEVER gets dated. Thank you for posting these positive and encouraging bon mots.

    • The real thanks is due to you Mark – you just gave form and summary to what took me endless words to express. It’s clear you “got” her secret, really a simple one not involving the externals. As you put it, it was inner beauty – and in her case, it literally shone through, taking form as charisma and intelligence and never repressed due to some marketing demographic groove on “appropriate” thought of behavior based on a calendar year of birth.

  2. Hi Carl – Thanks for another lovely piece about the great Mae West for us to enjoy in time for her birthday on Friday. You really have captured her lust for life and her determination not to be pigeon-holed by society according to the calendar. I am constantly saddened by the people on the likes of YouTube who mock her for what she did in Myra and Sextette. They simply do not “get” her. I believe that her last great battle was over agism. Mae never denied her age. But as you illustrate well, she absolutely refused to conform to what society dictated she should be doing at any particular age. In that regard, she was well ahead of her time, don’t you think?

    One point of clarification, Mae did sunbathe for a time just after she bought her beach-house in Santa Monica – there are pictures of her looking very suntanned about that time – but I guess she quickly realised that she was making a big mistake and went back to her usual regime of keeping her skin out of the sun.

    • I have always made that case – about Mae West fighting ageism. People are so accustomed to perceiving life – be it Mae West clips on youtube or political alliances or product commercials – flatly, at face value, without any subtext or irony, they tend to make those estimates and remarks about her.

  3. Carl, you write so many insightful, detailed and beautifully written pieces that are positive and uplifting. Anyone can write an interesting piece based on innuendo and spite. But your blog, as shown by this piece on Mae West, is appreciative and fun. If Mae West had known what you would do for her reputation and legacy, she should have given you those lamps!

    Is there any celebrity today, no longer in the spotlight, that you would like to meet and interview? John.

    • Thank you John – I appreciate that. I just think that there was a lot to learn from her life and the way she viewed it. So much. And as I wrote in an earlier article about her, I think her writing was laced with great wisdom between the humor. I would say that Richard Branson is the one person I would most of all like to meet and interview; President and Mrs. Obama also – they’re the only presidential couple since the Nixons whom I’ve not been able to.

  4. Thank-you! You remembered a request I made in a comment past, about writing a story on the famous nude statue on her piano! I hope your mom and dad enjoyed this article as much as I did, and they are not upset with you when you went to her apartment to visit with her on her b-day and the famous statue was there!
    Great article! Happy birthday Ms. West, she was a true lady through and through!

  5. Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”. Tempting as it is to imagine her in the role, I think that it was a very wise choice. If she had played that crazy fantasist, Miss West would appear to have conceded that her own off-screen persona was also a decaying relic divorced from reality. Norma Desmond was funny because she had no sense of irony about herself. Mae West defines self-amused irony, a detachment from unpleasantness rather than reality. In any event, Gloria Swanson should have gotten the 1950 Best Actress Oscar and it is criminal that Mae West never got a special Academy Award for her terrific career. Sorry–what a rambling post!

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