Many people recall their childhood as idyllic.
Forty years after the fact, however, Mae West, got to publicly relive her own Gay Nineties childhood, recreating it on a grandly romanticized scale and sharing it with generations to come.
She only made twelve movies, but half of them are set in the 1890s.
Rather artfully, Mae West anonymously embedded in these film’s scenarios and characters from her childhood.
She based her first starring film script She Done Him Wrong (1933) on her popular Broadway show, set in the bawdy Bowery of the 1890s, with an opening sequence of girls on a bicycle built for two, immigrants like German musicians in a street band, an Irish cop, a Jewish peddler and lacing the plot with an upright man of faith running the Bowery mission.
She’d been down to the Bowery on numerous occasions with her father, who’d grown up among the criminal element of the impoverished lower East Side and had worked in the buggy trade.
Belle of the Nineties (1934) included a love interest who was a prize fighter: her father had earlier been a “bruiser,” and many of his friends from the ring continued to visit their home.
In Klondike Annie (1936) she’s whisked off to the Gold Rush by a ship captain character based on her grandfather who’d been a maritime sailor and widened her eyes with tales of the sea.
Among these biographically personal scenarios, however, one film’s setting was as much a publicly shared experience with those alive at the time as it was a personal to her.
In the last film she made under contract with Paramount, 1937’s Every Day’s A Holiday, Mae West managed to restage the most momentous incident of her childhood, the celebration of New Year’s Eve in 1899, when the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century.
It was no minor afterthought.
Despite being only six years old on December 31, 1899, Mae West was already eagerly looking forward to the life which was promised to begin the following day, New Year’s Day. As she put it: “I was child of the new century just around the corner, and I ran towards it boldly.”
As evidenced in her diverse legacy of books, articles, theatrical scripts, screenplays and recorded music, Mae West was especially intrigued with the symbolism which embued New Year’s Eve, the eternal human hope that, literally overnight, one could be almost magically empowered to change one’s life, simply by the perception of having the clean slate of a new year. And she knew she could best convey this both with humor rather than pathos and setting it in the distant past, without the confrontation of doing so in the present.
“You just tell me about my future,” she once quipped to a fortuneteller, “You see, I know all about my past.”
While neither a sentimentalist or fan of nostalgic, Mae West’s affinity for the Gay Nineties unwittingly led her to play something of the role of an historian. For in her lavish New Year’s Eve Party scene, she preserved what is likely the closest accurate depiction of the moment the 19th century turned into the 20th century.
While film was already being made in 1899, the technology was not then advanced enough to capture the scene of the celebration in the famously fancy old New York restaurant Rector’s, judged to be tenth in the list of “The Greatest Restaurants of All-Times,” by Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema.
And to give the New Year’s Eve scene the absolute ring of authenticity, she had the real man who had presided over that event in 1899, owner of the by-then closed restaurant George Rector, restage his courtly remarks in her 1937 film.
Like a parent with many children or an author with several books, Mae West did not noise about in later years over just which of her films she was most proud, or considered her best work. However, there certainly seemed to be one that meant the most personally to her.
As her longtime and last personal assistant Tim Malachosky recently disclosed to this author, throughout the last decade of her own life, on every one of her remaining New Year’s Eve nights,he and Mae West, along with her companion Paul Novak, would share a special supper, then turn on the television to watch Every Day’s A Holiday, while raising and clinking in a toast to the new year their glasses of Martinelli’s Apple Cider.
In New Year’s Eve, Mae West saw a dramatic tension, a duality both promising and tragic. Almost inevitably, she concluded, not only individual characters but humanity as a whole very rarely changed its primal, base instincts. At best, a strong mind and persuasive will could alter one’s situation by learning from past mistakes.
Her metaphor for this in Every Day’s A Holiday was to depict her blonde Brooklyn self on New Year’s Eve in the 19th century, while donning a black wig and French accent in the new 20th century. While she ends up being the same wiseass she always was, at movie’s end she’s managed to successfully destroy the institutionalized corrupt political establishment.
Always starring in whatever she wrote, Mae West’s character roles managed to improve her worldly circumstances without changing her ruggedly honest belief that nobody will protect you better than yourself and that, in doing so, one truly had the power to disable the heartless beings who preyed on those who never learn to be anything but trusting and vulnerable.
Most critics agreed that Every Day’s A Holiday was a victim of her earlier successes, making her the target of industry censors. Suggestive lines had to be deleted. She was ordered to change her original intentions of playing a suffragette and getting herself elected Mayor of New York.
And while Every Day’s A Holiday bleached the sinfully stained Mae West persona of her earlier works, in this film she managed to more precisely capture the feel, look and sound of her childhood which was, by then, forty years in the past.
By naming her character “Peaches,” she couldn’t have made the biographical element of the movie more obvious: “Peaches” was her childhood nickname.
The American Film Institute named Mae West the fifteenth greatest film actress of all time, but her screen persona was the direct result of her astute craftsmanship as a writer. Knowing crowds would come for the laughs, she planted her sharper social commentary subversively within her comedic quips, ironic asides, and paradoxical observations, under the nostalgic cover of a movie promoted for its historically authentic staging.
Born August 17, 1893 in what she claimed was a “respectable” area of Brooklyn, early on she was conscious of gender, race and class inequities.
While it never lessened her attraction, on and off stage, to burly men who looked like her father, she developed a feminist conviction borne from the evidence of her own mother’s aborted theatrical career when she married that men who wanted her as a wife would destroy her own intentions for a career.
It was her mother Matilda who warned her not to marry because of this. She reacts to this inequity pointedly in Every Day’s A Holiday.
During her initial interaction with the male authority figure of a detective (not incidentally a job her father also held during the 1890s) he tells her to wipe the chip off her shoulder.
She snaps back, “take off your badge.”
He lectures patronizingly as a way to urge her away from petty crime and so she can rise “to the top.”
She shoots him a look of snarling contempt with the recognition that women’s professional opportunities were limited at best. “The top of what?!” she cracks with sarcastic hostility.
Mae West’s first role model was neither female nor white, but rather the legendary African-American performer Bert Williams. She not only impersonated him but met him as a child in her Brooklyn home when, through a connection made by her father, the black man was invited to share dinner with the Wests in their house. This violation of society’s rigid divide between the races was a lesson she never forgot; for her entire life, publicly and privately, Mae West lived an integrated existence among African-Americans.
During the review by censors of her Every Day’s A Holiday script, an African-American musical sequence was excised. Likely in reaction to this, she then insisted to resistant Paramount executives that the jazz legend Louis Armstrong must perform in the film, or she would walk. She had done this once before, insisting not only that the music for Belle of the Nineties be provided by Duke Ellington and his band but that they be permitted to appear in the “white” movie, rather than have their music dubbed over as white musicians appeared on screen. She won a second time.
Having come to know Armstrong when she lived as a young adult in Queens, where he resided, and then watching him perform at Harlem’s Cotton Club, the two of them worked together in determining Armstrong’s big musical number, even lunching together in Mae West’s Paramount studio lot dressing room. “That was unheard of in those days,” Armstrong later recalled, “for a white star to mix with any black.”
In seeming celebration of her victory, Mae West also did something in Every Day’s A Holiday that she’d never done before.
In I’m No Angel (1934) she’d stuck her head in a lion’s mouth. Her tamer but obviously more joyous stunt, as Louis Armstrong and his band make beautiful music in a concluding sequence again marked with the deadline of a clock about to hit midnight, Mae West sits on a throne and rides in an open carriage behind him doing a credibly dexterous job of bashing out a fast rhythme to his song “Jubilee” on the drums and cymbals.
Certainly racial and gender elements are apparent in West’s other films. The numerous production details she incorprated into the Every Day’s A Holiday script make this one among her films a true homage to her childhood. Including an extravagent stage recreation of Madison Square of old New York.
Whether or not she was performing, Mae West was always writing, constantly generating new ideas and working on new projects practically until her death at 87 years old in 1980. She didn’t peck out storylines on a typewriter but rather scribbled notes as dialogue came to her and dictated entire scripts from beginning to end in one breathless monologue. Its how she tooled the script for Every Day’s A Holiday.
The head of Paramount had come to her with a script set in the Gay Nineties. She rejected it, but in an eye-popping ninety-minute session, she outlined the basic premise of what would become the shooting script. Where did she get her ideas?
As do all writers, she presented the world as she knew it. And in reviewing some of her published memories of her childhood, one finds that she made them real again, as scenes in the movie.
She vividly recalled that the “Brooklyn I was born in” was “a city of churches, with their great bronze bells walloping calls to the faithful.” She managed to squeeze this into Every Day’s A Holiday, interposing it before the big New Year’s Eve party scene, showing a large church with doors wide open and crowds spilling out onto the street.
She later wrote of the “horse-plagued, tree-lined streets” of working-class Brooklyn being “connected by a brand new bridge to Manhattan” where the upper-class of New York lived. In Every Day’s A Holiday, it is the Brooklyn Bridge that she manages to con a German immigrant into buying.
Drawing on her memory of how “Men of affairs, business and otherwise, still drove a pair of horses in a fancy rig,” but that, “The sports were beginning to appear in the first of the horseless carriages,” she used this growing conflict between horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles while being driven in a buggy as one of the new “machines” pulls up alongside her.
“I was born into a world,” she further detailed, “of ringing horse cars, ragtime music, cakewalks and Floradora Sextets….There was a fine theater audience – high and low. Girls in tights, and girls without them, and the ragtime beat and the first stirrings of jazz…were already coming out of the places soon to use Mr. Edison’s new electric-light signs.”
She synthesized these memories into her screen depiction of the working-class celebrating New Year’s Eve 1899 in a shabby restaurant with a stage illuminated by electric lights, showing a rowdy crowd throwing streamers, singing back refrains to a barbershop quartette, falling back drunk on chairs and cheering on showgirls flying around in butterfly costumes.
Through the sequences of the film’s first act, Mae West never loses sight of what was most important to her character: being present for the big moment of the turn-of-the-century.
Although there is a warrant for her arrest, she risks returning to New York because “it’s New Year’s Eve.”
After hooking up with a wealthy “high hat” who shared numerous bottles of champagne with her and his butler, she springs from her seat, concerned about what time the clock said, determined not to miss this particular New Year’s Eve.
“The Twentieth Century only comes once in a lifetime,” she snorts, hurrying them along. “We gotta welcome it proper.”
In recalling the 1890s, Mae West remembered that men of the era sought to identify their status, in part, by what she called “the lobster palaces,” which they frequented. The most famous and prestigious of those in 1890s New York was Rector’s.
After establishing a successful Chicago restaurant in 1884, Charles Rector and his son George decided to open one in New York on Broadway in early 1899.
One entered a lavish lobby hung with red velvet through the city’s first revolving door. Its Irish linen tableclothes and napkins and heavy silver serviceware were all marked by the logo of a griffin, and became a point of marvel to its patrons.
Waiters were in full formal dress and required to be clean-shaven, and appear without any spectacles. It featured a dance room which measured twenty by thirty feet and served cocktails to women in dainty Dresden china cups.
According to a 2010 article in toquemag.com by Satenig St. Marie, a new song, If the Tables at Rectors Could Talk was a hit number performed by the Ziegfeld Follies girls. Rector’s was best known for its lobster, served with a delectable Sauce Marguery, the secret recipe having been learned by George after spending a year working his way up as an assistant chef at the Café de Marguery in Paris. Besides taking charge of the kitchens, George Rector quickly assumed the role of host from his aging father.
At the end of the restaurant’s first year, on New Year’s Eve, the then-young man stepped into the center of the dining room on a slightly raised platform to shush the crowd and grandly announce the one-minute countdown to the new year.
Among those celebrating there was Wizard of Oz author Frank L. Baum at a dinner hosted by illustrator William Wallace Denslow. Even then there was some debate about whether enthusiasts were correct in marking the new century on New Year’s Eve in the year ’99 or, as the mathematically correct insisted, ’00.
Despite its patronage of blueblood elite, Rector’s was also a place with a bit of a reputation for gossip and scandal.
Rector’s was the last place where millionaire architect Stanford White dined before being shot by Harry K. Thaw. Among the bold-faced names which frequented the restaurant were authors O. Henry and Stephen Crane, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and musicmen George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, and Oscar Hammerstein.
As the celebrated descended the elegant, curved staircases on either side of the lobby, they could be instantly identified by the patrons seated in the massive dining room, capable of seating a thousand diners. “Rector’s may not have been the centre of population in the late 1890s and the early 1900s, but it was the centre of all the population worth knowing,” George Rector later reminisced, “the supreme court of triviality, where who’s who went to learn what’s what. It was the cathedral of froth, where New York chased the rainbow…”
It was also the mecca for metropolitan millionaires and the showgirls they were keeping happy, a point of fact West used in her storyline.
The most legendary of such duos were its patrons, however, were the stage actress Lillian Russell and the man she never married, Gilded Age financier and philanthropist James Buchanan Brady, best known as “Diamond Jim,” for his obsessive hoarding of the sparkling jewel.
While some Mae West biographers believe that her iconic character “Diamond Lil” was adapted from her father’s nickname for her mother of “Til” (as in Matilda) the character physically resembled Diamond Jim’s lady Lil.
The working-class Brooklyn couple Jack and Matilda West were unable to afford Rector’s for dinner as often as Diamond Jim and Lil. As discovered by Maurice Leonard, one of their daughter’s biographers, however, there weas a special night when they treated their eldest child, christened as Mary Jane West, but nicknamed May (she later changed its spelling to “Mae”) to dinner at Rector’s dressed in their Sunday best.
And nobody ate at Rector’s without seeing Diamond Jim at his prominent table: he ate dinner there every night.
Whether Mae West’s “Diamond Lil” character was inspired by that childhood dinner at Rector’s, she never said. What is known is that, to coax her away from her determination to make her next movie about Catherine the Great, Paramount executive Emanuel Cohen took the enormous financial risk of first building an enormous and lavish set which was an exact replica of Rector’s, even hiring the by-then elderly George Rector for the production. He also commissioned two musical numbers intended to suggest the Gay 90s.
The chance of returning to a place that no longer existed and which she had experienced with her beloved parents, who were now both dead, proved too irresistable for Mae West.
When she got ahold of an initial script idea, it was Mae West who determined that New Year’s Eve 1899 would provide the premise for the film.
She even insisted that George Rector restage his simple one-minute countdown.
More than any other incident, the one which predominated all of Mae West’s childhood memories was her palpable “sense that the coming new century would be the biggest and the best.”
“The final score is not yet in,” she wrote sixty years after that New Year’s Eve, “but I think this one will make it among the centuries to treasure.”
Here is a short film showing some of the relevant clips mentioned above: