Friday, November 10, 2006

Doin' Jail Time: Mae West's Spiritual Recovery

For years now, bad girls have overcome terrible times by reinventing themselves in strange places. Take Mae West, for example.

When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got Mae’s play Sex shut down on obscenity charges in 1927, she made no apologies to the “publicity-seeking blue-noses” who claimed to be offended by her performance. Her wriggling on stage, she explained at her trial, “was nothing more than an exercise involving control of my abdominal muscles, which I learned from my father when I was a child.”

The blue-noses weren’t impressed, and they saw to it that Mae was sent to jail for her unlawful wriggling. While serving a ten-day sentence on Welfare Island, Mae contemplated her fate and realized that a stint behind bars offered her the perfect opportunity to take an artistic retreat.

With the forty-one-week run of Sex now at an end, Mae thought about the career moves she would need to make to get to Hollywood. She thought about the 8:2 audience ratio of men to women at Sex and how she might draw more female ticket buyers. And as a result, she created a new character called Diamond Lil and started to write the play that would eventually become the motion picture She Done Him Wrong. The worst thing about being in jail, Mae found, was that the matron wouldn’t let her wear silk underwear.

Diamond Lil was a smash hit in New York, and within a few short years Mae West was indeed Hollywood-bound. She arrived in 1932, age thirty-nine, and was cast in a small role in Night After Night with George Raft, who later reported that in her performance, Mae “stole everything but the cameras.”

I just love this story about Mae West. Nowadays, when people feel a need to reinvent themselves, they go to spas and ashrams and whitewater rafting resorts. Hell, look at me--I reinvented myself at a freakin' villa in the south of France. But Mae West was so tough and cool (she was a Brooklyn girl, after all) that she turned the pokey into a personal retreat. That's class!

Makes me wonder where I'll next reinvent myself, now that I'm a Brooklyn girl myself. The subway? Visiting my girl Nancy? In Prospect Park? Eating a cheeseburger at the Church Avenue diner? Oh hey, I've been called up for grand jury duty on Monday. I see self-reinvention possibilties here--I'll pretend to listen to police testimony about buy-and-bust operations, but all the while I'll be thinkin' 'bout me, me, me. (Or as Mae herself once said, "Too bad everybody just can’t be themselves and be happy about it. I am. Remember that once popular song, ‘I love me, I love me’? Baby, that’s me.”)