Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

When Mae West Went to Jail for Free Speech

Of the many stars to be born in my native borough of Brooklyn, few were as outrageous as the daughter of a small-time boxer from Bushwick Avenue named Mary Jane West, better known to the public as you-know-whom. By 1926 Mae had been making a name for herself in the theater and vaudeville, and decided to try her hand at writing plays. Her first production, entitled simply "Sex," failed to gain backing by the major producers of her day, and was bankrolled in part by Mae's mother and Owney Madden, a founder of the famous Cotton Club and a notorious mobster.

The play was set on the waterfront, and told the tale of a good-hearted prostitute who rescues a wealthy society matron who has been drugged by criminals. Rather than thanking her helper, the wealthy woman has her arrested. As revenge, the prostitute persuades the matron's son to marry her, but backs out at the last minute and returns to her true love, a sailor. After opening in New London, Connecticut, the work received disastrous reviews. BILLBOARD wrote:
"Poorly-written, poorly-acted, horribly-staged, SEX does not even contain anything for the dirt seekers."

What the critics had not counted upon, however, was the appeal which such a production would have in a town which was home to a large naval base. The sailors cheered, and soon SEX became a cult play. After it was moved to New York, some papers refused to even print the title. The NEW YORK TIMES ran an ad for "Mae West in that certain play." City Hall at the time was occupied by the none-too-puritanical Jimmy Walker, a friend of Madden. However while Walker was on vacation the administration of the city was turned over to his assistant Joseph McKee, known in some circles as "Holy Joe" for his fanatical Catholicism, and a member of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. As part of a sweep of controversial plays, SEX was raided.

The police offered to drop charges against Mae if she agreed not to resume the play. Recognizing the publicity that could be obtained from such a case, however, Mae stuck to her guns. The courtroom was packed, especially when our persecuted playwright took the stand. A detective testified how "Miss West moved her navel up and down and right to left." Although her sarcastic comments were well received by the gallery, Mae's cocky attitude backfired, and she was sentenced to ten days in the women's prison on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island. (The Riker's Island jail did not open until 1935).

Needless to say, Mae caused quite a stir at the city jail. Ordered to strip for a search she replied "What?! I thought this was a respectable joint." Finding the prison-issued undergarments uncomfortable, Mae brought her own, made of silk. She was given a fairly light assignment dusting, and quickly won the favor of the warden, who considered her "a fine woman." He even took her for lunchtime rides in his car (strictly in the interests of rehabilitation, of course). The other inmates also enjoyed her company, and after being released Mae donated $1,000 to expand the prison library.

Holy Joe's crusade may have temporarily appeased some voters who were concerned about the moral depravity in our fair city, but it also gave Mae more publicity than any agent could provide. Her next theatrical work was entitled THE DRAG, and featured, in its creator's words "Seventeen real-live fairies."


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