Sex: the play that put Mae West in prison returns to New York
Sep 30, 2016
A theatre group has teased out the proudly feminist subtext in West’s play, which was banned for obscenity but launched the actor into superstardom
Mae West in Night After Night: always in control of her own image. Photograph: Irving Lippman/Getty Images
This month, Sex returns to the city: an infamous play written by and starring the budding starlet Mae West in the 1920s. After a 10-month run on Broadway in 1927, the play was deemed by a grand jury to be such “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” that it might corrupt “the morals of youth”. West was sentenced to 10 days in jail for obscenity, and travelled there in style – garlanded in roses, wearing silk underwear and riding in a limousine.
The notoriety helped the actor, who said she had “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”. Several years after the Sex scandal, Paramount Pictures offered West – then aged 38 – a studio contract. She went on to become one of the best-known and best paid stars of the era: legend has it that, by 1935, she was the second-highest paid person in the US behind the publisher William Randolph Hearst. Even more impressive than West’s salary, or her age when she commandeered Hollywood, was the control she held over her career. The breezy, bawdy characters she played were partly of her own design, thanks to a deal she negotiated with Paramount allowing her to write her own lines.