Ida and the Sinner, Mae West

My great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings with the unstoppable Mae West. Date unknown, however might be early 1930s. Mae West was most likely a VIP guest of a Jewish Home for the Aged event in Los Angeles.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” Mae West

ONE OF THE hardest things to do is to accurately judge the impact of a rebel after society has morphed in their direction. It’s the difference between falling down a set of stairs and remembering it as stubbing your toe.

Mae West – vaudevillian, Broadway sensation, playwright and movie star – was a pioneering sex icon so many decades ago that American women had only just taken off their corsets, much less burnt their bras.

Born in 1893 in Brooklyn, by the time she was seven she was performing in amateur shows and winning local talent contests. By 14, Mae West was performing professionally in vaudeville shows and by her late teens she was on Broadway and singled out for attention by the New York Times, despite the show closing after just a few performances.

When the right material dried up, Mae West started writing her own scripts. Her first starring role on Broadway was in 1927 in Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Audiences loved it, critics hated it, but city officials were aghast, especially the city’s district attorney and zealous crime fighter, Joab H. Banton, the son of a judge and determined to fight indecency in all its forms.

Banton promised to “rid the stage of naked women, if necessary by backing up patrol wagons to the stage doors and taking the performers, just as they are to the night court so the judge can see just what audiences are compelled to look at.” Of course, audiences weren’t complaining and it didn’t appear that any man or woman had been dragged kicking and screaming to see the naked women in question. Nevertheless, Banton made it clear smut would not be tolerated:

“I intend to treat the stage the same way as we treated the night clubs. Clothing must be lowered at the bottom and raised at the top, while indecency in lines, situations and elsewhere must be ended!”

On Monday, 28 March all hell broke loose on Broadway as three productions were raided and the authors, producers and entire casts were rounded up by the police, on Banton’s orders, and thrown into the Jefferson Market prison to await special sessions with three separate judges.

While Justices Direnzo, Murphy and Voorhees were most certainly pulled away from their evening meals and slippers to attend court, it’s possible the sight they met that night may have made it worth their trouble. By the time the raids were over, Banton would have brought in several dozen scantily clothed and heavily made up thespians along with the authors and producers behind their livelihoods.

Police began the night, appropriately enough, with The Virgin Man and collared the author, William Francis Dugan, and producers, Mack Cohan and Jacob Kromberg, and several actors and actresses. All were trucked over to the police station in several paddy wagons and then finger-printed, which was still enough of a novelty at the time for it to be reported, and not just a little tongue in cheek by the amazingly named United News staff correspondent, Same Love:

“The dainty whorls of Dorothy Hall and Virginia Smith were added to the municipal collection along with those of the late Gyp the Blood and Cat-Eye Annie. The police will know them next time, though they be disguised as ‘Topsy’ and ‘Eva’. Misses Hall and Smith regarded their smudged digits with displeasure.”

The police and paddy wagons then rolled on to Sex, nabbing Mae West, her two producers, Clarence W. Morganstern and James A. Timoney, and their cast. While they cooled their heels in the clink, the police then finished the night with the authors, producer and cast of the perfectly named, The Captive. Once everyone was assembled, processed and sitting with their inky fingers, the judges got to work.

Dugan, Cohan and Kromberg from The Virgin Man were found guilty of violating “public decency and maintaining a nuisance” and sentenced to ten days in the prison ‘workhouse’. The men were also fined $250 a piece – a huge sum in the day. The producers of The Captive on the other hand were, as Love reports, “Too proud or too sophisticated to fight it out in court, The Captive’s directors withdrew the piece, the cast dispersed and the charges against all hands were dismissed.”

Love goes on to indicate this was a classy production about an ‘indecent subject’, but about what is impossible to make out thanks to the mores of the time:

The Captive far upstaged its erring sisters [and] was also a success. It was Edouard Bourdet’s lace-like treatment of a theme not polite to be aware of. Beautifully and seriously staged and directed with a cast of Helen Menken and impeccable English and American actors, it epitomized the question of censorship.”

As far as Banton was concerned, the score was two to three – one party found guilty and another choosing ‘no contest’. But Mae West and her business partners weren’t going to lay down and take it. They demanded a jury trial.

Correspondent Same Love reports again:

“Meanwhile, selection of a jury to try the 25 men and women involved in the production of Sex was proceeding in general sessions and Norman P. S. Schloss, war lord of the half dozen defense lawyers, was girding his loins for battle. In questioning the jurors, Schloss revealed that he would bear down upon the changed moral standards of today as contrasted with the mid-Rooseveltian era when the law upon which the trial is based was passed.

Just as it grew late enough to suspend operations for the day, the 12th juror was selected, completing an all-male jury, several the heads of families, none of them actors or members of little theater groups. One juror, George Wells, a contractor, bore such a startling resemblance to President Coolidge that the defendants were visibly heartened.”

As the saying goes, discretion is the better part of valor – Mae West’s risky gamble did not pay off and she and her producers were also sentenced to ten days in the workhouse. Their fines were nearly double those of the backers of The Virgin Man.

On April 20, 1927, Mae West was bundled into a police van at the Jefferson Market women’s prison in the morning and taken to Welfare Island, where it was later reported that she worked in the laundry and swabbed down hallways with a mop. I am sure she managed to make the prison uniform look desirable. If she had stayed behind bars long enough, she may have organized a cheeky, sexy revue a la Chicago. But no mop or cotton prison dress could keep this radical down.

Amazingly, after the all the unscheduled drama surrounding her first Broadway production, Mae West lived it all over again the next year with Pleasure Man, which, as the title indicates, was not Shakespeare. Tthis time West was no raid virgin – she was ready. D.A. Banton had Pleasure Man, which was showing at the Biltmore, raided on opening night and it looked like it would go the way of the three productions the year before.

West had a secret weapon: Nathan Burkan, a remarkably experienced and talented lawyer, who earlier in his career, at just 23-years-old, had been instrumental in strengthening protection for the creators of music and literature in 1904, which resulted in a significant flow of royalties from there on in. Burkan’s efforts became the foundations of America’s Copyright Act of 1909.

By the time he took Mae West’s case the esteemed lawyer had an impeccable reputation and was very well respected. He high profile clients on both coasts, including show business types like Charlie Chaplin and Samuel Goldwyn and large corporations.

It is no surprise that by Wednesday Burkan had an injunction against Banter and the police, enabling the show to go on as it did for several days, including the crucial weekend shows. It was nail-biting stuff, though, as according to a report the injunction wasn’t granted until 7pm, not long before Wednesday night’s show was to start: “Mr Burkan had failed to get in touch with the Commissioner up to six o’clock in the evening. Then he decided to seek a Supreme Court Justice and request a temporary restraining order. An hour later he found Justice Valente at his home, and the order was signed.”

Yet another judge had to schlep to the door in the midst of their well-deserved dinner, but this time to consider the other side. You have to imagine that by now, even the city’s judges were beginning to see Banter as a bit of a zealot.

With Burkan’s effectiveness it is hard to believe he ended up suing Mae West for his fees. This is doubly hard to understand as it was very shortly after the Pleasure Man mishegas, Mae West created Diamond Lil, one of her most enduring characters in the play of the same name about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s. It immediately became a Broadway hit and West would successfully revive it throughout her career. A movie contract with Paramount Pictures quickly followed in 1932 Mae West, even though by now she was in her late 30s.

You’ve got to be careful what you wish for. On the one hand, West is credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy in 1933 with She Done Him Wrong (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture) playing opposite newcomer Cary Grant, but her endless struggles with censorship eventually ended her film career and resulted in some very expensive studio flops. But before her scripts were sanitized beyond recognition, Mae West would become America’s second highest paid person in the US, behind media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and she enjoyed a series of saucy roles, reeling out spicy one liners and boggling her audiences with a figure so curvaceous it was only barely contained by her outrageously glamorous gowns.

There is no doubt that when the photo with my great-grandmother, Ida Mayer Cummings was taken, Mae West was already a national mega star. Just a few years later, Harry Brandt, the disgruntled head of independent cinema exhibitors, would name her at the top of his “Box Office Poison List,” a full page advertisement in Variety magazine, which named several actors, including Joan Crawford and Marilyn Dietrich, who were so highly paid that Brandt claimed exhibitors were forced to show their films despite audiences now choosing to stay away.

Even without the visuals, Mae West was a trouble-maker. As her fame faded she shifted her attention to radio plays, but the dialog was often so sexual that after a concerted campaign by women’s clubs and Catholic groups, the FCC later deemed one broadcast, absolutely jam-packed with West’s famous double entendres, as “vulgar and indecent.” NBC not only banned her, they banned any future mention of her across all of their radio stations.

You can ban words but you can’t ban a person, and despite society eventually catching up with Mae West’s open-minded views on sexual expression, she continued on with her unique sexy stroll through life, remaining involved in the entertainment business right up to her death at 87 on November 22, 1980.

Post script:

Sadly, Mae West’s lawyer, Nathan Burkan, died suddenly after a meal at the top of his career in 1936. Just two years before he had represented Mrs Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt against shocking accusations that she was an unfit mother for her 10 year old daughter, also named Gloria. It was a celebrated, scandalous case and front page fodder for newspapers around the US and overseas. Testimony was often held behind closed doors. In the end, custody of the young heiress was awarded to her paternal aunt, Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

At just 17-years-old, five years before she was entitled to her inheritance of over $4 million, Gloria would go on to marry the shadowy Mr Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, first cousin of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who had gotten into an ugly fistfight with Ted Healy at the Trocadero Cafe, the night of his death.

In 1930, Nathan Burkan was profiled by Richard Massock of The Gettysburg Times:

“Stars take their troubles to Burkan’s office and he takes them to court. Charles Chaplin, Mae West, John Philip Sousa, Florenz Ziegfield, Al Jolson, Otto Kahn, Rosa Ponselle, Arthur Train (himself a lawyer), the American Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers, and several movie corporation have been his clients.

[Burkan] is a light sleeper. He has two telephones in his elegant Fifth Avenue house and is usually at one of them. If he is not calling one of his partners in the middle of the night to discuss a legal point he has suddenly thought of, he is listening to someone like Samuel Goldwyn, who calls him from the coast at 3am to ask advice.

Burkan is a first nighter, attending every important play or picture opening and a lavish host. He attends every dinner, political, theatrical, or private that he can.

Burkan carries his office with him. Twice a year he takes it to Los Angeles [and] during his stay there, a line of Hollywood celebrities calls at his suite in the Ambassador hotel. Every summer he goes to Europe for a vacation during which he is called upon for more advice than when he is back home. Last year he finally went to Spain, where he happened to have no clients, to play some uninterrupted golf. Golf and horseback riding are his two hobbies. He gets up every morning at 5am regardless of how little sleep he has had to ride in Central Park where he has his own horse.

His perseverance is legendary and evidenced by the 10 years he gave to Jewel Carmen’s case against William Fox. He finally won. He spent 16 years winning a plagiarism suit over a play called, Cheating Cheaters.”

Shortly after his death, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers established the Nathan Burkan Memorial Competition to acknowledge the best essay on the topic of copyright.

The competition ceased over seven decades later in 2010. ♛

Mae West autobiography:
Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It

Mae West plays:
Three Plays: Sex / The Drag / The Pleasure Man

Mae West biographies:
Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin
Mae West: An Icon in Black and White

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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10 comments

  1. Great photo…but if it’s the 30’s, it’s the LATE 30’s…I’d say 38 – 39…she looked a lot like this during talks for “My Little Chickadee,” which filmed the latter year.

  2. I think you’re exactly right Phil – she was such a pioneer and then it appears no one else quite bridged the gap between Mae West and Madonna and Gaga. There were some sexy types – Marilyn Monroe, etc – but I don’t feel they pushed the envelope to the same degree. Thanks for that reply – very thought-provoking!

  3. If the name “Banton” sounds familiar, it should…Joab Banton, the New York district attorney, was the uncle of Paramount fashion maven Travis Banton, who so gloriously draped Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and other studio greats. Knowing his family’s past with Mae, he was reluctant to let on the connection when West came west in 1932. But not only did she remember his uncle, she held no grudge, and she and Travis had an excellent working relationship.

    I got this from part 3 of a 1936 Photoplay profile of Banton, which can be found at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/452847.html. (The two preceding entries are parts 1 and 2.)

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