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Mae West started in Vaudeville and on the stage in New York, and later moved to Hollywood to star in films known for their blunt sexuality and steamy settings.
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She was with the show only a short time due to conflicts with the show's female star, Gaby Deslys, but the experience paid off. She continued to perform in Vaudeville and off-Broadway in New York. It was during this time that she met Guido Deiro, another Vaudeville headliner. A passionate relationship resulted, and the two tried to be together as much as possible, often arranging for joint bookings. They both expressed their love, lust, and jealously openly,
and were known for their outward display of emotion, as well as raging arguments.
For a short time, the couple contemplated marriage, and Deiro even asked West's parents for her hand in marriage (they still didn't know about her earlier marriage to Frank Wallace, of which she finally obtained a divorce in 1920). Tillie strongly refused, reminding her daughter of the pitfalls of married couples in show business. West complied with her mother's wishes, but continued to see Deiro. Her mother continued to undermine their relationship. Finally, Tillie directly expressed disapproval in Deiro, telling West that he wasn't good enough for her. Reluctantly, she complied, and over a brief period of time ended the relationship with Deiro.
Mae West got her big break in 1918 in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, playing opposite Ed Wynn. Her character, Mayme, danced the shimmy, a brazen dance move that involved shaking the shoulders back and forth and pushing the chest out. As more parts came her way, West began to shape her characters, often rewriting dialogue or character descriptions to better suit her persona. She eventually began writing her own plays, initially using the pen name Jane Mast.
In 1926, Mae West got her first starring role in a Broadway play entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Though the play was a hit at the box office, the "more respectable" Broadway critics panned it for its explicit sexual content. The production also did not go over well with city officials, who raided the show and arrested West along with much of the cast. She was prosecuted on morals charges and on April 19, 1927, sentenced to 10 days in jail on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) in New York. The incarceration was cordial, as West reportedly dined with the warden and his wife on a few occasions. She served eight days, with two off for good behavior. The media attention of the entire affair did nothing but enhance her career.
Undaunted by any impression of impropriety, Mae West wrote and directed her next play, Drag, which dealt with homosexuality. The play did well in Connecticut and was a smash hit in Paterson, New Jersey. But when West announced the play would open on Broadway, the Society for the Prevention of Vice intervened and vowed ban it. The Society was a state-chartered organization, originally started by supporters of the YMCA in 1873. The group was dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, and monitoring compliance with state laws. West decided not to tempt fate again, and kept the play out of New York.
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