Mae West Sentenced for Sex

Having produced, directed and starred in a lascivious play, West was charged with ‘corrupting the morals of youth’ on 19 April 1927.

Mae West in court during questioning about earnings from her role in the movie She Done Him Wrong, Los Angeles, 1940. University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections (CC BY 4.0 DEED).

Before hitting the Hollywood big time, Mae West began writing plays in the 1920s under the pen name ‘Jane Mast’. Her works dealt with themes that were avant-garde for the time, such as sex and gay rights.

Her first starring role in one of her own Broadway productions came in 1926 when she appeared in Sex, a play that she also wrote, produced and directed. The plot revolved around a prostitute, Margy, her love for an English naval officer and client, Gregg, and a somewhat convoluted affair involving an American millionaire. It caused a sensation. Conservative critics deplored the show, giving almost universally negative notices; indeed the New York Times called it a ‘crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted’. The public flocked to it.

The city was also unhappy with the danger to moral standards and, in February 1927, raided the theatre. They had not acted quickly enough; 375 performances had already taken place and 325,000 people had seen the show, including many of the city fathers.

Coverage of the Sex scandal in the New York Evening Graphic, 20 December 1926. New York Public Library. Public Domain.
Coverage of the Sex scandal in the New York Evening Graphic, 20 December 1926. New York Public Library. Public Domain.

The entire cast was arrested, but West was singled out and charged with ‘corrupting the morals of youth’. She was sentenced to ten days in prison but offered the opportunity to pay a fine and be released immediately. Seeing the huge publicity value of the case, she demanded to be sent to prison.

West served eight days in a workhouse on ‘Welfare Island’, where her fame brought her an invitation to dinner with the governor. Two days of her sentence were remitted for good behaviour.

Released, West went straight back to work, writing The Drag, which dealt with homosexuality and cross-dressing. The city fathers would not be tricked twice, however, and the show never made it to Broadway thanks to the efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The following year her play Diamond Lil, while still controversial, made it to Broadway and its success propelled her to Hollywood stardom.