Era: 20's through the 40's
Who was she:
Mae West was an actress, born in the late 1800's in Brooklyn, NY.
Mae started performing in vaudeville at the age of five. By the time she was twelve she was doing burlesque under the name "The Baby Vamp." Though she had not yet grown into her generous curves, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was already raising eyebrows with a lascivious "shimmy" dance.
Eventually, she started writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play titled Sex, which was also written, produced and directed by West. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials, however. The theatre was raided and West was arrested along with everyone else in the cast.
She was prosecuted on morals charges and was sentenced to ten days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue. She served eight days, with two days off for good behavior. She regarded the freedom to talk about sex as a basic human rights issue
Why is she an icon:
Mae West was an early advocate of gay rights, pleading against police brutality against homosexuals by saying "A homosexual is a woman's soul in a man's body. You're hitting a woman."
After her brief prison sentence, Mae went to work writing a play that was about homosexuality and was titled The Drag. It was a success, but audiences had to go to New Jersey to see it because it was banned from Broadway. She continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and other problems, however. If they did not get shut down for indecency, they closed because of slow ticket sales.