Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mae West: The Birth of SEX

MAE WEST gave birth to "Sex," her sensational and controversial play [registered with the U.S. Copyright Office from her parents' address in blue-collar Queens], thanks to some unusual mid-wives and odd-fathers.
• • In 1923, one year before James Timony acquired the rights to "Following the Fleet" by John Joseph Byrne, Mae had celebrated her thirtieth birthday. She had briefly returned to variety in 1924 on the touring wheel known as the Interstate Circuit. The month of March found the vaudevillian in heat in Houston, where she had fallen for a handsome Texas-based Variety reporter, Bud Burmeister. By then, Mae had quietly divorced her Italian husband Guido Deiro in the Queens County Courthouse but she was still legally (secretly) wed to danceman Frank Wallace. Either the romance went pretty far or perhaps Mae had a pregnancy scare because Burmeister applied for a marriage license.
• • After this hot-blooded escapade (or escape) in the Lone Star State, and after a brief commitment in Detroit at one of Keith's vaudeville emporiums, Mae was back in New York City under her parents' roof. By then Timony had made the acquaintance of a fellow Irishman, John J. Byrne, a 24-year-old thespian living with Mr. and Mrs. Patrick C. Murphy (his married sister and brother-in-law) in East Orange, New Jersey.
• • In Jim Timony's Manhattan office, Mae explained to Byrne she needed a play in the style of Rain, a sin-sational drama that had starred Jeanne Eagels in the role of Sadie Thompson, a beautiful tart who was a wanted woman in San Francisco, and on the run from a Honolulu brothel. After all, Rain — based on W. Somerset Maugham's short story — was the Broadway boxoffice smash of the 1922-1923 season. .
• • On the New York stage during the 1920s, whores and brothels were in vogue. David Belasco had scored a success with his racially mixed production of Lulu Belle; Leonore Ulric portrayed the mulatto courtesan. And Mae had been monitoring the meteoric rise of Eugene O'Neill, whose Anna Christie opened in 1921 with Pauline Lord playing the title role of the Swedish farm gal from Minnesota who winds up in New York City — after escaping from a St. Paul brothel — and is searching for her alcoholic father, a seaman. Quite aware that O'Neill had helped legitimize a raw realism fueled by life's seamy, seedy side, Mae West was ready to express herself in this idiom.
• • Explaining what she wanted to Byrne, Mae pointed out that Rain's Sadie Thompson was a loose woman who made a living from soldiers. "I told him I had an idea of a girl who made her living from sailors and to call the play A Sailor's Delight or True to the Navy, sayings I had previously used in a song," Mae revealed to a reporter.
• • Though Following the Fleet seems to have been written to order by J.J. Byrne and Ted McLean, it did not suit Mae. So she contacted a female playwright of German descent who was often hired to collaborate. The author was living in the Bronx with her widowed mother Mrs. Maximilian Leitzbach and had worked on projects such as adapting a woman's novel Wife in Name Only [1923] for the screen. Soon Mae West, age 32, and Adeline M. Leitzbach, age 38, were revising the script that would become Sex and be staged in April 1926.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com/

• •
Photo: • • Mae West onstage in Sex • • 1926 • •

Mae West.

No comments:

Post a Comment