Monday, September 14, 2009

Mae West: Harlem on Broadway

It was the fourteenth of September when MAE WEST was sashaying onstage as the slinky temptress "Babe Gordon" at the Royale Theatre's production of her newest play The Constant Sinner. The play had had its Broadway premiere on 14 September 1931, received mixed reviews, and would last until November.
• • Set in Harlem during the Prohibition Era, the play followed the escapades of a honey-haired prizefighter groupie. Here's a selection from Mae West's novel The Constant Sinner [1930] after Bearcat Delaney has attracted Babe's attention by winning a fight.
• • • • Babe walked out with Bill [Larson] and headed for Toni's. She knew then that she was sure to meet the Bearcat.
• • • • With her escort, Bill Larson, she walked to the corner of 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, and then turned to the left, walking through a block of chop suey fronts, dance halls, and speakeasies, where you bought gin for ten cents and where high-strung society nerves dropped in incognito for their shots of morphine and coke, while blood-stained criminals sat drinking and smoking at the tables in resigned security. In this block they were in Coke Village, below the deadline in deep Harlem.
• • • • They came to 134th Street and dropped a short run of steep stairs to Toni's. Toni's was a basement restaurant of red walls stippled with gold and lighted by blue and red bulbs. It was an Italian place and had become popular as a sporting hangout. The food was good. Fighters from the Marathon Club, mangers, and other sporting bloods often dropped in.
• • • • Bill arranged to reserve two tables for the expected party, and Babe and he sat down at one of them to wait. She ordered a gin rickey, while Bill chose rye.
• • • • A couple of drunken white girls sat over empty gin glasses at a table nearby. Babe knew these hustlers. They were guzzlers. They worked the streets till they made enough for a few drinks and then they parked around the Fifth Avenue creep joints, waiting for downtown explorers that needed a "steer" to dope or wanted to be led to a "circus" where women resorted to strange practices to gratify morbid curiosity. There was more money in this racket and it was easier. It took energy to be a leg worker and they were wasted skeletons, bones showing.
• • • • Toni's was crowding up. Musicians and chorus girls from the burlesque houses on 125th Street came in to spend the night and morning over cheap gin and a hunk of chicken.
• • • • The Bearcat appeared in the doorway, with Joe Malone; Harry Flick, another fighter; and three buddies from the express company. They came toward the table where Babe and Bill were eagerly awaiting the party. ...
— excerpt The Constant Sinner by Mae West
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • the Harlem cast in Mae's play • • a street in Harlem • •
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