Mae West was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1893. Even from an early age, West knew that she destined to become something far greater than just another Victorian housewife. A new century was just around the corner, and according to her 1959 autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing, she ‘ran towards it boldly’.
West unabashedly lived her life to the fullest. She wasn’t afraid to go against the grain and challenge what she saw as outdated views of what it meant to be a woman. In her films, plays, and stage performances, she openly celebrated her feminine sexuality.
West was bold and frank. She embraced the thrill of ‘sin’ with an added dose of over-the-top glamour. But underneath the wigs, makeup, and diamonds, West had a clear agenda. She wanted to present to the world an alternative version of womanhood. In many ways, she was one of Hollywood’s first feminist icons – and given the fact that she was pushing these ideas at the time that she did, she faced quite a bit of pushback from the conservative establishment.
West’s defining feature was her breezy approach to sexual independence. This made her one of the most controversial and censored stars of her day. In 1926, she notoriously ended up getting arrested and later jailed for ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth” not long after the premier of her provocative Broadway entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in.
West’s career filled with scandal and defiance of social norms, but that’s precisely what made her such a powerful figure in the early days of Hollywood. She was once quoted as saying that you only live once, but if you do it right, then once is enough.
Like in all areas of her life, West’s approach to her love life similarly free-spirited. She only ever married once, but she dated countless men throughout her seven-decade-spanning acting career. The majority of men that she dated were significantly younger that she was, but that shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise given everything else that we know about her.
In this video, we’ll be taking a look back at Mae West’s prolific life and career in the spotlight. We’ll focus on how her philosophy shaped the way she presented herself and how her views affected her romantic relationships.
West Was An Early Starter
West started acting when she was just a curly-haired five-year-old. She was a diva from the beginning who desperately craved fame more than anything. West would later admit that even as a child, she refused to leave the house unless she wore her fanciest dress. Right out of the gate, she addicted to her own appearance.
After entertaining a crowd at a church social, Mae West began appearing in amateur shows at age 7. She frequently won prizes at local talent competitions, which only added to her ever-growing ego.
By the time she was in the third grade, Mae West had already given a taste of fame. She ended up dropping out of school and spent several weeks at a dance academy. Soon enough, amateur shows turned into a stint at the Gotham Theater.
Just as West had an early start acting, she also started early when it came to exploring the nuances of the birds and the bees. Reportedly, West once claimed that she determined to lose her virginity before she hit puberty so that she wouldn’t have to worry about winding up pregnant. This led to her sleeping with her 21-year-old musical teacher at the age of 13. Evidently, she told him that it wasn’t a big deal because she had already done it once before.
West’s lax attitudes toward sex would ultimately become one of her most defining traits – so much so, that any attempt at tamping it down would end up in disaster.
Whenever Mae West mother would notice that she was spending what she saw as too much time with a boy. She would encourage her to move on. While this advice probably well-intentioned, it ended up backfiring.
After West fell for a bandleader named Joseph Schenck, her mom told her that she needed to keep her options open. So what did Mae do? She ended up dating every member of the band – one after another.
West could never keep a boyfriend for more than a week or so. She was much too preoccupied with her budding acting career. And she did her best to not allow even the most passionate of teenage romances to distract her – at least at first.
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West Marriage To Frank Wallace
By the time West was 17, she already well established in the vaudeville scene. By this time, she was also already incredibly difficult to impress. Then one day, she noticed that a young man named Frank Wallace was consistently getting more applause than she was. So, after he approached her and proposed that they do an act together, she eagerly agreed.
Considering her reputation, Wallace was a bit surprised when he found that West didn’t seem interested in his advances. She seemed intent on not mixing business with pleasure. They would rehearse their lines together and eventually performed on stage, but every time that Wallace would proposition her, she would turn him down.
Wallace didn’t think much about this and took it in stride, but then one night, West surprised him by leaping into his arms. From that moment on, it was business AND pleasure. And unlike all of her previous flings, West didn’t dump him as soon as they celebrated their one-month anniversary.
West and Wallace proceeded to fall madly in love while on their ten-week tour together. Or at least that’s probably how Frank saw it. Pretty soon, however, West went back to rejecting him after rehearsals. To add insult to injury, she started hooking up with other actors and fans, presumably to make him jealous.
Despite West’s mind games, Wallace stuck around, and in 1911, his persistence paid off when West agreed to marry him. The two eloped in Milwaukee, but what Frank probably thought was going to be the beginning of their ‘happily-ever-after’ story ended up turning into something he hadn’t anticipated.
Apparently, the very act of getting married killed any romantic feelings that West had for Wallace. She later would admit to getting a separate hotel room on the very night of their elopement.
After leaving Milwaukee, West and Wallace went to St. Paul and then Minneapolis. Around midnight every evening, West would leave their room and lock Wallace inside. Frank would later learn from other vaudevillians that she was going out on dates with locals.
Needless to say, their marriage was doomed from the start.
West eventually got rid of Wallace by sending him away in another show. She ended up keeping her marriage a secret until 1935. When a filing clerk discovered the marriage certificate and alerted the press.
West denied ever Marrying Wallace until July 1937 when she was finally forced to acknowledge their marriage in response to a legal filing. West obtained a legal divorce in 1942.
West’s Lesser Romances
Mae West was once quoted as saying that while marriage was a great institution, she wasn’t ready for an institution. Somewhat ironically, she said this while she was still secretly married to Wallace. But still, it does pretty succinctly sum up her feelings on the topic.
West would never again marry, but she did have a number of noteworthy relationships, affairs, and flings – many of which were with men who were younger than she was.
In 1913, West struck up a relationship with Italian-born vaudeville headliner and musician Guldo Deiro. Deiro was three years her junior.
Some have speculated that the two may have gotten married in 1914. But there isn’t any solid evidence to this claim. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t have been legally binding since she was still married to Wallace at the time.
After becoming pregnant with Deiro’s child, West took her mother’s advice and had an abortion. The procedure ended up almost killing her and left her infertile.
Deiro was devastated after learning about the abortion and promptly ended the relationship.
West’s next romantic relationship was with her manager and attorney James Timony. The couple stayed together for quite some time, but by the mid-30s when West had become an established film star, they were no longer together. Timony ended up passing away in 1954.
During the peak of West’s Hollywood career, she had romantic encounters with stars like Steve Rossi, Jack La Rue, Max Beer, George Ball, and David Niven – just to name a few. Once again, many of these men were younger that she was – but that’s exactly what she wanted. Mae’s ego and strong sense of independence made her recoil at the idea of being under the control of a man.
West and Paul Novak
At the age of 61, West became romantically involved with a performer named Chester Rybinski. One of the muscle men who appeared in her Las Vegas show.
Chester was a wrestler and former merchant sailor who, at one point, won the Mr. California contest. He was 30 years Novak’s junior and later ended up changing his name to Paul Novak.
After moving in with her, Novak remained by West’s side until 1980, when she passed away at the age of 87 not long after having a stroke.
Novak was once quoted as saying that he felt like he was put on Earth in order to care for West. From the look of things, it seems like he did a pretty good job at doing just that.
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