On February 9, 1927, Mae West went backstage of a performance of her play “Sex” and found herself surrounded by officers from the New York Police Department’s Municipal Vice Squad, which rounded up the cast and put them into black police vans.
West was a smart talking, wise cracking, blonde bombshell of 1930’s cinema, famous for some of the sharpest and most suggestive one-liners in the history of the movies. As both a playwright and screenwriter, she wrote many of those lines herself.
West came up in the world of burlesque prior to her arrival in Hollywood. As her career struggled, she took the bold step of writing a play in which she had the starring role of a sex worker. West probably knew that “Sex” would be controversial at a time when American culture was coming under increasing scrutiny and censorship, even though her play was less about sex and more about the power dynamics between men and women. Despite being panned by critics, the play was a sensation that drew large audiences.
According to author Jill West, when West arrived in court after the backstage raid the judge asked her if she was indeed Mae West. She replied with her customary wit: “Don’t you read the newspapers?” The courthouse turned into a press circus, with hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse in hopes of getting an autograph from West. One journalist asked her what she thought was going to happen, and she turned and said, “I expect this will be the making of me.” On April 19, 1927, she was charged with obscenity and behavior designed to corrupt the morals of youth and was sentenced to ten days in a workhouse.
She served her sentence on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island in New York City) where she allegedly dined with the warden. West was released two days early for good behavior. According to her, the time spent in jail was worth every ounce of the publicity, and the media attention boosted her career significantly. She later said that the only thing that bothered her about it was that she had to wear cotton underwear.
“Mae West knows that when she steps onto the stage she is stepping onto the stage not just as a character but as Mae West, the celebrated pornographer who spent eight days in jail for an obscene play,” said cultural historian Marybeth Hamilton, interviewed in the film “Mae West: Dirty Blonde.” “She was a very, very canny reader of her audiences and a very canny reader of her own publicity.”