In a 1925–26 New York theater season with acclaimed new plays by O’Neill (The Great God Brown), O’Casey (Juno and the Paycock), and Coward (Hay Fever), critics agreed that the rock bottom was Sex, the first Broadway vehicle written by and starring the voluptuous vaudeville trouper Mae West. Sex was “street sweepings,” in the verdict of The New Yorker, and “a crude, inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted,” according to the Times. The paper’s review did helpfully note that the show’s “one torrid love scene” lived up to its title. An ad warning patrons who “cannot stand excitement” to “see your doctor before visiting Mae West” didn’t hurt either. The play outlasted nearly all the competition. Variety christened its heroine, a Montreal lady of the evening with a fondness for sailors, “the Babe Ruth of stage prosties.”
Politics turned a hit into a Jazz Age phenomenon. When New York’s rakish mayor, Jimmy Walker, took a Havana holiday in February 1927, the acting mayor, Joseph V. (“Holy Joe”) McKee, raided three risqué Broadway shows. West was the prime target: Sex, then in the tenth month of its run, had been seen by 325,000 theatergoers. To the delight of the tabloid press, its twenty actors were hauled off to a police station in Hell’s Kitchen. The star spent the night in the Jefferson Market Women’s Prison.
West bailed out her company. The court had offered to drop charges if she would close the show. But she knew that in showbiz, crime paid. The grand jury’s claim that her “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” would abet “the corruption of the morals of youth” was better than any rave review. Festooned with white roses, she rode a limo to incarceration on Welfare Island and boasted of wearing silk underwear throughout her eight-day stay there. When Liberty magazine paid her $1,000 for an exit interview, she used it to start a Mae West Memorial Library for female prisoners.
A later West play—The Pleasure Man, awash in female impersonators and homosexuality—would be raided and shut down at its second Broadway performance in 1928. Undaunted, she eventually revived Sex and toured the Depression-era Midwest without incident, before arriving in Hollywood, where, paired with Cary Grant and W. C. Fields, she hit superstardom as she was reaching 40. The Bushwick-born, self-invented West (1893–1980) wrote the Ur-text for Madonna and Lady Gaga, repeatedly breaking gender and sexual barriers over a marathon career as a writer, performer, free-speech provocateur, and showbiz entrepreneur. Her pioneering playbook for turning scandal into profits remains the gold standard in American pop culture to this day.