Paying for Sex

April 19: Mae West went to jail on this day in 1927 for Sex, the play which she wrote and produced, and which provided her with her first starring role on Broadway, as a prostitute named Margy LaMont. Advertised as "More laughs, thrills and action than a flappers' gin party," Sex had been a popular draw. Many patrons were attracted by the notices praising West as "the Babe Ruth of the stage 'prosties.'" Some reviews slammed the play's indecencies, or slammed West's prostitute-heroine for her unconvincing reformation, but this did little to stop the crowds. Pressured into action, and perhaps provoked by West's cheek in calling her theater group the Morals Production Company, the police closed the play down. Unrepentant, West was sent to the Women's Workhouse, sighing "I expect it will be the making of me" as she went. But she seems to have been a model prisoner: her ten-day sentence was reduced to eight for good behavior, and she donated the $1,000 she got for a magazine article about the experience to the Workhouse library fund.

 

West liked to make it seem as if her plays were written effortlessly or improvised in rehearsal, but recent biographer Simon Louvish (Mae West: It Ain't No Sin, 2007) says that she was a much more serious writer than she let on. Sex is certainly more than quips and titillations; this is West's prostitute confronting a woman from the right side of the tracks, hoping "to dig under the veneer of your supposed respectability":

MARGY: …You've got the kind of stuff in you that makes women of my type. If our positions were changed—you in my place, and I in yours—I'd be willing to bet that I'd make a better wife and mother than you are. Yeah, and I'll bet without this beautiful home, without money, and without any restrictions, you'd be worse than I have ever been.

CLARA: No, no—

MARGY: Yes you would. You'd do it and like it.

CLARA: For God's sake stop it, I can't endure any more—

MARGY: Now you're down off your pedestal. You're down where you can see—it's just a matter of circumstances. The only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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