By Louise Bernikow
Wednesday, June 25, 2003
April 19, 1927
(WOMENSENEWS)--Mae West was a writer and performer who challenged even the "liberal" mores of the Jazz Age and constantly brought herself into confrontation with the guardians of "decency," especially public officials and police in New York City. "Sex," the play she had written and starred in was especially controversial--with a hard-boiled "woman of the streets" at its center, resistance to exploitation and class conflict as its themes and an onstage "shimmy" as one of its memorable moments. At her obscenity trial in 1927, a tongue-tied patrolman described the dance as one in which West "moved her navel up and down and from right to left." Others knew the shimmy as a jazz dance--meaning it belonged to black culture. But Mae West was white.
She was convicted and jailed for 10 days and then she wrote about her experience. She admired the black female inmates she met, finding them physically beautiful, courageous and possessed of bold humor--her kind of humor. Her favorite was Lulu, a stick-up woman--"for it requires a lot of nerve to stick-up a man." Most of the women, jailed for prostitution or drugs, resorted to crime out of economic necessity. West came down hard on a system built on poverty and exploitation, faulting the justice system--"the law is always ready to pounce on them"--and urging job training and work relief as a way out of the cycle.
She put her money where her mouth was, too, supporting the children of a woman awaiting trial for petty larceny until their mother was freed; contributing her article fees toward a prison library and using the spotlight her celebrity attracted to shed light on abuse.