Mae West was born on August 17, 1893, and while she’s now known primarily as a movie star, she debuted on Broadway shortly after her 18th birthday, which was long before her Hollywood career. She returned periodically for the next 40 years. She was not just a performer; she wrote her first Broadway show while still in her 20’s, but used a pseudonym. It was called “Sex,” and she was the star. But it was her next play, “Diamond Lil,” that she clearly favored. She wrote it (under her own name) and starred in it starting in April, 1928, then revived it on Broadway three times, the last in 1951.
The character, a saloon singer who loved a wisecrack more than any man, was the greatest creation of her career — “a triumph of nostalgic vulgarity,” wrote one critic in reviewing the 1949 Broadway revival. “She is always in motion. The snaky walk, the torso wriggle, the stealthy eyes, the frozen smile, the flat, condescending voice, the queenly gestures–these are studies in slow motion, and they have to be seen to be believed. Lazy, confident of her charms, Diamond Lil does not move fast, but she never stands still; and Miss West paces her performance accordingly.”
The Broadway performances of the play don’t give the whole picture. “Mae West toured with that play all over the country, from 1928 to 1951,” a theater artist named LindaAnn Loschiavo was saying in the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library earlier this week. “Isn’t it time it returned to New York?”
Loschiavo, wearing the kind of weird flowered hat that Minnie Pearl used to wear (but without the price tag), was in the library to offer us a free glimpse of her adaptation of “Diamond Lil,” with two of the actors in the cast, including the star, Darlene Violette, who is also the director. They interspersed scenes and readings with slide shows of the people and places who inspired Mae West in the writing of the play, which was made into the greatly bowdlerized movie “She Done Him Wrong.” The playwright and director will be presenting “Diamond Lil” with an eight-member cast at JS Studio (55 8th Avenue, 23rd floor) at 7:30 p.m. tonight, and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Don’t Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street.)
“When she put it on Broadway, Diamond Lil had 35 speaking parts, and lasted three hours in three acts,” the playwright said. “It wasn’t as expensive then to put on a Broadway show.” Her adaptation, she pointed out, is 85 minutes.
Loschiavo started a blog about Mae West nine years ago. Yesterday she wrote her 2,718th post about Mae West. She seems reasonably obsessed. If you click to her “complete profile,” her list of “interests” begins with theatre and Mae West and ends with drama and diamonds. Her favorite music is “Frankie and Johnny and many show-tunes,” her favorite movies “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” etc; her favorite books “Becoming Mae West” etc.
LindaAnn Loschiavo held a raffle at the library — and I won it. My prize was the sketch that is at the top of the page.
Some of Mae West’s most popular quotes (either as one of her characters, or as the character Mae West):
You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.
Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.
Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.
Beulah, peel me a grape
A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.
I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
Women like a man with a past, but they prefer a man with a present
Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? … Come on up, I’ll tell your fortune.