She was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John Patrick West and Matilda Delker Doelger. Her younger sister and brother were Mildred West, called Beverly, and John Edwin West.
Mae West started performing in vaudeville at the age of five. By the time she was twelve she was doing burlesque under the name "The Baby Vamp." Though she had not yet grown into her generous curves, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was already raising eyebrows with a lascivious "shimmy" dance.
Eventually, she started writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play titled Sex, which was also written, produced and directed by West. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials, however. The theatre was raided and West was arrested along with everyone else in the cast.
She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated on Welfare Island, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue. She served eight days, with two days off for good behavior.
When she regained her freedom she set to work on her next creative effort. Her second play was about homosexuality and was titled The Drag. It was a success, but audiences had to go to New Jersey to see it because it was banned from Broadway. She continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner. Her productions were plagued by controversy and other problems, however. If they did not get shut down for indecency, they closed because of slow ticket sales.
For her next adventure into theatre she had a Broadway hit, Diamond Lil (1928), about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s. The show struck box-office gold and heralded the brazen blonde to new heights of fame. It enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would successfully revive it many times through the course of her career.
In 1932, she was offered a contract by Paramount Pictures. She signed and went to Hollywood to appear in the motion picture Night After Night starring George Raft. Upon arrival, she moved into an apartment in the Ravenswood at 570 North Rossmore Avenue, not far from the movie studio on Melrose Avenue. She maintained a residence there for the rest of her life.
At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her lines. In her first scene, a coat check girl exclaimed, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West became an instant sensation when she replied, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."
She brought Diamond Lil, now Lady Lou, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933), personally selecting Cary Grant for the male lead, a role that made him a star. The movie was a huge success and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
In 1934, the Hays Office emerged to enforce censorship of movies and her scripts began to be heavily edited. Her answer was to increase the double-entendre, saying phrases with risqué connotations that could also be taken to mean something else.
Mae West, the prototypical wisecracking femme fatale, known for her salacious one-liners, starred in eight movies for Paramount before their association came to an end. Then, in 1940 she starred opposite W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee at Universal.
During World War II, allied soldiers called their inflatable life jackets "Mae Wests" from its resemblance to her curvaceous torso.
She was apparently married April 11, 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Wallace, a fellow Vaudevillian, who in 1942 showed up with a marriage certificate. She denied ever marrying him, and records showed she had never lived with him, but she still found it necessary to seek a legal divorce.
West appeared in her last movie during the studio age with The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia. She remained active during the ensuing years. Among her stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great on Broadway. She also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show surrounded by muscle men and singing to delighted crowds.
On radio, West appeared on ventriloquist Charlie McCarthy's show and did a sexy sketch with Edgar the dummy that shocked the listening audience. She was banned from the airwaves for several years. In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded a Rock and Roll album titled "Great Balls of Fire."
After an absence of almost thirty years from the silver screen, she appeared in Myra Breckinridge (1970) with Raquel Welch. And at the age of eighty-five she returned in her last movie, Sextette (1978). Both movies were amusingly terrible and failed at the box-office, in spite of the fact that before the release of Sextette large photographs of her reclining on a chaise lounge went up on billboards all over Hollywood proclaiming, "Mae West Is Coming."
In November 1980, she suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital, but the prognosis was not good and she was sent home. She died at her home in the Ravenswood apartment building on Rossmore Avenue. She is entombed in the Cypress Hills Cemetery at 833 Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.