August 17th is the birthday of the most famous woman born in Greenpoint: Mae West, or as she was also known, The Queen of Curves.
West is known as a Hollywood star and possibly America’s first sex symbol, but she was also a Broadway star, playwright and director. Born in 1893, on Herbert Street, West made her stage debut at age five, at the Royal Theater on Willoughby Street.
While other girls wanted dollhouses, Mae asked her father to build her a stage. Her parents grew concerned that the child was more interested in performing than in school. In fact, West only finished third grade. She later said, “My whole education was in the theater and that was great.”
She learned to sing and proved herself quite precocious, displaying as a young child an amazing ability to mimic both her parents’ friends and the vaudeville stars she loved. The family entered Mae in amateur talent contests that were a staple of the vaudeville stage, which she won, bringing home money and making her performances the family business.
Mae’s father was a Greenpoint boxer known as “Battlin’ Jack West who was a fast-talking, irreverent wisecracker, an endearing trait his daughter would take on. Mae not only inherited her father’s self-assured personality, but also learned to walk and talk like her father. She was as cocky as he was and once said, “I had perfect confidence in myself as a child. I wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Embodying a new type of woman, West was part of an emerging social phenomenon called “tough girls,” young, working-class women with a flamboyant, aggressive streetwise style. She broke the rules of female behavior. “I would not conform to the old-fashioned limits they had set on a woman’s freedom of action,” she wrote. Mae learned to capture an audience by shocking them, and her openness about sex and women’s sexuality both shocked and delighted audiences throughout her career.
West produced a play on Broadway in 1927 called “Sex” that not only shocked and scandalized, but also sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. The show was so risqué that the acting New York Mayor had the cast arrested. The arrest and media frenzy around it made West a household name. West was convicted and sentenced to eight days, but she turned her incarceration into a media event with hundreds of adoring fans followed her limo to prison. She emerged as a celebrity and would soon become a Hollywood movie star. America fell in love with the tough girl from Greenpoint.
West’s career in film spanned five decades.
Geoffrey Cobb is the author of the new history of Greenpoint, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past.