Mae West

Mae West
"Personality is the most important thing to an actress's success," Mae West wrote, "the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights . . . into that big black space where the audience is." Once a child vaudevillian, West understood the value of a distinctive stage persona. Often serving as her own writer and director, she honed her image as a quick-witted femme fatale. "When women go wrong," West purred in one of her popular films, "men go right after them." Such lines provoked controversy from the start, but with her hourglass figure, opulent costumes, and suggestive swagger, West created a popular icon the censors couldn't destroy.

Miguel Covarrubias captured the flamboyant artifice of West's characterizations. A glance alone could convey the intended bawdiness. "It wasn't what I did, but how I did it," West wrote. "It wasn't what I said, but how I said it; and how I looked when I did it and said it."

Mae West 1893-1980
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957)
Ink, wash, and gouache on board for New Yorker, May 5, 1928
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

NEXT portrait

BACK to "Personality, Celebrity and the Press"

Past Exhibitions | National Portrait Gallery Home