Lives Behind the Legends: Mae West – Spiritual Vixen
Mae West has gone down in history as a larger-than-life character. Ballsy, confident, funny and sexy; she was a trailblazer in the conventional 1930’s. Nothing could stop this street smart vixen. Still, there was a surprising side to her that not many people are aware of. You would be forgiven for thinking that the sassy Miss West was as down to earth as it gets, but in reality, Mae was a very spiritual person. She meditated, considered herself psychic and loved to hold séances with friends.
The year was 1928. Mae West had just become the biggest star on Broadway with her self-written play Diamond ‘Lil. The tough-talking, independent and fun ‘Lil would be a part of the Mae West persona forevermore. But the real Mae was being plagued by extreme abdominal pains. Doctors ran tests, but no reason was found. Mae’s manager and best friend James Timony took matters into his own hands and introduced her to yogi healer Sri Deva Ram Sukul, who was the president of the Yoga Institute for America. When Mae and the yogi met, he chanted a Hindu prayer, stood behind her and pressed his hands on her stomach for a few minutes. When he suddenly released his hold, the pain was gone. Mae asked the yogi what had caused the pain and he told her that it was other people’s envy. This was Mae’s first tangible experience with spirituality and it made a big impression on her.
Though Mae attended church from time to time, she wasn’t particularly religious. She was interested in a broader concept of spirituality. She wanted to know if there ‘was more,’ and events like this strengthened her belief that there truly was. Mae was especially fascinated by the spirit world, so she was game when she was asked to participate in a séance in the early 30’s, reportedly by none other than aviatrix Amelia Earhart. This may seem like a random pairing, but these two independent career women had long admired each other before becoming acquainted. In any case, Mae was vacationing at posh resort, La Cinta, and she offered up her bungalow for the small gathering. This would be Mae’s first séance and she became a true believer. Her deceased father came through with a message about the men she was dating.
One was ‘okay’, the other was not. But the real highlight was when a message came through that nobody understood, until someone pointed out that it was in Yiddish. One of the guests was Jewish and had been in a long-term relationship with a Catholic woman. The message was from the man’s mother and said: ‘do what your heart tells you and never mind your father.’ The message moved Mae deeply. Especially since the pair then married, the father came around, and they lived a long and happy life together.
Mae had always fancied herself an intuitive person and she became more and more drawn to developing her own spiritual abilities. She started reading up on psychic research and learned how to meditate. She was a self-confessed quick study, later stating that she learned how to meditate in a week. She was keen to meet spiritual mentors and she even took a yogi with her when traveling for a while. Mae was always straightforward about using the ‘Forces’, as she called them, for her life and her work. When she was writing a screenplay, she would ask them for help. Afterward, she would write or dictate in a stream of consciousness. ‘I believe the Forces have a lot to do with what we call inspiration,’ she said. No matter how she got the inspiration, it worked, and Mae became a power player on stage and in Hollywood. Still, she started feeling that there was something missing in 1941. Her career was at a high, but her life felt incomplete. She decided to take six months off to really dive into that spiritual world that she was so fascinated with. ‘The best is knowing the powers within you,’ she later pointed out. Mae chose Jack Kelly, founder of the Spiritual Church of Life, as a guide on this journey. It was said that he was tested by Duke University and was found to possess psychic powers. Mae was even more convinced of his powers when he personally predicted to her that the Japanese would launch a surprise attack on America and Pearl Harbor was attacked soon after.
Kelly found that, though everyone has the ability within them, Mae truly had the ‘Gift’ when it came to contacting the spirit world. For weeks she trained, getting her mind blank through meditation and inviting in the spirits. Finally, they came to her in full form, but not in the way she had hoped. ‘There were a lot of them, I think all men, and they weren’t interested in me, so that didn’t make any sense. They must have been really dead. They sort of just talked with each other. And I never did like crowds.’ What Mae really wanted was to make contact with her mother. Kelly told her that she had to be patient and that her gift was undisciplined. After a while, Mae grew tired of the uninvited guests and told them to leave. They did, and Mae never tried to contact the spirits in that way again. Still, she was satisfied knowing that there was more, and that she had the ability to make contact. She felt reassured that her mother was somewhere watching over her, even if neither of them knew how to make contact. Though this experience had been a little too intense, Mae kept her connection to the other side. She continued to ask the spirits for help and information and she loved hosting séances by psychics for her friends.
It was not just the supernatural that Mae was interested in; other spiritual beliefs had her attention as well. For instance, she felt that astrology explained her personality. As a fiery Leo with her rising sign in beauty planet Venus, she said that it was predetermined she would be ‘strong like a lioness and at the same time totally feminine.’ In her book Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP, she even relayed her experiences with men throughout the signs. Quipping about Aries: ‘They don’t call the guys born under this sign the Rams for nothing.’ She would consult her astrology chart from time to time to help her make decisions. Mae reportedly even had her chart read on set by veteran silent film actor Stuart Holmes, whose wife Blanka was a Hollywood astrologist. According to a 1935 Australian Women’s Weekly article, Holmes found that Mae would have made a good nurse, the height of her screen career would be reached in 1939, Hollywood was the best place for her to reside in, and she might be married in three years. He may have misread that last prediction, but Mae still generously called him a ‘remarkable researcher.’ Mae did not just depend on outside sources, she was also a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. She never allowed a negative thought to take root in her mind. She felt that by thinking and feeling positive you created a better understanding of yourself, and it would enable you to accomplish things you never thought you could. Her advice was always that self-confidence was the most important thing to possess, a belief that was mirrored by the self-assured stage persona we know and love.
Mae really was ahead of her time in many ways. Her stage persona paved the way for confident, sexy women who were not afraid to speak their minds. Mae was this way off-stage as well; she wrote all of her own material and held a tight grasp on her image, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that even her spiritual side was ahead of its time. Meditation, astrology, the power of positive thinking, and a belief in an energy that connects us are almost commonplace in the 21st century. In the 30’s and 40’s, Mae was an outsider in her convictions, but she didn’t care. Her open-mindedness in every facet of life and her steadfast confidence were her biggest strengths. As society finally caught up with Mae, people became more open-minded about sex and spirituality. Because of this, Mae had a career resurgence in the 1970’s as people appreciated, once again, what a trailblazer she had been.
Mae, a savvy businesswoman, saw an opportunity and released her novel Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP. She was introduced to, and embraced by, a whole new generation while in her eighties. As an entertainer at heart, she loved every minute of it.
The sources for this article areShe Always Knew How: Mae West by Charlotte Chandler, It Ain’t No Sin by Simon Louvish, Becoming Mae West by Emily W. Leider, Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP by Mae West, and The Australian Women’s Weekly 26-01-1935.
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.