National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Keith de Lellis
Mae West was a comedienne, playwright, actress, and sex symbol who first brought women’s desire to film. West developed her bawdy style and walk on the vaudeville circuit, in part from blueswomen and drag queens. She wrote and produced a series of controversial plays, many of which were raided by the police: Sex (about prostitutes), The Drag (about homosexuality), Pleasure Man (about burlesque), and Diamond Lil (her most enduring character). In pre–Hays Code Hollywood films, she made a young Cary Grant her straight man while invoking her famous double entendres: “When I’m good, I’m very good; but when I’m bad, I’m better.” Or: “I used to be Snow White—but I drifted.” Or—in response to a naive girl’s comment, “Goodness, what diamonds!”—”Goodness had nothing to do with it.” She recorded with Duke Ellington in the 1930s, had a popular Las Vegas stage act in the 1950s, and, at the Beatles’ request, appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).