Early Stage Work
Despite Mae West's claim to have been a child star, no record of her early achievements exist.  It is more likely that she appeared in amateur talent shows since these were highly popular at the time. Simon Louvish, in his new biography, speculates that Mae may have first formally tread the boards as a 15 year old in 1908 as a member of Hal Clarendon's stock company.  A spell in touring shows and burlesque followed and in 1911 she met and married (then hastily separated from) one Frank Wallace.  During this time she had small parts in legitimate shows such as “A La Broadway” at the Follies Bergere and “Vera Violetta” at the Winter Garden, New York.
In the early teens of the century Mae variously toured in vaudeville as a single and a double act with her sister, Beverly. Implausibly, this double act actually saw Mae as a male impersonator!  It was whilst touring in vaudeville that Mae met and fell for the renowned accordionist, Deiro. During this period she made a hit as a "shimmy" dancer. Mae always claimed to have introduced the dance having seen it performed by black women in the Harlem clubs she frequented at that time.
In 1918 Mae had a hit when she appeared in “Sometime” at the Shubert Theatre, New York but three years were to pass before she was back on Broadway in “The Mimic World”. This show actually opened on her birthday, 17 August 1921. After that she languished back in vaudeville for 5 whole years touring various acts until she came to notoriety with her self-penned play, “Sex”.

“Sex” opened at Daley's on 26 April 1926 and ran for 375 performances. Mae played Margie Lamont, a waterside prostitute who had lost her reputation and never missed it. This was the play that put Mae West behind bars and in the process catapulted her to notoriety and the play to much greater success than it perhaps deserved.  This and all of her subsequent pre-Hollywood plays pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable entertainment and all of them put her in conflict with the authorities. Mae revived “Sex" in 1928 and toured it for a while cashing in on the success of “Diamond Lil”.
She wrote but did not appear in “The Drag”, billed as a homosexual comedy in three acts. This play, which opened on 31 January 1927 in Bridgeport, was so controversial that it was raided and closed after only 2 preview performances.  The entire cast was carted off, some in full drag, in Paddy Wagons.
Mae opened in yet another of her plays, “The Wicked Age”, again at Daley's, on 4 November 1927. The play was an expose of the then popular but often rigged, bathing beauty contests.  However, this venture flopped and ran for only 19 performances
On 9 April 1928, Mae brought her creation, “Diamond Lil”, to life at the Royale Theatre, New York.  It was as Diamond Lil that Mae West created the “personality” that she would embrace, promote and protect for the rest of her professional life.  This first incarnation of “Lil” ran for 176 performances.  Mae took the play on the road thereafter and then brought it back into New York in 1930.  She revived the play many times thereafter.
Mae's next play, "The Pleasure Man", another she didn't appear in, opened at the Biltmore on 1 October 1928.  The climax of this play was so controversial - the off-stage castration of the leading man - that it was raided and closed after only 2 and half performances. Mae found herself in Court once again but this time was acquitted.
Mae's last play before her cinema debut was “The Constant Sinner” which opened at the Royale on 14 December 1931 and ran for 64 performances. The theme of this play was also highly controversial for the time, focusing as it did on an inter-racial relationship.

Between “The Pleasure Man” closing and “The Constant Sinner” opening Mae lost her Mother, Tillie, to cancer. Mae was extremely close to her Mother and she later described her Mother's death as the worst experience of her life. For a while and for the first and only time, Mae was distracted from her career.  But she could not sit idle and spent much of her grieving period writing her first novel, "Babe Gordon", which was published by Macaulay in 1930.

Still missing Tillie dreadfully, Mae was soon to experience fame well beyond that which her Mother had craved for her. Hollywood was beckoning…..