Easy, fellas, easy. Yeah, that’s Mae West on stage. No, there ain’t another one like her. But if you go anywhere near her, we’ve got a couple fellas bigger than you that are gonna change your mind about that right quick.
Isn’t that the kind of thing you could imagine being said in nightclubs all over, maybe even in Woodhaven’s legendary Neir’s Tavern, which West frequented both as patron and performer?
At least it would be if West wasn’t famous for saying — among many, many other things — “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t imagine what from.”
(Other men, no doubt.)
It was hardly the stage and screen star’s best-known line, but it reflected her attitude toward life nearly as well as some of the others, such as “When I’m good, I’m good. And when I’m bad, I’m better,” or “It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men.”
All this from a woman whose career peaked before World War II. Yes, long before there was Marilyn or Raquel, Farrah or Angelina, there was Mae West, leading women’s fashion trends and pretty much setting men ablaze.
A singer, actress, playwright and author, West pushed the bounds of public decency from the start, even serving eight days in jail in 1927 on what is now Roosevelt Island for violating moral standards with a play she wrote, produced and directed, entitled simply “Sex.”
“I believe in censorship,” the witty West once said. “It made my career.”
Born in Bushwick, West later moved with her family to Woodhaven. A plaque honoring her sits in front of their home at 98-05 88 St. Neir’s was the first bar she ever performed in.
And though she died in 1980, she returned to the old watering hole to help celebrate its reopening in 2010. At least an impersonator did.
“She always came back to Neir’s, not only because she got her start there but because she loved the place,” owner Loy Gordon said. “She also brought back other stars like W.C. Fields.
“I guess when you think of Neir’s, I would like everybody to think of Mae West as well, because of all the people who came through Neir’s, she was the first. She was proud of it because she was from the neighborhood and she was a Neir’s regular.”
The impersonator came and went, but a vintage portrait of West remains on the wall where she wowed the crowds in Woodhaven.
West moved to Hollywood in 1930, the year her mother — who thought she could do no wrong though other relatives differed — died. She made her first movie, “Night After Night,” in 1932, when she was 39. She only made a dozen films, most of them before World War II, doing much more stage work than film work.
Her personal life was as complicated as her witticisms made it sound, with at least one secret marriage, maybe two, and divorce. She finally settled down at 61 with a man half her age, who stayed with her until she died at 87.