Lives behind the legends: Mae West – Spiritual Vixen
Mae West went down in history as a larger than life character. Ballsy, confident, fun, and sexy; she was a pioneer in the conventional 1930s. Nothing could stop this intelligent street fox. Still, she had a surprising side that not many people are aware of. You will be forgiven for thinking naughty Miss West was as down to earth as it gets, but the reality is that Mae was a very spiritual person. She meditated, believed herself to be clairvoyant, and loved to hold seances with friends.
The year is 1928. Mae West had just become the biggest star on Broadway with her self-written play Diamond ‘Lil. Badass, independent, and fun, ‘Lil would forever be a part of Mae West’s personality. But the real Mae was plagued by extreme abdominal pain. Doctors ran tests, but no reason was found. Mae’s manager and best friend James Timony took matters into his own hands and introduced it to yogi healer Sri Deva Ram Sukul, who was president of the Yoga Institute for America. When Mae and the yogi met, he sang a Hindu prayer, stood behind her, and pressed his hands on her stomach for a few minutes. When he suddenly let go of his grip, the pain was gone. Mae asked the yogi what caused the pain and he told her that it was other people’s envy. This was Mae’s first tangible experience of spirituality and it made a great impression on her.
Although Mae went to 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 such events strengthened her belief that it really was. Mae was particularly fascinated by the spirit world, and so she was ready to play when she was asked to attend a séance in the early 1930s, allegedly by none other than aviator Amelia Earhart. This may seem like a chance pairing, but these two independent career women had admired each other long before they met. In any case, Mae was vacationing at the posh resort of La Cinta and offering her bungalow for the small gathering. This was Mae’s first seance and she became a true believer. Her late father came with a message about the men she was with.
One was “okay”, the other wasn’t. But the real climax came when a message got through that no one understood until someone pointed out that it was in Yiddish. One of the guests was Jewish and had a longstanding relationship with a Catholic woman. The message came from the man’s mother and said, ‘Do what your heart tells you and forget about your father.’ Mae was deeply moved by the news. Especially since the couple got married, the father came over and they led a long and happy life together.
Mae had always considered himself to be an intuitive person and was drawn more and more to develop her own spiritual abilities. She started doing research on psychology and learning how to meditate. She was an avowed quick student and later stated that she learned to meditate in a week. She was very interested in meeting spiritual mentors and even took a yogi with her on trips. Mae has always been very direct with the ‘forces’, as she called them, for her life and work. Whenever she was writing a script, she asked her for help. Then she wrote or dictated in a stream of consciousness. “I think the armed forces have a lot to do with what we call inspiration,” she said. No matter where she got the inspiration from, it worked and Mae became a power player on stage and in Hollywood. Even so, in 1941 she felt that something was missing. Her career was at its peak, but her life felt incomplete. She decided to take six months off to really immerse herself in this spiritual world that she was so fascinated with. “The best thing is to know the forces within you,” she later emphasized. 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 found to have psychic powers. Mae was even more convinced of his abilities when he personally predicted that the Japanese would launch a surprise attack on America and that Pearl Harbor would be attacked shortly afterwards.
Kelly found that while everyone has the ability, Mae really had the “gift” when it came to interacting with the spirit world. She trained for weeks, emptied her mind through meditation and invited into the mood. Eventually they came to her in full form, but not as she’d hoped. “There were many, I think all men, and they weren’t interested in me, so it didn’t make sense. You really must have been dead. They just talked to each other. And I never liked crowds. ‘ What Mae really wanted was to get in touch with her mother. Kelly told her that she had to be patient and that her gift was undisciplined. After a while, Mae got tired of the uninvited guests and told them to leave. They did, and Mae never tried contacting the ghosts that way again. Still, she was pleased to know that there was more and that she had the opportunity to make contact. She was reassured that her mother was taking care of her somewhere, even though neither of them knew how to make contact. Although the experience was a little too intense, Mae kept her connection with the other side. She continued to seek help and information from the spirits, and she loved holding psychic seances for her friends.
Mae wasn’t just interested in the supernatural; other spiritual beliefs also had their attention. For example, she felt that astrology explained her personality. As a fiery Leo with her ascending zodiac sign on the beauty planet Venus, she said it was predetermined that she would be “strong as a lioness and totally feminine at the same time.” In her book Mae West on sex, health and ESP, she even passed on her experiences with men in the signs. Jokes about Aries: “The boys born under this sign don’t call them Aries for nothing.” She would consult her astrology chart from time to time to help her make a decision. Mae reportedly even had her card read on the set by Stuart Holmes, a veteran Stuart Holmes whose wife Blanka was a Hollywood astrologer. According to a 1935 Australian Women’s Weekly article, Holmes found that Mae would have been a good nurse, that she would have peaked in film in 1939, that Hollywood was the best place for her to live, and that she could have been married in three years his years. He may have misunderstood that last prediction, but Mae still generously called him a “remarkable researcher.” In addition to being dependent on external sources, Mae was a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. She never let a negative thought take root in her head. She felt that through positive thinking and feeling you had created a better understanding of yourself and would enable you to accomplish things that you never thought you could. Her advice has always been that confidence is most important, a belief that is reflected in the confident stage personality we know and love.
Mae was ahead of her time in many ways. Her stage personality paved the way for confident, sexy women who weren’t afraid to speak up. Mae was backstage like that too; she wrote all of her own material and kept a tight grip on her image so it shouldn’t really be surprising that even her spiritual side was ahead of her time. Meditation, astrology, the power of positive thinking and the belief in an energy that connects us are in the 21stst Century. In the 30s and 40s, Mae was an outsider in her beliefs, but she didn’t care. Her open-mindedness in all areas of life and her unwavering confidence were her greatest strengths. When society finally caught up with Mae, people became more open to sex and spirituality. Because of this, Mae saw a career rise in the 1970s, when people once again appreciated what a trailblazer she had been.
Mae, an accomplished businesswoman, saw an opportunity and published her novel Mae West on sex, health and ESP. She was introduced to and hugged by a whole new generation in her eighties. As an entertainer at heart, she loved every minute of it.
The sources for this article are She 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 week 26-01-1935.
– Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of the articles on Arancha’s Life Behind the Legends here.
Arancha has been fascinated by Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you on the movie quiz night too. Their website, Classic Hollywood Central, is all about classic Hollywood, from actor life stories and movie facts to classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter below @ClassicHC.