Mae West, who was for generations a saucily sultry and agelessly voluptuous symbol of sexual delight, died yesterday at her home in Hollywood after a stroke. She was 88.
A blond-haired, large-bosomed stage and screen performer, Miss West won an enduring place in popular culture with her seductive, throaty-voiced delivery of a variety of sexually suggestive and sometimes sexually satirical quips that emphasized her charms, while teasing and pleasing her audiences, on screen and off.
"Goodness, what diamonds!" exclaimed an on-screen hat check girl. who saw Miss West enter a speakeasy with her slinky frame aglitter with jewels.
"Goodness," retorted Miss West, who wrote many or most of her own lines, "had nothing to do with it."
That was just the sort of thing enthusiastic and appreciative audiences came to expect from Miss West, who to her millions of admirers and to herself as well, was in real life the woman she played on stage, the Gay '90s Bowery Queen of "Diamond Lil," a smash Broadway hit.
She became a household word, the embodiment of naughtiness, the queen of barely disguised double-entendre, the woman after whom World War II servicemen happily named an inflatable life vest.
Perhaps above all, she was defined for the decades and the multitudes by the single huskily purred line, redolent of sexual pleasure and promise:
"Come up and see me some time . . ."
Perhaps paradoxically for a public symbol of sex and pleasure, Miss West led a private life characterized in many ways by rigid austerity and stern discipline. Shunning alcohol and tobacco, the five-foot-two star adhered to an organic diet, which included such delicacies as fresh fruits dusted with almond powder and honey.
For years there was no indication that she had ever been married. In the 1930s, however, reports surfaced of a 1911 wedding, in which Miss West, then a teen-ager, was married to a song-and-dance man named Frank Wallace. They were finally divorced in 1942.
But Miss West was said not to have lived with him and they had no children. Miss West, apparently, was not the domestic type, a conclusion supported by her typically suggestive reply to an interviewer who asked if she could cook.
"Nobody ever asked me to," said Miss West.
When asked after the divorce whether she would remarry, Miss West answered in the style and spirit expected of her. No, she said, it would interfere with her hobby. And what hobby was that?
"Men," said Miss West, as succinct as she was often suggestive.
Well known for writing most if not all of the stage and screen vehicles as well as lines that brought her enduring renown, Miss West answered the same question with a parody of a famed remark by Will Rogers.
Enjoying the image of a woman with an unending sex life, she said she could not tie herself again in marriage to any single individual because "I've never met a man I didn't like."
The mistress of sexual innuendo and repartee was born Aug 17, 1892 in Brooklyn. Her father was a boxer. Her mother was a sometime model.
Miss West was on the stage at the age of five, apparently aided and encouraged by singing and dancing lessons provided by her family.
As her roles in stock melodramas became more frequent, her formal schooling became more irregular and before long classes were behind her and the vaudeville stage was her life.
The next step was Broadway, where she made her debut in 1911, and went on to a string of successes that helped her learn her craft, won her a growing audience and enhanced her earning power as a vaudeville performer.
Finally, in 1926, came a milestone. She wrote for herself not a single song or a simple sketch, as she had been doing, but an entire play. It opened on Broadway April 26, 1926. It had a simple title but one that was to epitomize her life and career. It was called "Sex."
"Sex" ran for 375 performances before New York police, pressured by a Society for the Suppression of Vice, closed the play and arrested Miss West, the author and star, on a charge of corrupting the morals of youth.
She was convicted, served an eight-day jail term, and drew no small amount of attention.
A few weeks later she opened in a new show, this time in New Jersey, and in 1928 came the celebrated "Diamond Lil" of whose title character Miss West once said, with what seemed a fair degree of accuracy, "I'm her and she's me."
"Diamond Lil," in which a dazzling Miss West regally descended a dance hall staircase and in which she lay abed perusing the "Police Gazette," was the show in which audiences first heard the immortal "Come up and see me sometime . . ." that was ever after identified with Miss West.
There were other lines in the show to characterize Miss West as a brassy, jaunty woman of fun and pleasure.
"Your hands, your lips, your hair, your magnificent shoulders . . ." an admirer rhapsodized.
To which Miss West, a woman pioneer of the sexual wisecrack, responded "What're you doin' honey -- makin' love or takin' inventory?"
With her legend growing, it was off to Hollywood for Miss West, who started on screen with a bit part in "Night After Night" with George Raft and went on to appear in "She Done Him Wrong," "I'm No Angel" and "Klondike Annie."
"My Little Chickadee," in which she appeared with W. C. Fields, has become something of a classic.
The careful creator of her own legend became in 1934 and 1935 the highest paid woman in the United States, a fact that no doubt helped enhance the easygoing egotism for which she was known.
"I don't like myself," she once told an interviewer, "I'm crazy about myself."
After 24 years out of the movies, Miss West, still flaunting her public image of egregious and self-parodying bad taste, left her mirror-lined bedroom to appear in 1970 in "Myra Breckenridge." "Sextette," in 1977 was her last movie, her 12th.
Although long absent from the screen, the famed actress toured for years in such shows as "Catherine the Great," in which she was the only woman, and in revivals of "Diamond Lil," determinedly maintaining an agelessly youthful appearance.
She played nightclubs, bedecked in feathers and satin, singing whispery voiced renditions of such numbers as "I Want to Do All Day What I Do All Night."
"A real star never stops," she said. Miss West was released from Good Samaritan Hospital earlier this month after three months of care for a stroke and a concussion. She had been admitted in August, and suffered the stroke while in the hospital.