3 August 2017

Mae West and her fight for better prison life

In April 1927, Mae West was sentenced to ten days in prison for having corrupted 'the morals of youth' with the 1926 Broadway play Sexwhich she had written, produced, directed and starred in. West was released after eight days for good behaviour, but had seen enough to understand what life in prison was like. Admittedly, West's prison stay wasn't your standard prison stay --she got to dine with the warden and regarded the whole thing as a big publicity stunt-- but she saw what other inmates went through and was determined from then on to do whatever she could to improve prison life. Following her release from Welfare Island prison, West wrote an article for Liberty Magazine about her imprisonment, and her $1,000 earnings she donated to the prison so they could build a better library. Also, having spent a lot of time talking to female inmates, she wanted to help them find jobs once they were released from jail.

Clinton Duffy was the warden at San Quentin State Prison between 1940 and 1952. An opponent of the death penalty, Duffy was a prison reformer and someone whom Mae West greatly admired. West wrote to several people praising Duffy's good work and asking them to support him. To the governor of California Culbert Olson, she reportedly wrote: "I hope your excellency will feel as I do and let Warden Duffy continue making bad men good, while I continue making good men bad I mean in the movies"

West also wrote to fellow actor Gary Cooper (her letter to him is shown below), asking him to make a financial contribution to one of Warden Duffy's projects. West felt that they owed something to the "bad boys" for being the inspiration for so much of Hollywood's screen material. Whether Cooper eventually made a donation I don't know, but West herself most likely did and also contributed to one of Warden Duffy's other projects (see the above newspaper clipping, taken from the San Bernardino Daily Sun of 7 Sept. 1941).

Source: scripophily.com


August 26

Mr. Gary Cooper

Dear Friend:

Up at San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy is doing really wonderful work in prison administration. The men there tell with enthusiasm of the many fine things he is doing with them and for them- the humane changes he has brought about in prison life that have removed the depressing influences of prison and helped them to a new self-respect and the opportunity for education and the learning of useful trades.

At this time, Warden Duffy is preparing to award prizes to the men in prison who prove most worthy of them. The only means the Warden has of obtaining these prizes are by contributions from those outside, and he has called on us for help.

It has been suggested that I let you know about this personally, which I am glad to do informally as we all receive so many formal appeals these days.

At the invitation of Governor Olson I attended the National Congress of the American Prison Association as an appointed delegate from the State of California. I accepted because I felt I owed something to the bad boys- the ones that ge [sic] themselves in prison- since my stage and screen successes have been about the underworld. That has meant money to me as it has to all actors and actresses who have portrayed underworld characters on the stage and screen.

I'm sure you will be glad to find room among your other donations for a contribution for the encouragement of the boys in the "Big House", who have inspired such a lot of our screen material.

The types and kinds of articles that will be given as prizes by Warden Duffy are highly restricted- you know there are certain things they might not want the boys up there to have. So it will be more practical to make a cash donation which the Warden will convert into things that will be good for them. 

You may send your check either to me at the Ravenswood Apartments, Hollywood, or directly to Warden Clinton Duffy, San Quentin Prison,Calif. The deadline for donations is not later than the 3rd of September. Everybody will be very happy if they hear from you by then. So do it now for the boys of dear old San Quentin, as a lot of them are your "fans". And I know they'll say, "Thanks, Pal."   

Mae West


Gary Cooper and Mae West celebrating the end of Prohibition

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