The combination of Mae West and Las Vegas seems like a natural match. Both made their names on crowd-pleasing raunch. She famously declared “Too much a good thing can be wonderful,” and that phrase could easily serve the civic motto of the glitzy playground in the desert.
In 1954 she opened up a nightclub act at the Sahara hotel, and LIFE photographer Loomis Dean was on hand to capture the spectacle. His pictures show West, who was born in 1893, as a woman ahead of her time. She took the stage surrounded by proto-Chippendales in loincloths, each man more ostentatiously muscled than the next. The sexagenarian woman was presented as the lord of her domain.
But the reason that West ended up in Las Vegas something less than a fantasy. She was there because Hollywood couldn’t handle her.
West had initially made her name in movies with a string of hits that brightened up the Great Depression, but that was before Hollywood censors got to work and essentially put an end to her film career.
In a director’s statement that accompanied Dirty Blonde, an episode of PBS’s American Masters devoted to West, Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi recounted how West’s sexualized screen persona suffered a death from a thousand cuts:
The censors began editing her screenplays with heavy strokes, obliterating her saucy dialogue and rendering jokes senseless. For a while, West was able to work around it with double entendres and suggestive intonations, but the censors began rejecting finished films and ordering costly reshoots with their own story changes. The films grew dull; audiences grew bored. Ticket sales fell. Moviegoers opted for a bubbly Shirley Temple over a neutered Mae West. The Hollywood Reporter labeled West “box office poison,” and her film career was over.
Las Vegas offered her a chance to become her old, untamed self. And the showroom of the Sahara proved to be the perfect place to reconnect with her former audience, many of whom were now in retirement age and happy to see a performer they had enjoyed decades before.
The Vegas run proved to be a last hurrah, at least in public. When she was done with Vegas, she went for the classic Mae West ending, moving to Beverly Hills with one of the musclemen from her show, who happened to be thirty years younger than she was.
According to Rosenthal and Marchesi, she remained a relatively private person from then on:
Other than occasional television appearances – including an exceptionally popular episode of Mister Ed – West mostly kept to herself. She rarely went out during the day, to avoid the aging effects of the sun. She insisted to interviewers that she could still pass for 26, and rejected the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, as well as roles in Pal Joey and various Fellini movies – roles that she felt would ridicule her persona and undermine her identity as a comedic sex symbol. She would eventually make two more films, under the condition that she have creative control and could rewrite her lines as she saw fit. Both films flopped; audiences were uncomfortable with the spectacle of an older woman with a voracious sexual appetite. By the 1970s, sex was no longer a taboo subject – but in presenting a post-menopausal woman with a powerful libido, West had found one last line audiences were still not ready to cross.
If she had to leave the public with a last impression, she could do worse than the one captured in Loomis’s images—that of a woman totally in command, and completely herself.