Carolyn A. McDonough
with Virginia Heath

In December 2019, the Center for the Humanities put out a call for research assistants (RAs) for a documentary entitled Mae West—The Constant Sinner, directed by Virginia Heath and produced by Grant Keir, the creative duo behind notable projects such as the BAFTA-nominated documentary From Scotland with Love. Early in the spring 2020 semester, with Elyse Singer (Theatre and Performance) as the project’s research lead and whose credits include directing the only revivals of Mae West plays, a team of eight graduate students were awarded this unique position. With the year, 2020, being the hundredth-anniversary of the roaring ’20s, and Mae West's appearances on Broadway, it seemed to be the ideal time to launch the sizzle trailer for the film. However, as CUNY shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and physical archives closed to the public, the RAs’ research toward this scholarly and creative documentary was shunted nearly entirely online.

The film’s RA team was dramatically affected by this turn of events, as was the film’s director and the schedule of the film itself (which will be described below). The pandemic necessitated that the group pivot our in-person Friday meetings in the GC’s Digital Humanities lounge to virtual meetings, not only to ensure social distance but also because we became dispersed geographically. This virtual turn included the important “Pitch Salon” held via Zoom on April 24, 2020, during which the RAs were to pitch significant research for consideration by Heath and Keir. Because Keir’s production company Faction North is based in Scotland, we were already habituated to meeting with Heath and Keir via Zoom when the RAs held physical gatherings, but we all soon found ourselves on the Zoom grid as the semester waned.

The RA team was as varied in terms of our interest in Mae West as we would later become in our post-COVID geographic spread. West, née Mary Jane West (1893–1980), began performing at the age of five. Remarkably, her life and work played out against a backdrop of the shimmy dance craze (which her own on-stage dancing helped spawn), the jazz movement, and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19, during which she was headlining on Broadway in Sometime (1918). Jump ahead to the 1930s, when West’s success at the box office, her “storming Hollywood,” as described by Elyse Singer, was credited with saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, and she continued actively performing until the late 1970s. It would take a diverse, interdisciplinary RA team, therefore, to study and reveal this American original. Our disciplines range from theatre, fashion, African American history, music, film studies, queer studies, and history, with West scholar Singer, who directed and produced the first off-Broadway revivals of West’s plays SEX (1926) and Pleasure Man (1928), at the helm.

While our individual expertise did not change during the pandemic, the locations of our group members certainly did. Some chose to leave New York to stay elsewhere with family. In one extreme case, Brad Fox (English), who normally resides in a landmarked building in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Manhattan associated with the Harlem Renaissance, became detained in Peru, where he continues to stay as of this writing. In a video sent for this narrative, Fox describes how his trip to Peru to research medicinal plants, which was intended to last one week, led him to a lodge in Tarapoto. A determined researcher, Fox has still managed to conduct his West research from a shared laptop in an outdoor work space, and he also had a novel published on April 1!

Brad Fox, video from Tarapoto, Peru, September 11, 2020 Credit: Eszter Domjan. Edited by: Ashley Marinaccio.

Elise Rodriguez (Library Science and History, Queens College, CUNY) observed that she had to adapt to researching in a pandemic. Her description speaks to the entire team’s adaptation: “The COVID-19 pandemic struck and I was suddenly cut off from my research material, not only in my own city but across the world. In times like this, published monographs can bridge the research gap until primary sources are available again. The most important concept to remember is that even if you can’t physically be in your research institutions, or handling your desired materials, there are still endless possibilities to pursue.”

My experience is similar to Elise’s, as I continue to search for archival evidence of West’s appearance at the Tarrytown Music Hall, a renowned vaudeville venue just north of New York City. My process has been slowed by the closure of both the Music Hall and the Tarrytown Historical Society. Recently, I was able to access multiple issues of the Tarrytown Daily News online and locate repeated references to West, both textual and visual, which has brought me closer to finding an announcement of her billing and performance at the Music Hall. In April 2020, I filed this video dispatch, documenting the Music Hall’s historic closure amid the pandemic.

Carolyn McDonough, video from the Tarrytown Music Hall, May 2, 2020. Credit: Brian McDonough.

I also explored West’s music vocally, and I was inspired to record the blues song Mr. Deep Blue Sea after watching Klondike Annie (1936).

Carolyn Vox · MisterDeepBlueSea

Gene Austin / James P. Johnson, Mr. Deep Blue Sea (1936). Performed and recorded by Carolyn A. McDonough, PAXTracks Professional Backing Tracks, August 20, 2020.

Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh (Liberal Studies) has brought sound to life for the project. In a video she plays and comments from the piano on the song And Then (1913), written by Herman Paley and Alfred Brian, which West is known to have performed in vaudeville. Kayser-Hirsh described her research process thus: “Since March, I’ve been with my family, working remotely throughout the pandemic. The research I have been doing for the documentary centers around music and Mae West, particularly her influences from the blues and her early performances in vaudeville. Though I have not been able to visit any music or performance archives during this time, I am extremely grateful to have been able to research in digital sound archives and music collections. I have come across titles and sheet music for a few songs that Mae West very likely performed while in the vaudeville circuit, such as And Then. However, we have been unable to locate audio (or video) recordings of tunes and will never know exactly how she sounded when she sang this song.” Kayser-Hirsh’s research links to Heath’s intention to re-imagine these “lost” performances.

Herman Paley and Alfred Brian, And Then, 1913. Performed and recorded by Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh, September 14, 2020.

Ashley Marinaccio (Theatre and Performance) has been thwarted by the ongoing CUNY closure from filming interviews with the RAs about our research processes, as she had previously planned, and has opted instead to document the Graduate Center, devoid of students, as illustrative of the team’s situation. Kristen Miller (Sociology), has been exploring West’s complex relationship with African American culture, music, and performance in 1920s Chicago and New York.

From a very wide lens, then, we continue to collectively discover the reach and impact of Mae West on American culture, gay/trans life, and theatrical performance.

Ashley Marinaccio, Flatten the Curve Week One of Quarantine in NYC, March 2020. Music by Westy Reflector.

From the Director’s Perspective

In February this year, I had the real privilege of assembling a team of extremely talented and enthusiastic CUNY post-grad researchers from a wide range of disciplines to work with me on my hybrid documentary film, Mae West—The Constant Sinner. From the very start, one of the key strands I wanted to explore was the poetic circularity in the way Mae West was inspired by the drag, burlesque, and jazz culture of 1920s New York, and how, a century later, her persona is providing inspiration for a whole new generation of artists. The unforeseen pandemic provided a real creative challenge, as I am based in Scotland and the lockdown meant I was unable to come back to New York in May, as planned, to film some of the artists and locations the team had identified. The plus side of the lockdown was an unexpected time for reflection and re-evaluation as the CUNY research team continued to send through rich threads of material and ideas, discovered through ingenious work arounds, despite limited access to primary sources. A creative window opened up for me as the director, when an amusing article appeared in Scotland’s Herald newspaper about Mae West’s 1947 performance of her play Diamond Lil in Glasgow, complete with photo of a child staring awestruck at the bejeweled star.

Mae West appears, with her platinum blonde hair and a large shiny hat, smiling at a young girl with a bob haircut and holding her hand.
Mae West in Glasgow, 1947. Photo courtesy of The Herald and Times Group reprinted with permission.

This photo got me thinking about Mae’s fascination with seances and spiritualism and, given the idea that past events still linger in space-time, I felt her curious and ghostly presence in the city.

I decided it might be an exciting challenge to find a way to translate the in-depth research that the CUNY team had done around Mae West’s relationship to queer culture in 1920s New York (as expressed in her plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man) to Glasgow. This would give me the opportunity to experiment with the visual style and conceptual form of the hybrid documentary that I’m in the process of creating. I discovered a young drag artist in Glasgow, CJ Banks, who is inspired by Mae West, and we worked together to film the “transformation” and performance of her interpretation of the Mae West persona. This process has enabled me to develop the cinematic visual style that will inform my approach to filming when I come back to New York. So, alongside the thematic circularity between New York in the 1920s and our current decade, there is an ongoing creative circularity in the research and film directing process between Scotland and New York. With huge appreciation for the brilliant and dedicated CUNY research team, I look forward to returning to New York for the next stage of the Mae West project.

CJ Banks appears looking at herself in three mirrors––one surrounded by lights––powdering white makeup onto her face and wearing a wig cap.
CJ Banks, The Drag, September 2020. Photographed by David Lee ©Faction North Ltd.
CJ Banks appears in full Mae West drag, her lips pursed, wearing Mae West's iconic platinum hair, low-cut black dress, black elbow-length gloves, sparkly jewelry, and a black hat.
CJ Banks, The Drag, September 2020. Photographed by David Lee ©Faction North Ltd.

Mae West—The Constant Sinner

The RA team had originally been brought on to help produce the film’s sizzle trailer so that the director, producers, and industry partners could present it at key festivals and markets over the summer. However, because the pandemic prevented filming, Heath created a “Lockdown Sample Trailer” from materials sourced entirely online (which, given copyright restrictions, cannot be shared here). With the CJ Banks sequence serving as a visual, stylistic, and methodological basis, Heath is now in discussions with a director of photography and members of the RA team about the ways and means to do remote filming if she is not able to travel to New York in the near future. So, although the timeframe has shifted—as with all film production under the COVID-19 pandemic—the team is actively finding work arounds to creatively progress the project.

As an artist in the 1920s and beyond, West’s wickedly challenging oeuvre endures as a source of creative inspiration for artists in the 2020s, while she still towers, an American icon, ahead of her time and timeless. Heath’s vision for the film is a vibrant and cinematic hybrid documentary, drawing on a rich vein of contemporary performance—from drag culture, new burlesque, comedy, theatre, jazz and blues to digital media.

The more that we research her, the more unique West reveals herself to be. The striking resemblance of the times in which we currently find ourselves to those of Mae West is profound. Her generosity as an artist toward her fellow players, notably African American actors and LGBTQ performers, her fans, and her audiences through the decades, helped lift the careers of many and the “spirits” of all she entertained, in all senses.

In collaboration with:

Virginia Heath, Director
Grant Keir, Producer (Faction North Ltd)
Nick Varley, Producer (TENTHOUSAND&86)
Elyse Singer, Project Research Lead, PhD candidate, Theatre and Performance
Keith Wilson, Center for the Humanities
Cara Jordan, Center for the Humanities

Research Assistant Team (in alphabetical order)

Brad Fox, PhD program, English
Sierra Holt, MA program, Biography & Memoir
Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh. MA program, Liberal Studies
Carolyn A. McDonough, MA program, Digital Humanities
Kristen Lynn Miller, PhD program, Sociology
Ashley Marinaccio, PhD program in Theatre and Performance
Elise Rodriguez, MLIS/MA program, Library Science and History, Queens College
Jacquelyn Marie Shannon, PhD program in Theatre and Performance


This project—funded by the James Family Charitable Foundation–is also supported in development by Screen Scotland, Autlook Filmsales, Getty Images and Sheffield Hallam University Art & Design Research Centre.


Carolyn, a caucasian woman, is shown in 3/4 leaning into the camera wearing a  magenta blouse, with a diffuse urban background behind her.

Carolyn A. McDonough

Carolyn A. McDonough is a graduate student in the MA in Digital Humanities program (pedagogy track) at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a recipient of the Interactive Technology & Pedagogy Certificate. Carolyn holds a first MA in Media Studies from ...

Virginia Heath

Virginia Heath is Professor of Film at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK and a multi-award winning writer/director. She writes and directs documentary, hybrid and drama films, such as her short film, Relativity, which won the Prix UIP at the Berl...