In 1942, midway through World War II, Hollywood actress Mae West discovered that RAF aircrew had taken to calling their life jackets “Mae Wests” — in part due to rhyming slang, and also as a result of their “bulging” shape when inflated. West, delighted to be playing even a minuscule part in proceedings, immediately wrote the following letter to the RAF.
(Source: Air Force Association, 1943; Image: Mae West posing with a signed “Mae West,” via.)
Dear Boys of the RAF:
I have just seen that RAF flyers have a life-saving jacket they call a “Mae West” because it bulges in all the “right places.” Well, I consider it a swell honor to have such great guys wrapped up in me, know what I mean?
Yes, it’s kind of a nice thought to be flying all over with brave men, even if I’m only there by proxy in the form of a life-saving jacket, or a life-saving jacket in my form. I always thought that the best way to hold a man was in your arms — but I guess when you’re in the air a plane is safer. You’ve got to keep everything under control.
Yeah, the jacket idea is all right and I can’t imagine anything better than to bring you boys of the RAF soft and happy landings. But what I’d like to know about that life-saving jacket is — has it got shapely shoulders? If I do get into the dictionary — where they say you want to put me — how will they describe me? As a warm and clinging life-saving garment worn by aviators? Or an aviator’s jacket that supplies the woman’s touch while the boys are flying around nights? How would you describe me boys? I’ve been in Who’s Who and I know what’s what, but it’ll be the first time I ever made the dictionary.