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One of the biggest stars of her era was married in Milwaukee – a marriage she worked hard to keep a secret.

In 1935, Mae West was one of world’s greatest sex symbols, a blonde bombshell who made her name during the so-called “pre-code” era of Hollywood. She was reportedly the second-highest paid person in the United States, behind only the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. And it was at the peak of her stardom that she became entangled in an odd controversy centered in Milwaukee.

It was a sharp-eyed clerk working a dreary New Deal government job in the office of Milwaukee County Register of Deeds who broke the story. While filing away old marriage certificates, the clerk found one dated April 11, 1911. The groom was a man named Frank Wallace, age 21. The bride was a Miss Mae West, age 17. A little detective work found that bride’s parents, listed as John West and Matilda Dilker-West of Brooklyn, had the same names as the parents of the actress West. The New York papers picked up the sensational item and West was deluged with inquiries about the find. The famously-single West insisted it was a mere coincidence. “Why, I never heard of the guy,” She said of Wallace. “There were two other Mae Wests on the stage before I came along. The Mae West in the Milwaukee certificate must have been one of the other two girls. I received many gifts for Easter… but this is the first time I’ve ever got a husband.”

Mae West

Photo via Insomnia Cured Here on Flickr

She offered no explanation for how the “other” Mae West had the same parents as she did. Also at issue was the age of the Mae West who married in Milwaukee. The famous West kept her age a closely guarded secret. If she had been married in Milwaukee, it would have made her almost 42 years old – another charge that West denied. “I was just a school girl in 1911,” she insisted.

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Meanwhile, the papers worked to track down Frank Wallace. There were rumors that a Frank Wallace who had been on the Broadway scene years ago often boasted of having married West. Other reports told of a Frank Wallace who had worked on the stage who had died in the early 1930s. Yet another Wallace put out a statement through a publicity agent that said he could “neither deny or affirm the report that he is the husband of Mae West.”

Finally, the New York Daily News found the Frank Wallace in question. He said that he and West had been in a production of “A Florida Enchantment” at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee in 1911 and had indeed been married in the city. But since 1916, he and West had kept the union a secret, having been convinced by a booking agent that West would project a better image as a single woman. He had been working as a sign painter when the story broke, but was now – with the secret out – fielding offers for the stage, billing himself as “Mr. Mae West.”

Mae continued to deny everything. When it came out that she had helped Wallace get work in a play in 1928, she looked at his photograph from the show and said she couldn’t even remember the man’s name. “What kind of nut is pulling this one on me, anyway?” She said. “I’m not good at riddles [but] I ought to know if I was ever married or not.”

Eventually, after a lawsuit from Wallace that asked for half of her $8 million fortune in alimony, West admitted that she had indeed been married in Milwaukee. Wallace said that they lived together for a few weeks before separating, but that their marriage was consummated in the Cream City. West denied that they had ever lived – or slept – together. In 1943, the couple was finally officially divorced, with West agreeing to pay Wallace $1,000 in “separation maintenance.”

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In 1954, West began a relationship with a bodybuilder from one of her Las Vegas stage shows – a man 30 years her junior. They remained together until West died in 1980, although they never married.

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