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Moms Mabley (Loretta Mary Aiken)

Moms Mabley

Loretta Mary Aiken was born in Brevard, North Carolina on March 19, 1894 to James Aiken and Mary Smith, who married on May 21, 1891, in Transylvania County, North Carolina  Moms Mabley was one of a family of 16 children. Her father owned and operated several businesses, while her mother kept house and took in boarders. Her father, a volunteer fireman, died when a fire engine exploded when Loretta was eleven. In 1910, her mother took over their primary business, a general store. She was run over by a truck while coming home from church on Christmas Day. By age 14, Mabley had been raped twice and had two children who were given up for adoption. At age 14, Mabley ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, joining a traveling vaudeville show, where she sang and entertained. She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony in a 1970s interview that he had taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as “Moms” because she was indeed a “Mom” to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. She came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty-seven, becoming one of the first openly gay comedians. During the 1920s and 1930s she appeared in androgynous clothing (as she did in the film version of The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson) and recorded several of her early “lesbian stand-up” routines. Mabley was one of the top women doing stand-up in her heyday, eventually recording more than 20 albums of comedy routines. She appeared in movies, on television, and in clubs.

Mabley was one of the most successful entertainers of the Chitlin’ circuit, earning US$10,000 a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater at the height of her career. She made her New York City debut at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. In the 1960s, she became known to a wider white audience, playing Carnegie Hall in 1962, and making a number of mainstream TV appearances, particularly her multiple appearances on the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when that CBS show was number one on television in the late 1960s, which introduced her to a whole new Boomer audience. Mabley was billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World”. She tackled topics too edgy for many other comics of the time, including racism. One of her regular themes was a romantic interest in handsome young men rather than old “washed-up geezers”, and she got away with it courtesy of her stage persona, where she appeared as a toothless, bedraggled woman in a house dress and floppy hat. She also added the occasional satirical song to her jokes, and her (completely serious and melancholy) cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” hit #35 on the Hot 100 on 19 July 1969. At 75 years old, Moms Mabley became the oldest living person ever to have a US Top 40 hit (Louis Armstrong, who would have been 86 when “What a Wonderful World” became a hit in 1988, is the oldest overall, although Armstrong was younger than Mabley when the song was recorded). Mabley had six children: Bonnie, Christine, Charles, and Yvonne Ailey, and two given up for adoption when she was a teenager. She died from heart failure in White Plains, New York on May 23, 1975. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

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Born

  • March, 19, 1894
  • USA
  • Brevard, North Carolina

Died

  • May, 23, 1975
  • USA
  • White Plains, New York

Cause of Death

  • heart failure

Cemetery

  • Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum
  • Hartsdale, New York
  • USA

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