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, and performed at the Michigan Women's Festival shortly before her death in 1975.
Mabley was born in Brevard, North Carolina. Although she always claimed a birthdate of 1894 and that she was one of a family of twenty children, the 1900 Federal Census shows "Loretter Aiken" in Brevard was born in March 1897 and was the youngest of four (out of five) surviving children of James P. and Mary Aiken. Her father owned and operated several businesses, while her mother kept house and took in boarders. Her father died in an accident when Loretta was eleven. In 1910, her mother took over their primary business, a general store.
James Aiken's father, Henry Aiken, was part white. His mother, Bettie, was able to read and write in the 1870 census, five years after the abolition of slavery, which suggests she may have been a free woman of color. Loretta Mabley's genealogist, D. Richmond, wrote: "She has a very interesting lineage worth researching."
By the age of fifteen, Mabley had been raped twice and had two children who were given up for adoption. She was pressured by her stepfather to marry a much older man, but was encouraged by her grandmother to strike out on her own. Mabley ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, joining a traveling minstrel show, where she sang and entertained.
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 become 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 the number one show 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 cover version of "Abraham, Martin and John" hit #35 on the Hot 100 on 19 July 1969. At 75 years and 4 months old, Moms Mabley became the oldest person ever to have a US Top 40 hit.
She is the subject of a documentary called Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, produced and directed by Whoopi Goldberg, to air in Autumn 2013 on HBO.
She had four children (aside from the two who were given up for adoption when she was a teenager) and five grandchildren.
Mabley died in White Plains, New York in 1975 at the White Plains Hospital where she had been a patient for six weeks, from heart failure. She was survived by her children, Bonnie, Christine, Charles, and Yvonne Ailey. Funeral services were held at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.
The Humor of Jackie Moms Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition by Elsie A. Williams
Hardcover: 178 pages
Publisher: Routledge (August 1, 1995)
Amazon: The Humor of Jackie Moms Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition
Study that establishes Mabley's legacy as the first African American woman to emerge as a single act in stand-up comedy, with sections on the roots of African American humor and its comedic traditions, Mabley's life and career, and an analysis of her Moms persona.
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