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Loretta Mary Aiken (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975), known by her stage name Jackie "Moms" Mabley, was an American stand-up comedian and actress. Beginning her career on the theater stage in the 1920s, Mabley became a veteran entertainer of the Chitlin' Circuit of African-American vaudeville. Mabley later recorded comedy albums and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, various television programs and films. From 1940–1951 Spivy ran her own nightclub, Spivy's Roof, on New York's East 57th Street. The club was noted for its tolerance of gay performers and patrons; Spivy herself was a lesbian in private life. Among the artists who performed there were Frances Faye, Mabel Mercer, Moms Mabley, Thelma Carpenter, Paul Lynde, Martha Raye, Bea Arthur, Liberace, and actor-magician Fred Keating.
Loretta Mary Aiken was born in Brevard, North Carolina, on March 19, 1894. She was one of 16 childrenborn to James Aiken and Mary Smith, who married 1891. Her father owned and operated several successful businesses, while her mother kept house and took in boarders. At the age of 14, at the encouragement of her grandmother, Mabley ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, joining a traveling vaudeville-style minstrel show starring Butterbeans and Susie, where she sang and entertained. In 1909, when Mabley was 15, her father was killed when a fire engine exploded while he was volunteering as a fire fighter. Her mother took over the family's primary business, a general store. Mabley's mother was killed a few years later, run over by a truck while returning home from church on Christmas Day.
Loretta Aiken took her stage name, Jackie Mabley from an early boyfriend Jack Mabley who was also a performer. She remarked in a 1970 Ebony interview that he had taken so much from her, the least she could do was take his name from him. Later she became known as "Moms" because she was indeed a "Mom" to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. Mabley also credited her name to her grandmother. She envisioned herself as a woman in her sixties, kind but strict when necessary, similar to her grandmother who was a driving force in the pursuit of her dreams. 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 most successful entertainers of the Chitlin' Circuit, another name for T.O.B.A., or Theater Owners Booking Association. T.O.B.A., sometimes called the "Tough On Black Asses Circuit", was the segregated organization for which Mabley performed until the organization dissolved during the Great Depression. Despite Mabley's popularity, wages for black women in show business were meager. Nonetheless, she persisted for more than sixty years. At the height of her career, she was earning US$10,000 a week at Harlem's Apollo Theater. She made her New York City debut at Connie's Inn in Harlem. In the 1960s, Mobley 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 Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when that CBS show was number one on television in the late 1960s, which introduced her to a whole new audience.
Mabley was billed as "The Funniest Woman in the World". She tackled topics too edgy for most mainstream comics of the time, including racism. Along with racism, she spoke of sexuality and having children after becoming a widow. 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 even mimicked regular talks with President Eisenhower and the First Lady, offering advice where she could.
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 Billboard Hot 100 on July 19, 1969. At 75 years old, Mabley became the oldest living person ever to have a US Top 40 hit. Mabley continued performing in the 1970s. In 1971, she appeared on The Pearl Bailey Show. Later that year, she opened for Ike & Tina Turner at the Greek Theatre and sang a tribute Louis Armstrong as part of her set.
Mabley never married and had six children. By age 14, Mabley had given birth to two children that had resulted from being raped—at age 11, by an elderly black man, and at age 13, by a white sheriff. Both children were given up for adoption. She went on to have four more children named Bonnie, Christine, Charles, and Yvonne Ailey. Mabley identified as a lesbian. Coming out at age 27 in 1921, Mabley became one of the first openly gay comedians. While filming Amazing Grace, Mabley suffered a heart attack and had a pacemaker implanted. She returned to work three weeks after the attack. Mabley died from heart failure in White Plains, New York, on May 23, 1975. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Mabley was the inspiration for the character of Grandma Klump in The Nutty Professor. She is the subject of Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a documentary film which first aired on HBO on November 18, 2013.
TThis documentary was nominated for two Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the 66th ceremony held on August 16, 2014, at the Nokia Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles: Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Narrator for Whoopi Goldberg. In 2015, she was named by Equality Forum as one of their 31 Icons of the 2015 LGBT History Month. Mabley was featured during the "HerStory" video tribute to notable women on U2's tour in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree during a performance of "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" from the band's 1991 album Achtung Baby. On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Moms Mabley among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire. Moms was portrayed by comedian Wanda Sykes on the television show "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" in the final episode of the third season.
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