World-renowned comedienne and actress Loretta Mary Aiken, known as ‘Retta’ to her family, was born in Brevard on March 19, 1897. Unfortunately, many of her biographical details are conflicting, fictional, or
simply unavailable, which makes her life story unclear at points. Nonetheless, the information that is available is quite remarkable.
|Loretta Mary Aiken, known as Jackie “Moms” Mabley|
Born to Mary Smith and Jim Aiken, Loretta came from a large family of mixed African American, Cherokee and Irish ancestry. Her father was a prominent Brevard businessman and volunteer fireman. He was tragically killed in an explosion when his vehicle overturned during a fire call in 1909. Loretta’s mother also died a horrible, violent death in 1946— she was run over by a mail truck on New Year’s Eve.
Loretta herself suffered traumatic physical abuse. She was raped at age 11 by an elderly black man, and then again at age 13 by a white law enforcement official. She became pregnant both times, and had two babies, the first in Brevard and the second -according to an interview with Loretta- in Baltimore. Both children were placed in the care of women who disappeared with them. Sadly, she was not reunited with these two children until they were adults. Later in life, Loretta had three daughters and adopted a son: Bonnie, Christine, Yvonne, and Charles.
On the advice and encouragement of her grandmother, Jane Aiken Hall*, who said: “you’re gonna see the world like your granny never did,” Loretta left Brevard for Asheville as a young teenager while pregnant with her second child. It was at this time that Loretta claims that God, in a vision, told her to “Go onto the stage,” whereupon she joined black vaudeville performers and began performing in the Chitlin’ Circuit. Not long after, in order to appease her eldest brother who felt that her involvement in show business as a female disgraced the family name, Loretta adopted the stage name ‘Jackie Mabley.’ Incidentally, Jack Mabley was a Canadian comic to whom she had been engaged. He was one of the few men close to Loretta at that point in her life.
In her twenties, inspired by her love and admiration for her grandmother, and largely as a form of self-protection, Loretta began developing the comic character of a bawdy, young-man-chasing, old-man- hating granny who wore funny hats, frumpy housedresses, droopy stockings and ill-fitting shoes. “I had in mind a woman about 60 or 65, even when I first came up,” she told Mark Jacobson in an interview for New York (October 14, 1974). “She’s a good woman, with an eye for shady dealings. She was like my granny, the most beautiful woman I ever knew.”
The risqué elderly lady persona that Loretta impersonated as Jackie Mabley, inspired by her grandmother and named after her ex-fiancé, allowed her to get away with saying things that male counterparts of her day would not have been able to. She used Jackie Mabley’s silly and unattractive image to mock males and discuss taboo topics such as ageism, sexuality, gender stereotypes and, more specifically, the marginalization and exploitation of black women.
Next week’s “Picturing the Past” will recount Loretta Mary Aiken’s rise to international stardom as Jackie “Moms” Mabley. *In her performances, Loretta often called her granny, Harriet Smith (the name of her maternal grandmother) but it is believed that the grandmother she actually imitated and was inspired by was Jane Aiken Hall, her paternal grandmother.
Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Anne-Monique Ransdell. For more information, comments, or suggestions contact NC Room staff at [email protected] 828-884-1820.