Last week’s Picturing the Past featured Loretta Mary Aiken. A brief account of major life events of her childhood provided some insight into how she came to create the comedic character Jackie Mabley. This week’s Picturing the Past will recount Loretta’s rise to international stardom as Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a.k.a. “The Funniest Woman in the World”.
As previously mentioned in last week’s article, Loretta’s character Jackie Mabley disdained old men. Mabley’s dislike of old men was a central theme of her performances; her most popular jokes were about her lust for younger men and her rejection of older men, and today she is still best remembered for those jokes. “He was so old… he was older than his mother,” she would say, and “An old man can’t do nothing for me but bring me a message from a young man.”
On the surface, Mabley’s jokes and tall tales sounded absurd and elicited laughter. However, the deeper messages of her zany comedy were the real value of her work and were the key to her enormous success. By portraying herself as a sexual being, while remaining affable and disarming in her goofy, clownish granny role, Mabley questioned and criticized the gender expectations and limitations of her day, as well as major societal and political issues such as racism, civil and women’s rights.
Mabley’s maternal attitude towards her fans—whom she claimed as her ‘children’—and her kind and caring nature toward other performers, earned her the nickname of ‘Moms.’
In 1921, Moms Mabley disclosed her nontraditional sexuality, claiming that she identified as a lesbian and thus becoming one of the very first openly gay comedians. By today’s standards, it is debatable whether she was a lesbian or bisexual, since she also had relationships with men. “I tell them don’t let the old folks tell you about the good old days. I was there. Where were they at? The best time is now when you can go out with who you want, love who you want and as many as you want.”
Surprisingly, her disclosure did not have a negative impact on her career. In fact, by 1923, Moms was packing the house wherever she went. She performed to standing room only audiences in New York’s best theaters such as Connie’s Inn, the Cotton Club, Club Harlem and the Apollo Theater. Eventually, she succeeded in making more money than any other comic performer of the time. At those famous New York venues, she entertained alongside musical giants Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to name a few. By the 1950s Moms was considered New York’s top nightclub comedienne.
For thirty years Moms was the headliner at the Apollo Theater and a regular guest on a number of national television variety shows. She also performed on Broadway shows and on the big screen. In 1960, her first album became gold-certified, and from it, she earned the title “Funniest Woman in the World.” She went on to record many albums. In 1974, Moms had her first starring role in the feature film, Amazing Grace, which she was able to complete despite suffering a heart attack during filming.
Loretta Mary Aiken’s career had spanned more than 60 years when she died at 78 years of age on May 23, 1975 in White Plains, NY. Thousands of mourners gathered to pay their final respects and a memorial service was held for her at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, her church of twenty-five years. Pastor Dr. Samuel Proctor, mentor and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., eloquently articulated Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s legacy by saying, “she could take sorrow and disappointment and lift something out of it, to cause us to objectivize: to put it on a screen somewhere and sit back from it and have a hearty laugh to keep it from destroying us.”
Although she lived in New York most of her life, she always remained in close contact with her family and friends in Brevard. In 1997, Oaklawn Avenue in Brevard was briefly renamed Moms Mabley Avenue, in an effort to honor her in her hometown on her 100th birthday. However, some residents protested having to change their addresses and so the name was reverted to Oaklawn.
Loretta Mary Aiken is one of the founders of modern American stand-up comedy and achieved fame like no other Transylvanian in our history.
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] or 828-884-1820.