Sunday, July 7, 2013
The most iconic woman you don't know
She's a legend.
And chances are, you probably don't even know her name.
A stage name, of course. But one that became a household name and world-wide sensation in the 1950s and 60s.
She was once deemed the "funniest woman in the world."
But her childhood was far from humorous.
The great-granddaughter of a slave, Jackie "Moms" Mabley was born in North Carolina in 1897. When she was 11, her father, a businessman and volunteer firefighter, died when his fire truck exploded. Soon after, her mom was killed by a mail truck on Christmas morning.
By the time she was 15, the orphan had been raped twice, once by an older black man and another time by a white sheriff. Both rapes resulted in pregnancy. Both babies were given up for adoption.
Her step-father encouraged her to get married, but her grandmother convinced her to strike out on her own. After all, she had singing and dancing talent which couldn't be ignored. Following her grandma's advice, Jackie ran off to Cleveland to join a traveling show.
It was the best decision she ever made. Realizing her sense of humor was far more spectacular than her dancing gams, Jackie turned to comedy. It wasn't long before Jackie was discovered by a famous vaudeville duo and they asked her to join them.
Soon, Jackie was performing at legendary venues, such as the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and later, the Apollo Theater. During the 1920s Harlem Renaissance Jackie had become part of an elite circle of performers and jazz musicians who would shape the world.
And although she was having relationships with both men and women, Jackie kept her sexuality to herself. After all, she believed sexuality was something to be expressed, not defined.
Her risqué stand-up comedy routines shocked and delighted audiences who had never encountered someone like her before. She dressed like a man. She talked openly about subjects like racism.
In 1960, she made history by performing for a white audience at Carnegie Hall. It was so successful, her career took off even further, earning her guest appearances on all the hottest television shows of the era.
Her persona, as a frumpy grumpy ol' woman, became one of the most recognized characters in showbiz.
Well into her 60s, Jackie was already shaping the future of comedy for women...and for everyone. She went on to record more than two dozen comedy albums. At 75 years old, she even became the oldest person to ever have a top 40 hit.
In 1975, Jackie passed away from heart failure. She was survived by four children (in addition to the two she had given up for adoption).
Strangely and sadly, her status as a comedic pioneer vanished into thin air after her death. When we look back on the history of comedy, we think of other names first.
Fortunately, Whoopi Goldberg is going to change that soon.
Frustrated that nobody had ever heard of the comedienne who inspired her entire career, Whoopi decided to produce and direct an HBO documentary called "Moms Mabley: I Got Something to Tell You," which will air this fall.
A little late for her legend to be remembered, but better late than never, right?