The Storied Life and Career of Jackie "Moms" Mabley, America's First Black, Bisexual, Female Standup
“The only thing that an old man can do for me is tell me where to find a young one.” — Jackie “Moms” Bailey
Jackie “Moms” Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken (1894 - 1975), really, really liked young men. She would spend hours sharing her admiration during the many standup performances she put on throughout her highly impressive career. And, as one of America’s first successful, black comedians and vaudeville performers, she is a certifiable trailblazer in the comedy/ entertainment industry. But, even if Mabley was a fan of young men, Aiken also liked women.
Little is known about her life as a child. Even the year of her birth is not entirely clear, with some sources claiming it to be 1897. But the little information we have suggests she had to overcome many challenging obstacles to get to where she did. Aiken was born into a large family — of black, Irish, and Cherokee heritage — based in North Carolina. By the time she was 14 years old, she gave birth to two children, who were both a product of rape, albeit by different men.
Not only did she have to deal with the aftermath of those horrific events, including giving up her babies for adoption, she lost both of her parents around the same time. Her grandmother, however, managed to survive and encouraged the teen to leave home in search of a better life. Years later, when the entertainer was asked about her decision to enter show business, “I was pretty but didn’t want to become a prostitute,” she responded.
But there was more to her than that. Aiken could sing and dance; but, so could a lot of other girls. What set Aiken apart was her ability to tell a joke. People loved her wit and sharp sense of humor, which made it possible for her to find notable success in the black vaudeville circuit. Her work with the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), which toured the South and performed in the tradition of the pre-Civil War minstrel shows, opened up further opportunities.
At this time, Loretta Mary Aiken was looking to reinvent herself. The process began with a new name, which she allegedly took directly from her short-lived boyfriend and fellow performer Jack Mabley. “Jack was my first boyfriend,” Mabley jokingly explained in 1974. “I was real uptight with him and he certainly was real uptight with me; you’d better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name.”
Mabley was in her twenties and performing on the T.O.B.A. circuit when she began to develop her now infamous stage persona. The old, wise, often ribald woman with an elastic face, who wore frumpy clothes and loved young men, was largely modeled on her grandmother, who had been a slave. Down the line, when she got older, Mabley’s natural toothlessness only seemed to enhance the persona she had been promoting since she was a fashionable young woman.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Mabley’s grandmother was likely her hero. “I had in my mind a woman about 60 or 65, even, when I first came up,” Mabley recalled, ”she’s a good woman, with an eye for shady dealings...she was like my granny, the most beautiful woman I ever knew. She was the one who convinced me to go make something of myself...she was so gentle, but she kept her children in line, best believe that.”
She got her big break while she was performing in Dallas during the early 1920s, when she was spotted by Butterbeans and Susie, the song and dance team noted for risque comedy songs, like I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll (1927). “They told me I was too good for the place I was in,” Mabley explained, ”and they said they would send me to an agent who would get me more money and some better bookings.” This was true.
She signed with an agent and became a regular on the “Chitlin Circuit,” now making $90 a week compared to the $14 a week she was making before that. By 1923, Mabley joined the duo and traveled to New York, where she began performing in famous Harlem Renaissance theaters, like Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club. There, she frequently shared the stage with performers like Louis Armstrong (1900 - 1971), Count Basie (1904 -1984), and Duke Ellington (1899 -1974).
Rumor has it that she was given the moniker “Moms” because of her compassion and tendency to “mother” her fellow performers. So, she decided to adopt the nickname for her stage persona. Aside from performing as “Moms,” Mabley also performed in musical-comedies, such as Miss Bandana (1927) and Fast and Furious (1931), as well as race movies, like Emperor Jones (1933) and Boarding House Blues (1948)
But comedy was her main act. In 1939, Jackie “Moms” Mabley became the first female comedian to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a historic venue for black performers. By playing fifteen-week stints while changing her act each week, and helping script comedy shows for the theater while writing her own act with the help of Eddie Parton, she would go on to appear at the Apollo more than any other performer throughout its history.
It’s important to note that Mabley was the only active female African American comic for years. Though she was sometimes underestimated due to her jokes about old men as well as her free use of sexual innuendo, she possessed great comic timing, excellent social awareness, and a remarkable ability to ad lib. By the 1950s, Mabley had become a popular attraction in black venues around the country, but mainstream success still eluded her, though not for long.
Comedy records became wildly popular in the late 1950s. Chess Records, the same company that gave us many of our blues greats, approached Mabley about making a comedy album. Though she initially hesitated, she signed on in 1960 and recorded The Funniest Woman In The World before a live audience in Chicago. It sold over one million copies and became gold-certified. Her subsequent albums, around two dozen of them, only broadened her reach.
Though her draw continued to grow, Mabley didn’t make an appearance on television until A Time for Laughter, an all-black comedy show produced by Harry Belafonte in 1967. Soon, however, other spots followed and made her a bona fide star, as evidenced by her salary increase at the Apollo, where she went from $1,000 a week in 1961 to a $10,000 a week and a headline spot in 1968.
Mabley played Grace Teasdale Grimes in Amazing Grace (1974), a film about an honest woman who tries to reform a corrupt black politician and the first movie project since the thirties and forties. She suffered a serious heart attack during filming but had a pacemaker installed and returned to the set three weeks later to complete the film, which opened to mixed reviews, but did well enough at the box office to be considered a success for Mabley.
Her health took a turn for the worse shortly thereafter. Jackie “Moms” Mabley died in New York in 1975. “Had she been white,” comedian Dick Gregory (1932 - 2017) said at her funeral, “she’d have been known fifty years ago.” Known for her warmth, witty social commentary, and her less-than subtle references to sex, Mabley set the stage for other female comics, such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, to follow in her footsteps.
But, she also did something else. In Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America (2007), Arizona State University Professor Bambi Haggins analyzed Mabley’s career and pointed to what she calls Mabley’s contradictory persona on and off the stage and in her sexuality. A thorough examination of her life and career reveals that Mabley was likely bisexual, as reports of relationships with both men and women date back to the 1920s.
This would mean that Jackie “Moms” Mabley, or Loretta Mary Aiken, was the first black, female, LGBTQ comedian in the history of standup. And that’s what we call a pioneer.
Note* Slideshow image on the homepage is by PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty Images. Other images are in the public domain.