Raye, Martha (1916–1994)

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Raye, Martha (1916–1994)

American comedian, actress, and singer . Born Margaret Theresa Yvonne Reed on August 27, 1916, in Butte, Montana; died on October 19, 1994, in Los Angeles, California; one of three children (two girls and a boy) of Pete Reed and Maybelle (Hooper) Reed (both vaudeville performers); attended public schools in Montana and Roman Catholic schools in Chicago, Illinois; attended the Professional Children's School, New York City; married Hamilton (Buddy) Westmore (a Hollywood make-up artist), on May 30, 1937 (divorced 1937); married David Rose (an orchestra leader), on October 8, 1938 (divorced 1941); married Neal Lang (a hotel manager), on June 25, 1941 (divorced 1944); married Nick Condos (a dancer and her personal manager), in March 1944 (divorced 1953); married Edward Begley (a dancer), on April 21, 1954 (divorced 1956); married Robert O'Shea (her bodyguard), on November 7, 1958 (divorced 1962); married Mark Harris (an exhairdresser), on September 25, 1991; children: (fourth marriage) Melodye Raye Condos .

Selected filmography:

Rhythm on the Range (1936); Hideaway Girl (1936); The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936); College Holiday (1936); Waikiki Wedding (1937); Mountain Music (1937); Artists and Models (1937); Double or Nothing (1937); The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938); Give Me a Sailor (1938); College Swing (1938); Tropic Holiday (1938); Never Say Die (1939); $1000 a Touchdown (1939); The Farmer's Daughter (1940); The Boys From Syracuse (1940); Navy Blues (1941); Keep 'Em Flying (1941); Hellzapoppin (1941); Four Jills in a Jeep (1944); Pin Up Girl (1944); Monsieur Verdoux (1947); Jumbo (1962); The Phynx (1970); The Concorde—Airport '79 (1979).

Known for her booming voice, elastic mouth, and raucous humor, Martha Raye was a veteran of the vaudeville and nightclub circuits by the time she was 19, then went on to conquer Broadway, films, and television. Perhaps the most profound aspect of her career, however, was her tireless work for the USO, entertaining American troops during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In 1969, she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her five trips to Vietnam, during which she not only entertained, but also visited the sick and wounded in field hospitals. In 1993, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, who cited her "great courage, kindness and patriotism." While her career flourished, Raye's personal life was a disaster, strewn with failed marriages, periodic breakdowns, and several suicide attempts. "I thought success in show business was the answer to everything," she once said. "It isn't. I don't know what is."

Raye was born Margaret Reed, and known as Maggie, in 1916 in Butte, Montana, the daughter of itinerant vaudeville performers. She joined the family song-and-dance act at the age of three, and as a teenager struck out on her own, playing burlesque houses, musical revues, and nightclubs. As a result, her education was catchas-catch-can, never taking precedence over her performing schedule. Her early career included stints with the Benny Davis Revue, the Ben Blue Company, and the Will Morrissey Company. She made her Broadway debut in 1934, in Lew Brown's musical comedy Calling All Stars, which ran for only 36 performances. The following year, while performing at the Trocadero nightclub in Los Angeles, she caught the attention of film director Norman Taurog, who signed her for the lead opposite Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range (1936). Her show-stopping rendition of "Mr. Paganini" rocketed the 20-year-old to movie stardom. Raye subsequently made over 30 films, most notable among them Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a black comedy in which she played Annabella Bonheur, the indestructible mate of a Parisian wife-killer played by Charlie Chaplin. "Miss Raye makes altogether the best foil for the

actor's miming," wrote Howard Barnes in his review of the film for the New York Herald Tribune (April 13, 1947). "In her rough and tumble scenes with the star something of the gaiety of the early Chaplin masterpieces is recaptured." Because of her association with Chaplin, who at the time was under investigation for alleged Communist activities, Raye was unofficially blacklisted by the film community; it was 1962 before she made her next movie.

During the height of her film career, Raye also co-starred with Al Jolson in the 1940 stage revue Hold On to Your Hats. She subsequently appeared on Jolson's radio show for two years, and also made guest appearances with Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and other leading radio personalities. When Hollywood dismissed her, she turned to the new medium of television, making numerous guest appearances, as well as hosting her own show on NBC during the 1953–54 season. During the 1950s, she also returned occasionally to the nightclub circuit, and for several years starred at her own establishment, The Five O'Clock Club, in Miami. Raye made her film comeback in the 1962 MGM circus musical Jumbo, adding spark to an otherwise lackluster screen version of the original 1936 stage show produced by Billy Rose. In reviewing the film for the New York Herald Tribune (December 7, 1962), Paul V. Beckley noted that Raye "can breathe life into [her lines] as only fine clowns can, making the grimace add golden weight to the words."

During the late 1960s, Raye suffered a career slump which she blamed on her USO trips to Vietnam. She remained, however, a staunch defender of the American war effort. "It seems to me a lot of this anti-war stuff is aimed at the wrong target," she said in a 1971 interview, "at our boys over there." The troops returned her affection and respect many times over. "Thousands of Vietnam Veterans and I love and would die for her," said Edmond Orr, of McCool, Mississippi. "She proved in Vietnam that she would do the same for us."

In private life, Raye was nothing like her onstage persona, as Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons observed in 1963. "Like many great entertainers who thrive on audience reaction, Martha is 'on' at the drop of a cue," she wrote in a column. "At a party she will sing and clown her heart out for hours. She's boisterous, hilarious, loud. But get her alone and you'll find a soft-spoken, serious, thoughtful woman who talks with honesty and simplicity." As other friends of the actress noted, Raye was frequently lonely and blue. "Few people actually know me, or take me seriously," she once lamented. Of her many marriages, most of which lasted less than three years, the most enduring was her relationship with Nick Condos, to whom she was married from 1944 to 1953, and with whom she had her only child Melodye. When they divorced, Condos stayed on as her manager, and years later moved back into her home with her. After his death in 1988, Raye never changed the kitchen calendar from the month he died.

During her final years, Raye was plagued by ill health; she had a stroke in 1990, and two years later suffered circulatory problems which forced doctors to amputate her left leg below the knee. In 1991, at age 75, she married ex-hairdresser Mark Harris, who was nearly half her age. "He makes me feel young and womanly," she said about the relationship which raised some eyebrows. "I'm really in love this time." Martha Raye died on October 19, 1994, in Los Angeles. As had been her wish, she was buried among "her troops," veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.


Fortin, Noonie. Memories of Maggie. San Antonio, TX: Langmarc, 1995.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography 1995. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

"Mighty Mouth," in People Weekly. October 31, 1994.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1963. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1963.

Thomas, Bob. Obituary in The Day [New London, CT]. October 20, 1994.

suggested reading:

Pitrone, Jean Maddern. Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye. The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts