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Take It from the Big Mouth

Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye

Jean Maddern Pitrone
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Take It from the Big Mouth
    Book Description:

    "She was one of the world's four best comediennes," said Milton Berle, "but she lived a life of personal disaster." Martha Raye sang, danced, and joked her way into the spotlight of the entertainment world with a career that spanned seven decades and encompassed everything from vaudeville to television commercials to entertaining U.S. troops.

    Take It from the Big Mouth, the first full-fledged biography of the multi-talented performer, explores Raye's life and career with candor and insight. Raye got her big break when she caught the attention of a film director as she kidded with audience members Joe E. Lewis and Jimmy Durante during an engagement at the Trocadero in Hollywood. In the late 1930s, Raye appeared in a number of films, and the press heralded her as a "stridently funny comedienne with a Mammoth Cave mouth." From there her career soared. She landed a role in Charlie Chaplain's filmMonsieur Verdoux, and theNew York Postcommented that Raye was the only one who could hold her own with the comic master. By the 1950s she hosted her own highly rated television show, reaching millions with her clowning.

    Behind the huge smile and raucous laugh, though, there was a darker side to Martha Raye. She found solace from her insecurities and a frenzied schedule in the use of drugs and alcohol. Her seven rocky marriages, the last to a man 33 years her junior whom she had known less than two weeks, fueled headlines and gossip columns. Particularly painful was her turbulent relationship with her only daughter, Melodye.

    She was passionately committed to entertaining troops abroad during World War II, and she worked tirelessly as both entertainer and nurse in the remote jungles of Vietnam. Bob Hope commented that "she was Florence Nightingale, Dear Abby, and the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire." The Green Berets designated her an honorary lieutenant colonel, and she later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After her death in 1994, "Colonel Maggie" became the only civilian laid to rest among the Green Berets at the Fort Bragg military cemetery.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5741-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [viii]-[ix])
  3. 1 The Sudden-Death Circuit
    (pp. 1-11)

    The plaintive wail of bagpipes drifts across the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, military cemetery where a plain wooden coffin, draped with an American flag, rests on supports above an open grave. The date is October 22, 1994. The few family members of the deceased—famed actress, comedienne, singer, and dancer Martha Raye—are divided now as they have been for a few years. Her fifty-year-old daughter sits with her uncle’s widow on folding chairs at the side of the grave. The forty-five-year-old husband of the seventy-eight-year-old Raye sits, with his daughter from a former marriage, at the foot of the...

  4. 2 Martha Raye, Girl Singer
    (pp. 12-23)

    The jobs for Paul Ash soon ended for Pete and Buddy, but they had lasted long enough for Ash to take a personal interest in Margie Reed, young as she was, after her brother boasted of her singing abilities to the bandleader. As soon as Ash agreed to have her audition for him, Margie returned to the theater. Ash listened as she sang out, loud and strong. He nodded. The girl was very young but talented; he would keep her in mind and do what he could to help her in the future, he promised.

    Paul Ash kept his word...

  5. 3 To the Top
    (pp. 24-34)

    When twenty-one-year-old Buddy Westmore promptly fell in love with the glamour girl of his creation, Maggie must have felt like a Cinderella. At the same time, she was being offered several roles in movies. Agents waved radio contracts and personal appearance dates in front of her. Beauty-aid companies sought her endorsement of their products. Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, admiring her vocal improvisations, soon would become such a good friend that she would call him “Stokey.” And to give the glass-slipper touch to the wonderful things that were happening to her, Buddy proposed.

    Peggy emphatically protested the idea of marriage for...

  6. 4 Marriage and the Movies
    (pp. 35-51)

    Maggie’s recollections of her fast-paced experiences in Hollywood during the 1930s would seem, even to her, to consist of unreal episodes including her brief marriage to Westmore. So much happened during that relatively short period of time.

    Her father, Pete Reed, came back into her life early in 1938 when he took legal action to demand an accounting and share of his daughter’s income. His own contributions to his daughter’s early theatrical training had been overlooked, he said. The self-styled “forgotten man” wanted $50,000 compensation.

    At the same time, Reed filed a suit to have Peggy’s divorce decree set aside....

  7. 5 In Love and War
    (pp. 52-61)

    Wartime draftees and recruits soon jammed induction centers and military bases as American troops were shipped to Europe. When her estranged husband, Neal Lang, was commissioned an army captain, Maggie, in a burst of patriotism, volunteered to serve in the first overseas entertainment unit formed by the army. Her show business career hadn’t mixed any better with the hotel man, Lang, than with Hollywood matrimonial partners, but she was sure she could do a good job of entertaining soldiers.

    On the evening of October 31, 1942, Maggie, along with actresses Kay Francis and Carole Landis and dancer Mitzi Mayfair, boarded...

  8. 6 A Child and Charlie Chaplin
    (pp. 62-71)

    Maggie never would learn to hide her feelings. As she became closer to Nick Condos, she openly admitted to friends that she regretted her quick marriage-on-the-rebound to Neal Lang. Maggie and Nick were spending most of their after-work hours together by this time, and Maggie made no secret of the fact that she was in love with the good-looking Greek dancer who had the sculptured body of an athlete. His lust for life was reflected in his magnetic personality and in his sparkling, almost black eyes. Even when he was drunk, the man was likeable. The problem was that Maggie’s...

  9. 7 Roller Coaster
    (pp. 72-86)

    Maggie was on tour again when United Artists releasedMonsieur Verdoux. It ran in New York for six weeks, with good box-office receipts, until picketers, carrying large signs, began showing up at theaters. “Ship Chaplin off to Russia,” the signs proclaimed. Or “Kick the Communist out of the country.” The horrors of World War II were fresh in the minds and hearts of the American public, and protests and pressures from veterans’ groups quickly helped to diminish the crowds at New York movie theaters, as did the protests from religious groups because of the ironic sidelights on Christianity that Chaplin...

  10. 8 Shangri-la
    (pp. 87-99)

    As soon as Maggie was discharged from St. Francis Hospital, she moved back to the grueling Miami-to-New York round-trip. At the same time, Nick promoted a series of plays he planned to stage in Miami. Despite heavy promotion, ticket sales lagged and the actors performed in a nearly empty theater.

    Under these pressures, Maggie and Nick quarreled even more fiercely. Still, both were pleased when Maggie was nominated for an Emmy again in 1953. The other nominees for outstanding television personality were men—Bishop Sheen, Arthur Godfrey, Jack Webb, and the winner, Edward R. Murrow of the popular show Person...

  11. 9 Threats in the Night
    (pp. 100-113)

    Shortly before Christmas 1954, Maggie was gratified to be asked to appear onDateline, a ninety-minute NBC special hosted by John Daly and sparked by the dedication of the Memorial Building in Manhattan in the name of those who had given their lives in the cause of the free press. Thrilled to be one of the few women to appear on the program, along with the famous black contralto, Marian Anderson, Maggie was equally thrilled to meet poet Carl Sandburg.

    Less than a month later, Maggie was admitted to a Norwalk, Connecticut, hospital for what was termed a “physical checkup.”...

  12. 10 Imperfect Balance
    (pp. 114-124)

    Maggie remained despondent in Miami Beach after a judge rejected her divorce suit. Her television show had expired, and her personal life was in a shambles. Begley was demanding a divorce settlement, and lawsuits were threatening her properties.

    Discouraged, Maggie returned to Westport, where she and O’Shea talked again about his plans for establishing his own detective agency. He had an experienced partner willing to go in with him, he explained, but the partner had no more financing than did O’Shea. Maggie finally agreed to back the business venture, even though Nick warned her she was making a big mistake....

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. 11 The Marriage Merry-Go-Round
    (pp. 125-135)

    Nick’s daughter registered to enter another school, Rhodes High School in Manhattan, for her sophomore year. Now there would be no more need for the long bus-train-bus circuit each school day. Before the semester began, though, Barbara took her stepdaughter on a shopping expedition for skirts, sweaters, and matching shoes.

    In October 1958, a jubilant Maggie announced from Las Vegas that she would marry Bob O’Shea soon. He had just been divorced, she told reporters, after Barbara O’Shea’s suit was “settled out of court for a substantial amount.” The amount, it was reported in newspapers, was $20,000. Early in November,...

  15. 12 Separate Lives
    (pp. 136-145)

    During her stepdaughter’s senior year at Rhodes, Barbara left Nick and went out to the West Coast. Even Maggie, who trusted Nick and depended on him for so many things, couldn’t blame Barbara for the separation. It was a difficult matter to be married to Nick Condos. Maggie knew that.

    Many of the girls in the senior class at Rhodes were already registering for college. But Maggie made it clear that she had no intention of sending her daughter on to Juilliard. Maggie already had built up a wall of resistance to her daughter’s every mention of “my education.” Why...

  16. 13 Under Fire
    (pp. 146-157)

    Maggie, grandmother of four-month-old Nicholas, was energetic enough at age forty-eight to fly to Manila in May 1965, accompanied by two musicians, to entertain servicemen there. She knew that Bob Hope had arrived in South Vietnam some months earlier, and his stories of seeing courageous American young men “being baptized in guerrilla warfare” in places with such exotic names as Dong Tarn and Pleiku had prodded her to set out on a similar journey. So, after a short stint in Manila, she flew on to South Vietnam.

    Like Hope, she entertained at a great number of the military bases, then...

  17. 14 Colonel Maggie
    (pp. 158-171)

    Returning home in February 1969, Maggie was surprised when her daughter left the house quickly, taking her son with her and saying only that they were going to San Francisco. Her daughter, she knew, was getting very little, if any, financial support from her ex-husband. But Maggie had many other things with which to occupy herself, including a quick invitation from Bob Hope to appear on his television show with Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Then there was her work as national vice president for the POW-MIA organization awaiting her attention on the home front....

  18. 15 The Big Mouth
    (pp. 172-186)

    While Maggie was having her own problems in acquiring television bookings, she heard that her daughter was entertaining at various clubs in the Los Angeles area—the Rose Tattoo, Papa Choux, the Biltmore Hotel, and then at a Beverly Hills club called Hogan’s, while beginning to work for a Beverly Hills literary agency. At the same time, like her mother, Melodye was sending out résumés to television producers. When she had no positive results, she began to suspect, on the basis of rumors and peculiar responses she had received from producers, that her mother was sabotaging her efforts.

    Maggie was...

  19. 16 Newlyweds
    (pp. 187-201)

    Nick Condos had wanted his assets to go to his daughter at his death. Before he slipped into a coma, he had given her a letter, authorizing her to take possession of the cash that he had placed in the safety deposit box at the bank—a box with three names registered: those of Nick, Maggie, and Melodye. He also told her that, in his bedroom at home, there was a packet of cashier’s checks for various amounts, some of which were made out to her, some to both father and daughter and others to both mother and daughter. When...

  20. 17 On the Edge
    (pp. 202-211)

    Ruth Webb, who had represented Maggie for certain gigs, had a number of clients who were making headlines, including the notorious Joey Buttafuoco and John Bobbitt (the latter of the reattached penis fame). But the agent had not pursued the lawsuit she had told theGlobethat she filed to determine Maggie’s competency. Mark Harris had talked to Webb again and at length, turning on the considerable charm of which he was capable, until Webb had done a turnabout. She was now supportive of Mark and what she saw as his efforts to bring some happiness into the life of...

  21. 18 Martha Raye, Civilian
    (pp. 212-226)

    There was some movement in the Martha Raye–Bette Midler lawsuit in March 1993 when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed as “frivolous” all but one of the complaints filed. Breach of contract was the only complaint left intact.

    Bette Midler, who wanted to be rid of what she considered a nuisance suit, twice offered a small compromise payment to Mark Harris if he would drop the remaining complaint. But Harris wanted $5 million, and he refused to compromise.

    There still had been no official pronouncement concerning the award from President Clinton by the second week in October 1993,...

  22. Filmography
    (pp. 227-227)
  23. Sources
    (pp. 228-230)
  24. Index
    (pp. 231-240)