Martha Raye: Healing Through Humor
By Samantha L. Quigley
From humble beginnings was born a clown princess of comedy and a tireless patriot.
Born August 17, 1916, in Butte, Montana, Margy Reed was just 3 when she made her stage debut as part of her parents’ Vaudeville act. By 15, she was the comedy lead in a six-child, song-and-dance act.
For Reed—the actress with the enormous smile best known as Martha Raye—the 1930s brought fame on stage, screen and radio. Eventually she added television to her repertoire. But the limelight shined brighter for her when she performed for a different kind of audience in a different kind of theater.
Raye’s support of the military began in 1942 with a request to travel to England to entertain the troops. From there, Raye, Carol Landis, Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair took their show on the road with the USO to entertain the boys fighting in Africa. This foursome later starred in the film Four Jills in a Jeep, loosely based on those USO tours.
She kept up her morale-boosting tours through the Korean War and had the troops in stitches during Vietnam—quite literally. She often pulled rank—though her Marine Corps and Army ranks and membership in the Green Berets were all honorary—startling a “subordinate” into helping her help others.
“She would often pull rank, pointing out the oak leaf or bird on her collar and Green Beret as well as the nurse’s emblem. Likewise she often helped out in the surgical units and wards,” Noonie Fortin wrote in her biography of the star.
On a website dedicated to “Colonel Maggie,” the author dispelled the rumor that the star had ever been a nurse, stating that she had served as a candy striper in the 1930s. Fortin went on to say that Raye, who didn’t finish school, got her nursing experience through on-the-job training during air raids that occurred while she was on tour and spare hands were needed.
It seems her reason for wanting to help was simple and as patriotic as she was.
“They ask so little and give so much. The least we can do back home here is give them the love, the respect and the dignity that they, our flag and our country deserve,” her New York Times obituary quotes Raye as saying during Vietnam.
Though the performer loved the boys as much as they loved her, she had a special bond with the Special Forces.
“Maggie … helped everybody she could in Vietnam,” Tom Squier, a veteran and a friend of Raye’s, told Soldiers Magazine. “She told jokes and played cards with us, treated our wounds … She was one of us.
“She loved the Green Berets, and we all loved her.”
Indeed she was. Two years prior to her 1994 death, Raye requested and received special permission to be buried in the military cemetery at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.
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