( United States: 1916-1994)
Martha Raye was born Margaret (or Margie, as some sources give it) Yvonne Reed on August 27, 1916, in a charity ward in Butte, Montana, to a showbusiness couple ( Van Gelder B16; unless otherwise noted, all biographical information comes from Van Gelder Times obituary cited in the Selected Bibliography). In interviews, she declared that she began working at three; at fifteen, already a seasoned professional on the vaudeville circuit, she picked the name Martha Raye from a telephone directory and adopted it as her professional moniker. To her friends and coworkers, she was always known as "Maggie"; to the soldiers she entertained in the Vietnam War, she was "Boondocks Maggie."
By the mid- 1930s, like many other young women and men, she had migrated to Hollywood in hopes of breaking into show business. She sang and entertained in nightclubs until, in legendary fashion, she was discovered by producer Norman Taurog. She made her film debut in 1936 in a Bing Crosby film, Rhythm on the Range, in which she sang what was to become her signature piece, "Mr. Paganini." A number of film roles followed, but, as is often the case with the gifted female performer, Hollywood was not sure what to do with her. On the one hand, her "generous" mouth and animated verbal and physical style typed her as a comic figure; on the other hand, her physical figure, including what were always noted as "shapely legs" and an "ample bust," made most producers decide that she needed to be presented as a siren or romantic lead. Raye, in interviews, always stated that she knew her métier: "Let's face it, I'm not a glamour girl, I'm a clown" ( Van Gelder B16).