Few people actually know me or take me seriously.
There’s a surprising story making the rounds about Oscar winning actress, singer and comedian Martha Raye. It’s well known that she was a consummate USO performer. Apparently less well known, is that Raye held a commission in the Army Reserve and was a registered nurse. The 1960s found her assigned to the Green Berets and sporting the silver oak leaves of a Lieutenant Colonel. In the best vaudeville tradition, she took her USO show to small, out of the way Special Forces outposts bypassed by the bigger acts. Travelling in uniform, she routinely switched roles from performer to nurse as the need arose. The troops loved her and affectionately dubbed her, “Colonel Maggie.” It’s a great story but the truth is even better!
Show business was Martha Raye’s birthright. Her parents were a husband and wife vaudevillian team—Reed and Hooper—who were performing in Butte, Montana when Raye was born on August 27, 1916. A mere three years later, Raye (then known as Margy Reed) was on stage herself doing a routine with her brother. By the time she was 15, Raye was on radio’s Chase and Sanborn Hour with Eddie Cantor and was performing Jazz numbers with the Paul Ash and Boris Morros orchestras. In 1936, she was signed by Paramount pictures as a comedic actress and made her debut with Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range. In a New York Times review, Raye was described as a “stridently funny comedienne with a Mammoth Cave mouth.” It became her trademark—The Big Mouth. A year later she was sharing top billing with Crosby and a year after that with Bob Hope. While her film career thrived, she stayed active in radio. Throughout the 1930s she was a regular cast member and vocalist on Al Jolson’s Café Trocadero. Despite the reluctance of many of her peers, Raye eagerly embraced television. In 1954 she hosted her own program, The Martha Raye Show and went on to make guest appearances on dozens of programs over the ensuing decades. She enjoyed a full dose of Hollywood glamour, heartbreak, loneliness and superficiality.
But there was a place where she could be herself. Despite a fear of flying, Raye was one of the first and most energetic stars to tour with the USO in World War II. She continued her USO involvement through the Korean Conflict and on into Vietnam. No longer a pin-up, Raye was none-the-less adored by the young GIs of Vietnam. She provided a comforting, reassuring presence. She went to remote places, dressed in uniform and fit right in. There was no pretense about her and no expectation of celebrity preference. She lent a willing pair of hands wherever they were needed. She was particularly adept at triaging the wounded, prepping patients for surgery and changing dressings. And the soldiers loved her for it. Though this sounds a lot like the story making the rounds, she wasn’t a nurse (never having gone beyond the 5th grade) and she wasn’t an officer. As a sign of their esteem, she was made an honorary Lieutenant Colonel—hence the moniker Colonel Maggie. That’s what makes the story better. If she was an Army nurse, helping out and barking orders would have been her job. It would be a novelty, a famous actress who happened to be an Army nurse, but that’s all it would have been. Instead, Raye’s Vietnam story is one of compassion, selflessness and gratitude. It’s a story of character trumping ego. It’s a story of making family of strangers and showing kindness when it matters. The soldiers understood. They knew her beyond skin deep celebrity and they took seriously her commitment to each of them. Raye’s story is a good, decent, humane story. No need to gild this lily. She’s beautiful as she is. —Ebert