Mighty Mouth

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

MILTON BERLE ONCE CALLED Martha Raye "one of the four funniest women in the world." She may also have been one of the unhappiest. Indeed, Raye, who died last week at 78 of circulatory problems in Los Angeles, led a life so riven by personal disaster that it became a classic cautionary tale of the perils of show business. Born Margaret Reed in Butte, Mont., her parents were the vaudeville team of Pete Reed and Betty Hooper. By the time she was 3 the family was appearing onstage together. At 16 she starred in a song-and-dance act, and by 20 she was cast alongside Bing Crosby in the 1936 film Rhythm on the Range. Her generous mouth, hearty voice and showgirl legs made her ideal for the musicals of the '30s and '40s (1937's Artists and Models, 1944's Pinup Girl). "They tried to make a glamor girl out of me," she later complained. "That was ridiculous. I was no glamor girl; I was a comedian."

Still, her career soared. She was a big hit with American GIs on USO tours during World War II and the Korean War and established herself on TV in the '50s. Her personal life, though, was a mess. Rave's most consistent relationship was with her agent, Nick Condos, whom she married twice and who fathered her only child, Melodye, now 50. None of her six other marriages lasted more than three years. Moreover in the '50s, grim stories began to surface of periodic breakdowns and attempted wrist slashings.

She survived to become the TV spokesperson for Polident in the '80s, and by the '90s had salted away an estimated $2.4 million. Enter Mark Harris, an ex-hairdresser from Brooklyn whom she married three years ago when he was 42 and she, at 75, was confined by a stroke to a wheelchair. Melodye petitioned the court to take control of her mother's estate from Harris, but the request was denied. She is accorded $1 in Rave's will; the balance goes to Harris.

Last year Raye's circulatory problems grew worse, and her left leg was amputated below the knee. Still, despite a lifetime of troubles, she seemed to take genuine comfort in her last years with Harris. "He makes me feel young and womanly," she once said. "I'm really in love this time."

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