She was known not by her name, but by her face. For 50 years she was “the powder puff lady,” or “the clown woman,” or more starkly, the woman who always wore a white face.
She puzzled most everyone, but was a gentle friend to many. However and whatever, she was the Quad-Cities’ most unique personality.
Now, Martha Davis of Davenport is dead at 90.
True to her wishes, she was laid to rest Saturday with her face in white makeup.
She was an enigma. Martha was a black woman who chose to cover her face in heavy white makeup. It was so thick that it often looked like white pancake batter was spread over her face. She would not bare her hands. Always, even on the hottest summer days, she wore white gloves.
STORIES ARE ENDLESS. Most are urban legends, because Martha herself was a legend.
She would shop at Walgreen’s or Aldi in white makeup, wearing one of her assortment of wigs — some flowing black, some curly, often an outrageous blonde. Often, her white cheeks were rouged in bright red. People stared, usually shocked, but Martha would shrug them off as if nothing about her was unusual.
Even after talking to dozens of people, mostly relatives, the reason for Martha’s white makeup is not clear. The riddle was buried with her Saturday at Oakdale Cemetery, after services at Bethel AME Church, Davenport.
Some believed she covered her face in white because she had been scarred in a fire or accident. That is not true. A niece, Darlene Goins of East Moline, described her Aunt Martha as a beautiful woman. “When she was younger, she looked like Lena Horne, the movie star.”
Tyrone Orr, the mortician who knew Martha well, says, “When we found her dead in her home, she was not in white face. But there was a little bit of white in her wrinkles. There was no scarring. She was a beautiful woman.”
FAMILY MEMBERS agree that they don’t know why she chose to look white. They say it was her secret. One says it began in the late 1950s. Of all the reasons, the most logical one comes from her niece, Darlene: “She always wanted to be an angel. Angels are white, and that’s what she wanted to be, an angel.”
Martha’s sister, Lula Rose of Rock Island, says, “She just liked to do it; that’s what she wanted.”
Being what she wanted could be startling to others. Capt. Dave Struckman of the Davenport Police Department was a kid in 1963 working at Murray’s supermarket. Employees would say, “The white-face woman is in the store.”
It’s remembered that she carried large amounts of money, mistrusting banks. “Oh, she always had a big wad, thousands of dollars,” Lula says. Her income came from rental properties and cleaning houses.
Dozens of comments have been posted on her obituary at qctimes.com, most offering condolences. But some frankly questioned the photos with it, one of Martha in younger days, the other of her in white makeup. Those who handle such things at this newspaper say they’ve never seen so many responses to an obituary. Some were cruel, recalling ugly rumors. Most were kind, along the line of “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Several times I had approached Martha, asking for an interview. She smiled, cracking the heavy makeup, but always waved me away with her gloved hand.
Those who knew her said that despite eccentricities, she was a good neighbor, a kindly person who loved to talk endlessly on the phone. One remembers seeing her, about 1990, at the old Fun Shop in Davenport. She was buying makeup.
Her niece, Darlene, says, “Aunt Martha always said, ‘Promise, put me away right.’ ”
Darlene says she was put away right, in smooth white makeup and wearing a frosted blonde wig.
Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.