Mary Martin was one of the radiant stars of the American stage in the 20th century. Baby boomers born before 1955 probably remember Mary Martin on television as Peter Pan in the 1954 musical version of the James M. Barrie play, which was shown three times, twice in black and white versions in 1955 and 1956 and a color presentation in 1960. For interested millennials, the black and white versions have been preserved on one DVD. Although Martin died in 1990, at age 76, she left an autobiography about her life called My Heart Belongs, which critics described as a cloyingly bland portrait of the celebrated lady. Now in 2016, David Kaufman has written a more edged, contemporary look at Martin's life that includes all sorts of personal info and frank details of her days both on and off the stage. His entertaining book is titled Some Enchanted Evenings, a play on a song from one of her hit shows – Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Kaufman's book gives you an intimate look at a Broadway star.
What Mary Martin had can be put into a few words: She had everything. She could act. On stage she created laughter into what amounts to a continuous cachet of joy. Her singing voice can be compared to the sounds of an exultant nightingale. She could dance and was quintessentially rhythmical. Like all great stars of her period, she had a personal spark, a special kind of human appeal to a theater audience. Once she was on stage you are not likely to lose her in a crowd. Her effect was effulgent and dazzling.
Mary Martin was born in Weatherford, Texas, population 5,000, known as the World's Greatest Watermelon Center. Later they added "birthplace of Mary Martin.” Martin was the second daughter of Preston and Juanita Martin. Mr. Martin was a prosperous attorney who everyone in town called “Judge,” and her mother taught violin at a local Weatherford College. Weatherford was a moneyed town with many ranches, and a lot of them had oil wells. The Martin's had wanted a boy when Mary was born. An infant son had passed away a few years before, and Martin always said she wanted to be a boy too. She made her first stage appearance at age five singing at a Fireman's Ball. At 11 she saw a silent film of Peter Pan about a boy who refused to grow up. Mary said that's when she wanted to play Pan, before she ever thought of being an actress.
At 14 she was dating Benjamin Hagman, a strapping 249-pound football player and a law student at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. It was serious enough that her parents packed her off to a boarding school, Ward-Belmont School for Woman in Nashville, Tennessee. In the long run it didn't help, and she and Hagman married in 1930. Martin said she got married because she “didn't want to do a term paper.” Larry Hagman was born a year later and would become J.R. on TV's Dallas. Martin went back home and founded a series of local dance schools around Weatherford, while her mother took care of raising her son.
In 1936 Martin's father gave her a car and $500, and with her friend Mildred Woods she left for California to try getting into movies. Casting directors told her that her chin was too long, her nose was too wide, her hair was all wrong, and her teeth needed to be capped. But she continued to make the rounds. She was referred to as Audition Mary. She got singing jobs at the Roosevelt Hotel bar and earned supplementary income at other nightclubs and on radio. Finally an agent, Laurence Schwab, saw her at the Trocadero in Hollywood and signed her to a two-year contract. While she was in Los Angeles her father arranged for a divorce “by proxy” from Hagman. Martin headed back to Texas, and before she knew it Schwab was arranging passage on a “cattle boat” to New York for her to try out for her first Broadway show, Leave It to Me. Schwab arrived at the St. Moritz hotel, where Martin was staying, with a cerise velvet dress and hat for her to wear. He then took her over to the Ritz Tower to sing for the show's producer Vinton Freedley, star Sophie Tucker and composer Cole Porter. Newcomer Martin didn't know any of these people, but she sang four songs and got the job. On opening night she electrified the audience by singing Porter's suggestive song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and shedding her ermine coat in a simulated striptease. One of the chorus boys in the show was another newcomer, Gene Kelly.
After her success in Leave It to Me and getting her picture on the cover of Life Magazine, Paramount wooed her with a film contract, though the films they chose for her didn't lead to any real on-screen fame. It did lead to her meeting her second husband, Richard Halliday, a story editor at the studio. Halliday was born in Denver and brought up in New York. When he was still a boy his parents divorced, and his life was pretty much a matriarchy environment. In Martin he found a woman like his mother, sister and aunt who required guidance and supervision. They married in Las Vegas in May of 1940, and the relationship lasted until Halliday died in 1973. Martin wondered why on earth this man had married her; she needed so much redoing. Halliday served as a father, husband and best friend to Martin. Kaufman points out he was a gay/straight "cover" for both of them. He also served as her manager, producer and entrepreneur. Those last three roles made Halliday's fay personality seem more masculine.
Kaufman states that Martin was aware of her sexuality at age 15. In her memoir she mentions only two books she read in her youth, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, a classic lesbian novel of the 1930s, and The Life of Isadora Duncan, a noted bisexual dancer of her time. Martin adds that she didn't have the remotest idea what these books were about. Kaufman implies that Martin's intended message to her readers was that she grew up with a definite lesbian influence. Her daughter Heller mentions both her parents were gay, but they did have her in November 1941. Unfortunately, Martin's pregnancy prohibited her from making the one good film Paramount offered her, Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire with Irving Berlin songs.
Elia Kazan, who directed Martin in One Touch of Venus, mentioned in his book, A Life, his views of this kind of choice of a mate that many stars make. He names Katharine Cornell, who was gay and married to the gay director Guthrie McClintic. Cornell was Heller's second godmother. Her first godmother was Jean Arthur, who, like actress Janet Gaynor, was said to be more than intimate friends of Martin. Like Martin, both were married, Arthur twice and Gaynor four times. Kazan felt that this kind of arrangement enables these devoted women to apply themselves to their work freely. He couldn't believe the sexual aspects of these unions are of great importance; that energy passes into their work. Aside: Originally Kazan wanted Martin to play Blanche du Bois in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, but the play's team was not interested.
Kaufman points out that after doing nine films with no real successes Martin was anxious to go back to Broadway and reestablish her career in the theater. Halliday felt the same way. He was quoted as saying, "I was the only executive at Paramount who voted against signing Martin to a picture contract." He felt she always needed a live audience. In 1939 her agent tried to make her a star in a misadventure musical of his hit play Sailor Beware called Nice Goin'. It closed in Boston. In 1943 she was offered Rodgers and Hammerstein's first effort Away We Go, which turned into Oklahoma! Halliday felt the leading role of the farm girl Laury would just perpetuate Martin's Texas hick image. Instead they picked another musical, Dancing in the Streets, which shuttered in Boston.
Their next choice, One Touch of Venus, proved to be a triumph and made Martin into a Broadway name. Marlene Dietrich had turned down the show, so Martin took on the Venus role with fervor. With music by Kurt Weil, lyrics by Ogden Nash and a book by S.J. Perelman and Nash, the show was a winning hit. Martin sang, danced (via Agnes de Millle's choreography) and was enchanting. Principal dancer Sono Osato coached her and removed Martin's movie star glamour poses, and she became a grand beautiful goddess. She floated across the stage in couturier Mainbocher's costumes. These 14 creations cost producer Cheryl Crawford $20,000. Martin had finally hit her mark. She was a star on Broadway.
Martin's theater life was varied, says Kaufman, because she always had a special kind of career courage. Other stars hesitate to take on a role created by their peers, like in Martin's case Ethel Merman or Carol Channing. While Ethel was beltin' out the songs of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Martin agreed to take Annie on tour across the country and did it with enormous success. It happened that Rodgers and Hammerstein were the producers of Annie Get Your Gun. That duo started producing shows when they were not busy writing their own musicals. When they saw Martin playing a brawling character like Annie utterly different from anything she had previously done, she opened up new professional vistas for herself. Rodgers and Hammerstein immediately felt she would be perfect for Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and so thrust her greatest role on her. Many years later, David Merrick got her to tour Hello, Dolly! to Midwest cities and then as a bonus sent the company across the Pacific to Tokyo, Vietnam and London. All this added a special grandeur to Martin's sterling reputation.
Most bios tend to hit a nadir when the main character accomplishes his or her goal. Act Two stories are usually ho-hum affairs. Repetition can get boring. Martin doesn't fit into this class. Even after Halliday's death she recovered and learned how to do things for herself. Books, benefits, television and getting back on the boards again. She did a Kennedy Center production in 1978 of a play Do You Turn Somersaults? with the British actor Anthony Quayle that lasted a couple of weeks on Broadway. Seven years later she went to see Claudette Colbert in Aren't We All. She felt, "If Claudette could go back to work I could go back to work too." She teamed up with Carol Channing to do James Kirkwood's Legends, a sort of poor man's version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. Doing Legends she had to use an "ear bug" to get line cues. She had problems with it in Los Angeles, and in Phoenix she started receiving taxicab dispatches in her ear. Nothing stopped her. When in 1989 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and her prognosis was not good, she postponed her chemotherapy so she could receive the Kennedy Center award. Like Tennessee Williams, all through her life that four letter word keeps coming up: work. That was her golden rule, and Kaufman catches it all in his pleasing Some Enchanted Evenings.