There's Something About Mary

Broadway's Mary Martin, born one hundred years ago in Weatherford, Texas, was an artist of legendary charm — and powerful ambition. BRIAN KELLOW looks at the complicated woman who became one of the American theater's greatest stars.

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A formal portrait, wearing a Mainbocher creation, circa 1953
© Condé Nast/Corbis/photo by Horst P. Horst 2013
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With Pinza in South Pacific (1949)
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Merman and Martin in 1977
© Bettmann/Corbis 2013

1 943 was the year that changed everything for Mary Martin. She had come back to New York after four mostly dispiriting years in Hollywood, where she had made a string of films for Paramount Pictures that are now all but forgotten. In 1938, she had leaped to Broadway stardom, doing a genteel striptease while introducing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in Cole Porter's hit musical comedy Leave It to Me! But in the intervening years, there had been other girls, and other showstoppers. Ethel Merman was indisputably a great Broadway star; she had enjoyed thirteen years' worth of box-office successes. By the summer of 1943, Mary Martin looked like a case of Hollywood never-was.

After leaving Hollywood, Martin had hoped to reestablish herself in the theater. Early in 1943, she signed with Vinton Freedley — producer of Leave It to Me! — for a new musical called Dancing in the Streets. While the show was being tried out in Boston that March, Martin gave an interview, saying she was happy to be on extended leave from her studio contract, because "in Hollywood, your life is never your own." Unfortunately, Dancing in the Streets, by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz, was a problematic vehicle from the beginning. Robert Alton, the show's choreographer, left during the Boston tryout to do a film, and he put Don Liberto, a member of the ensemble, in charge of working out the dances. "Mary was anxious about coming back to Broadway," Liberto recalled in 2008. "I would call rehearsal for 11:00 in the morning, and at 10:30, she was there, getting warmed up — kicking, stretching, doing her vocal exercises. At maybe seven minutes to eleven, the chorus kids would trail in, tired, not ready to work. And here was the star of the show, warming up half an hour before they ever got there." But Martin's dedication couldn't transform the show into anything worthwhile. The best song in the score was "Got a Bran' New Daddy," a blatant nod to the number that had first put her on the map. As for the others, "She had a song with her leading man, Jack Kilty," remembered Liberto. "It went, 'What is that indescribable charm about you? And why is my arm about you ... so definitely!' Does that sound like a hit song to you?"

The Boston notices for Dancing in the Streets were horrible, and the show closed there after a few weeks, just as Oklahoma! — which Martin had turned down — began its record-breaking run at Broadway's St. James Theatre. Soon Martin received an urgent visit from producer Cheryl Crawford, who, after years of success as a founding member of the Group Theater, was finding her way as an independent commercial producer. Crawford had spent months developing a new musical, One Touch of Venus, with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash and book by S. J. Perelman. She had arduously attempted to pin down Marlene Dietrich to star as the love goddess Venus, who yearns to be mortal. But Dietrich's months of yes/no had finally resulted in a turndown, because she found the play "too sexy and profane." Crawford approached Martin, who initially had difficulty seeing herself in the part, until her husband and personal manager, Richard Halliday, took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made her study a wide range of Venuses — "tall ones, short ones, even one who was noticeably broad in the beam," Martin wrote in her 1976 memoir, My Heart Belongs. This persuaded her that, despite not being a great beauty, she could play Venus — especially when Halliday hit on the idea of dressing her in the best clothes possible. The great couturier Mainbocher was asked to do her costumes, but he demurred until Martin sat down in front of him and sang one of her solos from the show, "That's Him." Mainbocher agreed to design the clothes, on the condition that Martin sing "That's Him" in the show exactly as she had to him — quietly, downstage, as if the vast Broadway audience were just a single person. Mainbocher remained Martin's designer of choice for the rest of his life.

One Touch of Venus was a hit, and Martin's reviews were lyric. In the Sunday New York Daily News, John Chapman wrote, "She hit a stride which, I think, will carry her as far as she wants to go in the theater." Martin was thrilled with the show's success, and despite the fact that her Paramount contract still had years to run, from that time on, she belonged to the stage.

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Singing "That’s Him," from One Touch of Venus (1943)

During the mid-twentieth century, branches of the performing arts were periodically dominated by pairs of female stars whose unspoken competition helped them both — Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. While Merman's Broadway reign was more clearly one of uninterrupted success — after 1938's Stars in Your Eyes, she never had another failure — it was also a less varied career than Martin's and, until her career-crowning Gypsy in 1959, one far less predicated on risk. While Merman was the Broadway powerhouse who could magically give her enormous voice an extra jolt of electricity at the last minute, Martin was the subtler, more inward-looking artist. 

Throughout her career, Martin was able to give audiences that same thrill that she had given Mainbocher — to make them believe that each person in the theater was an individual to whom she was giving all her attention. If she couldn't top Merman for vocal prowess, she probably had the edge on that elusive quality called charm. And while Martin had an innate and often intractable sense of which material was right for her — she famously turned down not only Oklahoma! but My Fair Lady — she also, with Halliday's prodding, showed a willingness to expand her horizons artistically. In 1946, she played a young Chinese bride who goes off in search of her wandering husband in Lute Song, which ran on Broadway for 142 performances. And she was so enraptured by Merman in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun that she played the role on tour. (Merman was famous for avoiding the road.) Joshua Logan, the show's original director, put Martin through her paces and recalled that her keys often differed from Merman's, and that her singing of "I Got Lost in His Arms" was "much more of a breathless young girl's than Ethel's." 

In 1949, Martin had the career-defining success that did for her what Annie Get Your Gun had done for Merman. She opened at the Majestic Theater in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, directed by Logan. The part of the naïve Arkansas nurse, Nellie Forbush, who explodes her own boundaries in ways she never imagined by falling in love with the older French planter Emile de Becque (Ezio Pinza), was ideally suited to Martin. It brought out the qualities of guilelessness and pluck that she would be forever known for; she really did seem like every average American girl whose life had been turned upside down by World War II. It was a show that came along at the perfect moment in history. It could not have had the impact it had if it had opened while the combat was still raging. In 1949, audiences had the perfect vantage point of four years' distance on the war; seeing it years later, I noticed that the men and women in the audience who had actually lived through this tumultuous time were deeply moved — even nostalgic, although it must have been a complicated kind of nostalgia. Eventually, South Pacific earned a clutch of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nine Tony Awards, among them Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Martin.

She was thrilled to be performing opposite Pinza, and apart from their famous backstage battle of the radiators — she liked it off, he liked it on high — they got along beautifully. But South Pacific revealed the vocal inferiority complex that would nag at Martin throughout her career. In an Earl Wilson column anticipating a joint concert with Merman in 1977, Martin said, "I'm not one of my great fans. I do not have one of the great voices. But I am a fan of Ethel Merman's. When we hit the same notes, her voice comes out as true as a trumpet, and mine comes out like an oboe." Martin had a pleasing apple-pie voice, both sweet and spicy, but she stipulated to Rodgers and Hammerstein that she did not want to sing a duet with Pinza because of the gulf between their abilities. (Both Nellie and Emile sing "Twin Soliloquies," but not at the same time, and later they do a brief reprise of "Dites-Moi.") "Ezio was very unhappy at the beginning," said the late Edgar Vincent, Pinza's personal representative during the run of the show. "The first time Ezio met Mary Martin, Rodgers played from the score for both of them. And Mary already knew all the songs by heart. Ezio didn't. And Ezio didn't believe in singing in a drawing room, so there was this tension at the beginning between him and Rodgers." As it happened, it was Pinza, despite his comparatively light singing load, who had greater vocal difficulty than Martin and wound up missing numerous performances. "I've noticed that so many foreigners have trouble," recalled Vincent. "The moment they speak, they speak on their vocal cords, because they try to hide the accent. They speak without breath support. Speaking tired Ezio's vocal cords more than the singing." 

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Martin at a South Pacific recording session with Richard Rodgers and Pinza

"Mary set the tone in the theater," recalled Bernice Saunders, who played Ensign Cora MacRae in South Pacific. "Always on time. Always professional. I never saw her lose her temper, because Halliday covered everything for her. They were a hard-working team. When we opened in New Haven, the reviews were very good, but they raved about Pinza. And Josh Logan said, 'This is not enough for Mary.' From then on, they added or took out — they gave everything to her." 

Halliday's influence over his wife was widely known in the theater. Many also believed that he was gay, and that his relationship with Martin was a deeply caring but not sexually driven one. Above all, it seems to have been a great professional partnership, like Katharine Cornell's with Guthrie McClintic. "As far as I was concerned, what difference did it make?" said Marge Champion, whose husband, Gower, directed Martin in the 1966 hit I Do! I Do! "I didn't care who they did or didn't sleep with. Those people have to have someone to shield them from the worst of the business. These ladies were artists, and they needed someone to speak up, and the gay guys were the best at that!" Where Martin was concerned, Halliday may have wrapped her in cotton wool, determined that she not worry about many of the details that plague a star's life — but he was also a strict, obsessive taskmaster where she was concerned. She recalled that when he had worked in Hollywood, he had been a story editor, and he later spent the rest of his life editing her, to the point of not allowing her to carry a handbag. Halliday seems to have been a necessary evil as far as other professionals in the theater were concerned, and as a result, not one to make friends easily. Perhaps it was this isolation, and the concealed nature of his life, that led to his chronic alcoholism, a fact that Martin admits late, and only fleetingly, in her autobiography. 

For all her reputation as a dreamer, it would be a mistake to assume that Martin did not possess a brand of professional toughness that matched her husband's. Outwardly, she was warm, considerate, kind — but she did have a powerful instinct where her own professional self-preservation was concerned. (During Peter Pan, the 1954 Broadway show that made a huge hit in its televised version, Sondra Lee, in the role of the Indian princess Tiger Lily, found her part whittled down and was philosophical about it, saying, "When a show revolves around a star, the star's character has to be protected.") In one sense, Martin may have been far tougher than Merman, who could at times exhibit a personal vulnerability that Martin did not, simply because Merman had no Richard Halliday in her life. When Merman had a conflict with someone in a show, she took care of it herself; Martin left the dirty work to her husband, which allowed her to be charming to everyone around her. 

In the 1950s, she continued to explore other facets of her talents. In 1955, she starred in a revival of Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, as the acid-tongued maid Sabina, the part that Tallulah Bankhead had originally triumphed in on Broadway. Playing opposite her were legendary director George Abbott and Helen Hayes, as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. "Sabina is very complex — a bitch and funny, but funny in a way that isn't easy," observed Frances Sternhagen, who understudied Martin in the role. "It was hard for her. It may have put her nose out of joint a bit that all the big reviews went to Helen. I've never seen a Mrs. Antrobus better than that one. Mary was good — she just wasn't that comfortable. It was hard for her to play this woman who started out being so nasty." Hayes and Sternhagen were both from Washington, D.C., and when the show came to town, newspaperman Richard Coe wrote an article asking if Martin wouldn't yield the part to Sternhagen for a night so that the two Washington natives could appear together onstage. "I was mortified," said Sternhagen, "and Mary Martin may have thought I provoked it. She was not someone to take things out on someone, but for a while she was trying to stay as far away from me as possible, and hoping I would do the same." 

Through the years of Martin's career, few artists were as deeply beloved by their coworkers. Brian Davies, who played Rolf, the Nazi bicycle messenger, in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music, which gave Martin one of the great successes of her career in 1959, recalled, "She was playing a postulant, and she must have been in her fifties. [She was nearly forty-six when the run began, six years older than Patricia Neway, who played the Mother Abbess.] Once, I started to jump on my bike, and it got away from me and flew into the orchestra pit. I was so upset, but Mary said, 'Don't worry about it,' and she told me a story about South Pacific when she was doing cartwheels and went into the pit."

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Onstage with costar Theodore Bikel in The Sound of
, 1959


The Sound of Music brought Martin her fourth Tony Award — a victory that surprised many who assumed the award would go to Merman for Gypsy. It had been twenty-one years since Martin first attained Broadway notice, and her great material was mostly behind her. In 1963, she played the young Laurette Taylor in Jennie, a musical by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz that described the early years of the star's career, when she was touring in melodramas. "Nothing went right," remembered ensemble member Bernice Saunders. "Schwartz and Dietz were against Halliday and Mary. She wound up taking songs from people, or they were giving her songs that she didn't want to do. It was a complicated show. Dennis O'Keefe, the original leading man, was supposed to walk in with two leopards, but he wouldn't do it, so they got two Great Danes and puts heads on them, and they shook them off onstage." The show's director was Vincent J. Donehue, who had guided Martin through The Sound of Music. "He seemed very untalented," recalled Steve Elmore, who was in the ensemble of Jennie. "But he lavished praise on Mary Martin, and I think that's why she and Halliday had to have Donehue. He protected her and thought everything she did was wonderful." 

There was one more Broadway hit for Martin — I Do! I Do! by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, authors of The Fantasticks and 110 in the Shade. Schmidt remembered making the grueling trek to "Nossa Fazenda," the remote Brazilian farm that the Hallidays had purchased in the 1950s, and where they now spent a good deal of their time. Schmidt recalled it as "a day-long drive westward in an open jeep (and no roads!) across high barren plateaus alternating with jungle ravines where monkeys and macaws chattered in the treetops. There was no electricity or telephones in this part of the world at that time, so the last couple of hours were driven in total darkness with only the jeep headlights to lead the way.... We soon pulled up in front of a black silhouette of a building, and the driver killed the engine. There was total silence for a moment, then, out of the impenetrable night came this distinctive Peter Pan voice calling; 'Harvey? Harvey, is that really you?' This was the same voice I'd been fascinated with, from afar, my whole life, and now here it was calling my name from the deep darkness, a million miles from nowhere." Marge Champion also remembers visiting the Hallidays in Brazil. "There were these huts all over their property that each couple who worked for them had built. And they all had children. Mary would have a basket of goodies for anybody who had a child, and she was Lady Bountiful to all of these peons who worked the property, while Halliday walked around with a machete. That was pretty funny to me." 

I Do! I Do!, costarring Robert Preston, was Martin's last hit. There were still offers; among the shows she missed was Albert Hague and Emlyn Williams's Miss Moffat, which Bette Davis did with disastrous results, although the show's director, Joshua Logan, always imagined that it would have been a smash if Martin had played it. But Halliday had died in 1973, and in her profound grief Martin withdrew, unable to work. She came back to Broadway in 1978 with Do You Turn Somersaults?, a middling comedy with Anthony Quayle. There was a devastating car accident in San Francisco in 1982, which took her years to recover from, and she made her final stage appearance in 1986–87 opposite Carol Channing in James Kirkwood's Legends, a kind of meretricious female answer to Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys, which was quickly obscured by the book the playwright wrote about the experience, Diary of a Mad Playwright. Martin died of cancer on November 3, 1990, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, just weeks before her seventy-seventh birthday. 

The Martin legend remains one of a kind-hearted, disciplined and dedicated performer — the sort of star who is universally admired for her commitment to the most demanding and difficult medium of all, the theater. In her memoir, she takes pains to portray herself as a young-at-heart trouper not quite rooted in reality; there is the sense that she told stories on herself to keep someone else from doing it. For those who are keen to see beyond this veneer of sunny professionalism, it might be useful to look closely at Together with Music, the ninety-minute television special she did with Noël Coward in 1955. The two had had a difficult time working together in London, in Coward's 1946 flop Pacific 1860. In this TV reunion, one can feel the tension between them that is shrewdly exploited to great comic effect by the director and writers. When Coward tells her that her performance of his "London Pride" was "a very sweet gesture," you can feel that he's not entirely sincere. Together with Music also pokes fun at Martin's vocal insecurities, as she insists on singing Cio-Cio-San's "Un bel dì" and then makes hash of it, while Coward, who has cautioned against it, quietly gloats. Throughout, Martin is not only in excellent voice; she comes across as a tough, savvy professional who is not afraid to indulge in a little healthy one-upmanship. I knew the lady not at all, but this has always felt to me like a truthful expression of who she really was. spacer 

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