Musical Theater Icon Mary Martin – Everyone’s Memorable Peter Pan – Is Recalled in New Biography, Some Enchanted Evenings – Part Two
By: Ellis Nassour
For most of five decades, Mary Martin was Broadway’s “it” girl who created lines around the block and sold out shows for a year or more with the first ad. She was a star of the first magnitude, and the highest paid. She was a celebrity in the U.S., because of her Annie Get Your Gun national tour, and in the U.K. because of her wildly successful Hello, Dolly.
But even her stage celebrity couldn’t convince Hollywood to star her in adaptations of One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. Regarding the latter, you can understand. Even when the musical opened on Broadway, Martin, at 50, didn’t exactly look like a novice nun. These were devastating blows to her already massive ego.
Kaufman and his numerous sources regale us about Martin the star, exposes her second husband not only for the controlling bully he was but his not so closeted life. But there was something Mary. Did she lead a double life – one, with her name in lights; the other, that remained a closely-guarded mystery. In retrospect, it appears that except to her worshipping audiences, that mystery wasn’t exactly a best kept secret. Everyone who was anyone seemed to know, and didn’t care. Producers hired her because she was box office, and not one to hang her laundry out to dry.
“A challenge,” states Kaufman, “was the need to confirm the long-held rumors that Martin was a lesbian – which she all but acknowledged in her memoir, citing Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a classic lesbian novel, as a primary influence on her life.”
Early on in her career, Martin was happiest when she was working and, until 1940 when she wed Richard Halliday, a tall, lean Paramount story editor whom Mary found out years later was so impressed with her in Leave It to Me! that he slept through the show. She had a reputation of being the sweetest star on Broadway. Her dressing door always remained open, she was fun, everyone in various companies – from the lowliest carpenter to her co-stars, adored her. Whatever role an actor was in, she was supportive even to the point of mentoring. There was a drastic change when Halliday became her manager.
The marriage was puzzling. He was effeminate and, in spite of giving her a daughter, Heller, assumed gay. They were together all day, but at night they had separate suites, separate beds. She might retire speaking to Hopper long distance; he might sneak out and not return till the wee hours. Martin never inquired of his whereabouts nor do we have a hint of visitors she may have had.
According to Mary Rodgers, “Mary made the bullets. Dick fired them.” Martin, like many stars of that era, was Li’l Miss Sunshine, but when she was unhappy or if things didn’t go according to plan, Halliday attacked like a pit bull – often screaming at associates. Everything was about Mary. Nothing was too good for her. Because he controlled the keys to the queendom, he was tolerated. However, he was generally despised. Sadly, living in his wife’s shadow for so long, he became a pitiful alcoholic.
Later, TV became an alternative to the stage, with Martin headlining adaptations of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, 1953’s Ford 50th Anniversary Show co-starring Merman, which was carried live on all networks; a 50s all-star salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein with a South Pacific segment, Hello, Dolly Around the World, and Peter Pan.
Martin made the history books as star of two of Broadway’s and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest triumphs: 1949’s South Pacific and, 10 years later, The Sound of Music. [I Do!, I Do, co-starring Robert Preston, her last blockbuster and sort of swan song, didn’t happen until 1966]. But , she wrote, “Peter Pan is, perhaps, the most important thing, to me, that I have ever done in theater.” How the world loved her for that role was something she deeply cherished.
A new musical version of Peter Pan came about from a suggestion from respected impresario Edwin Lester, who led the L.A. and San Francisco Civic Light Opera. Halliday and Leland Hayward would be producers. And Martin was to be reunited with “the young theatrical genius” Jerome Robbins, whom she worked with on the Ford special. His help shaping the show – That, and Martin’s selection of the British actor Cyril Ritchard as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook and the flying by Joseph Kirby and Peter Foy, helped make the show a solid hit.
Sondra Lee, who played Tiger Lily, recalls “Mary rehearsed until she knew what she was doing and she had energy up the wazoo. She was always ready to work and her work was always a positive approach to whatever she was told.”
Peter Pan opened at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in July 1954, with Martin doing what she was determined to do, “all over the place. I wanted to fly at least 60 feet across the stage … in and out of the window, everywhere.” She later admitted, “I was happier in the air than on the ground. I probably always will be.”
When a show revolves around a star, the star has to be protected. It was thought that Captain Hook was the musical’s focus. The road to Broadway can be rocky. There was rewriting and songs were dropped and added. Halliday was constantly screaming at Lester, “but,” says Lee, “in the lobby.” If he had interfered with Robbins, “Jerry would have killed him … had him barred from the theatre.” Some extremely unflattering things were said about Halliday, and he was given names by the cast; but he’s been crucified enough. You can relish those comments when you read the book.
Kaufman summarizes him well: “Most of Halliday’s ugly and nasty behavior can best be understood in terms of the self-loathing that epitomized homosexuality [in
that era] … and permeated practically every aspect of his existence.” He writes that his overarching insecurity “translated into arrogance, a sense of inferiority that needed to be compensated by a superior attitude.”
In October, Peter Pan arrived at the Winter Garden as a smash. Honors of all kind were heaped on Martin. After matinees, still in costume, she’d have children of friends visit in the dressing room and sprinkle fairy dust over them. Considering its fame, it only played 152 performances [there have been four revivals].
Now, more than ever, she had to keep her private life a secret. It was a different time. She was not only as American as apple pie, but the older girl next door. It wasn’t an image she – or those protective of her — wished to tar. Privately, she remained extremely guarded. Halliday, on the other hand, drinking more heavily, more and more lost all sense of decorum. He became much more unpleasant to deal with; but, if Mary was the end game, there was no way around him.
To paraphrase a Lorenz Hart lyric from “I Wish I Were in Love Again”: the Hallidays lived a deception that would made people believe their lie. They discovered an escape route.
In 1955, when they visited Janet Gaynor, long suspected to be a lover of Martin’s, and gay husband Adrian, the famed Hollywood designer, at their home in a remote area of Northern Brazil, Martin exclaimed, “I can’t believe we’ve come all this distance for a place that looks just like Weatherford [Texas]!”
Her hometown is far from the jungle, but she loved the natural beauty, even the rutted dirt roads they’ve have to take for hours to go anywhere. She may have been unduly influenced by the palatial marble Shangri-la Adrian created with cheap labor. Martin wasn’t shy about telling friends she and Halliday spent nights in bed with Gaynor and Adrian.
The Hallidays, determined to have the privacy that long evaded them, gave “plucky” a new definition a year later when they became pioneers in the jungle of Northeastern Brazil in Minas Gerais, not far from Ouro Preto [Black Gold], the focal point of the country’s 18th century gold rush [for a time, the nation’s largest city]. It’s claimed that its streets were once paved with gold. They purchased vast tracts and theatrical manager Halliday took on the unlikeliest job: overseer of what would become a great estate – one you had to be very determined to get to. Though she thrived in touring shows often up to a year, she found abundant of happiness “in paradise,”albeit one without electricity, water pipelines, phone, or TV. And she never met a cowboy – Texan or Brazilian, she didn’t like.
The couple honored the land, created roads, and supported the locals with farm work. As beyond primitive as it was, it had the laid-backness Martin needed between projects.
Remote and daunting to reach, and even with the main comforts of home [such as electricity], it didn’t stop their daughter Heller, family members, and dozens of friends from making long treks to visit.
During periods in Brazil, from 1956 until Halliday’s death at 67 in late December 1972, if you wanted to meet with Martin, you went there. When Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones were preparing I Do, I Do in 1966 for Martin and Robert Preston, composer Schmidt, another Texan, found the Hallidays didn’t come to New York. You were flying down to Rio – and continued to fly and fly and drive. And encounter huge, deadly spiders.
TV star Jack Pharr, for a documentary, described Martin as “a magical creature” who could “do needlepoint, ride a horse, herd cattle, drive a truck, and still it like a queen in a Rolls Royce,” which she often did.
Near the end, when Halliday was critically ill, he moved to guest house and Gaynor came for a long stay.
For 34 years, as strange as their marriage was, it appeared to thrive. Martin described Halliday as “half of me.” He was entirely devoted to Mary Martin, and had sacrificed his life for hers. Any sense that he’d harmed her career, as much as he’d helped, died with him. Post Halliday, it was a difficult life for Martin. For years, she continued to praise and talk about him.
Martin continued to have a relationship with Heller, who had become quite dependent on her mother, but was still estranged from Hagman. In time, with the step-father he hated out of the way and with his stardom rising, things warmed.
Halliday had asked longtime publicist Ben Washer to take care of her, and until the day he died he made that his mission – even moving in with Martin. One job was to keep her focused the next two years on her “memoir,” sadly, a less than adequate account of her ups and downs and the couple’s private lives — which weren’t as private as they assumed. She said her early life and career “just rolled out…but other parts were very, very, very, very difficult and painful.”
In Some Enchanted Evenings, we hear details about Halliday and what a jerk Larry Hagman could be, but details on what made Martin tick emotionally are, at best,
sketchy. That leaves a fascinating life and career off balance. Not that it’s necessary to have gritty details, but are we to believe laying about doing needlepoint and listening to her cast recordings was satisfying? Finally, Martin could live a liberated life and have the heartfelt love missing in her marriage?
The more we get to know an artist — and here it’s impossible to completely know the Mary Martin who lived in front of the curtain, the more we become aware of the calculated differences in her public and private personas. Martin lived for the spotlight and appreciation of applause and was more insecure and complicated than she knew.
Some claim Martin’s “entire claim to fame” rests on South Pacific, Peter Pan,
and The Sound of Music. That’s not exactly resting on your laurels. And it was
Peter Pan that made her not only a household name but every child’s best friend. That’s not a bad legacy.
Follow Us on Facebook and Twitter