Naturally a “cockeyed optimist,” Mary Martin (b. Weatherford, TX, December 1, 1913; d. Rancho Mirage, CA, November 3, 1990) was America’s favorite leading lady in the heyday of musical comedy, the winner of four Tony Awards®, and a name known in every household. She originated the parts of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (1949), the title role of Peter Pan (1954), and Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1959) on Broadway.
Mary Virginia Martin’s Texas childhood was a happy one, amongst loving parents, siblings, and friends. Her mother was a violin teacher, her father a lawyer, outside whose courtroom stood the town bandstand where little Mary and two friends would sing on Saturday evenings, her piping soprano filling the entire square. She was a natural mimic, with a photographic memory to boot, and hooked on her audience from the start: “Give me four people and I’m on. Give me four hundred and I’m a hundred times more on.” Dancing like Ruby Keeler, crooning like Bing Crosby, imitating Fanny Brice, she won prizes as well as praise.
In high school Mary dated Benjamin Hagman before she was sent away to a finishing school in Nashville, which she found impossibly confining. Homesick, she persuaded her mother to allow her and Ben to be married. By the time Mary was seventeen, she was married, pregnant, and confined in ways she had never anticipated.
Older sibling Geraldine – always called “Sister” – suggested that Mary could teach dancing, even though all she knew about dance was what she picked up from the movies, and so she opened her own dance studio in nearby Mineral Wells. She paid for the use of the space by singing in the hotel lobby every Saturday. One day she walked into an audition room by mistake, and ended up being given a job at the Fox Theater in San Francisco. For several years she went back and forth between studying dance and trying to break into movies in California, and her business, family, and baby son Larry in Texas.
Finally Mary Martin abandoned everything back home, got divorced, and devoted herself to storming Hollywood. At one of her auditions, she announced she would sing “a song you probably don’t know, ‘Indian Love Call.'” A very tall, “craggly” man was favorably impressed and, “Oh, by the way, I know that song. I wrote it.” It was Oscar Hammerstein II. She got another big boost at a talent show where she caused a sensation singing an operatic aria with a jazzy beat. Jack Benny was there, thrilled, as was producer Lawrence Schwab, who became her manager on the spot.
In 1938 a sudden vacancy in the supporting cast of Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me, destined for Broadway, came to Schwab’s attention. At her audition, Mary Martin captivated Porter entirely, and was cast in the show contrary to her ingenuous type, as a sophisticated kept woman singing a risqué showstopper, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The song was still her signature tune fifty years later, and lent its title to her 1976 autobiography, My Heart Belongs.
Between 1938 and 1943, Martin made ten films or so in Hollywood, none of them particularly notable, and after her permanent move to musical theatre appeared on the big screen only twice more, in Night & Day (1946), the “biography” of Cole Porter in which she dramatized her own 1938 audition singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and in Main Street to Broadway (1953). During her Hollywood years she met and married Richard Halliday, a story editor at Paramount. They had one daughter, Heller.
Mary Martin was a sensation on Broadway in Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus in 1943, winning a Donaldson Award. She then starred with Yul Brynner in a short run of Lute Song (1946) and appeared in London in Noel Coward’s Pacific 1860 (1946). While Ethel Merman was starring in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, Mary Martin took the show on national tour in 1947, earning a Special Tony Award® for “spreading theatre to the rest of the country while the originals perform in New York.”
In 1948 Rodgers and Hammerstein shaped the role of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific with Mary Martin specifically in mind, singing “Cockeyed Optimist,” “Honey Bun,” and “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.” It was Mary herself who suggested actually washing her hair on stage as she sang “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” which she did for over 1,000 performances. The role brought Martin the 1950 Tony®.
Mary Martin had always wanted to fly – indeed she had once broken her collarbone in an attempt from a garage roof in Weatherford – and finally got her chance in 1954 playing Peter Pan. It was to be her favorite role, for as she testified later, she had always felt like a kid. And, she confessed, “I discovered I was happier in the air than on the ground.” The Broadway production ran for only 152 performances, but it was a smash hit when produced on television in 1955, with reruns in 1956 and 1960. Martin thus won both a Tony® and an Emmy® for her performance – which is now available on DVD.
Mary Martin’s fourth Tony® was awarded for her origination of another Rodgers and Hammerstein role, Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. During her two years of nightly singing “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things,” she missed only one performance.
Out of her three great Broadway roles, two were taken by other actresses when transferred to film: Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie and Julie Andrews played Maria. But Martin herself admitted that she did not enjoy making films, thriving as she did on her audience’s live response. Therefore very little, besides Peter Pan and one sensational television broadcast with Ethel Merman on The Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953), remains recorded from Mary Martin’s legendary performances.
She appeared in two more Broadway musicals, Jennie in 1963, and the two-character I Do! I Do!, for which she was nominated for a Tony® in 1966. In 1965 she led the cast of Hello, Dolly! in London and on tour to Vietnam and other parts of the world. After her husband died in 1973, Martin worked less, but did not fully retire: she appeared with her friend Merman in a benefit they called Together on Broadway, with Anthony Quayle in a two-person play Do You Turn Somersaults?, with Helen Hayes in The Skin of Our Teeth, and with Carol Channing in a national tour of Legends!
For her lifetime achievements Mary Martin was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1989. After a hospital stay for colorectal cancer in 1990, Mary Martin died at home, leaving her son Larry Hagman (famous in his own right as J.R. on Dallas), her daughter Heller Halliday DeMeritt, six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.