BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The legendary actress Mary Martin (1913-1990) was a very private person at a time when it was still possible to be an internationally beloved star and live that way. That poses a unique challenge to a biographer. Happily, author David Kaufman proves himself more than up to the task, and his new book, “Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin,” provides a rich portrait of Martin’s life and journey from rural Weatherford, Texas, to the biggest stages around the globe, from a little girl singing at the opera house to a major Broadway leading lady.
For most people alive today, Martin is an historic figure. To Baby Boomers, she is probably best known for her iconic — and favorite — portrayal of Peter Pan, which was a major 1950s television event. But she was also the original Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and the original Maria Von Trapp in the stage version of “The Sound of Music.” Kaufman tells a fascinating tale of Broadway during the so-called Golden Era of the musical.
As it happens, Martin didn’t start out to be a Broadway star. She first tried Hollywood, but it was only when she found the stage that her unique talents truly blossomed. Kaufman deftly captures the distinction between the film and theater and demonstrates how Martin’s personality was better suited to live performance. The book is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the many actors whom Martin befriended throughout her career, and the character roster reads like a who’s who of Broadway giants from the mid-20th century: Ethel Merman, Yul Brynner, Carol Channing, Helen Hayes, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, David Merrick and, of course, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, just to name just a few.
A new biography of stage great Mary Martin chronicles her legendary career and darker secrets
If Martin’s show business world sparkled, her private life had a somewhat darker hue. Kaufman describes the challenges of Martin’s 30-year marriage to former studio story editor Richard Halliday, who as more than her husband but also her hairstylist and manager, ran her life with an iron fist. Readers are presented with a relationship that can only be described as co-dependent, where both of the partners were widely rumored to be gay or bisexual. Though Martin is thought to have maintained an ongoing sexual relationship with actress Janet Gaynor, here she comes across as largely asexual, sublimating her sexual needs in her drive to have a career. In doing so, she also, of course, preserved her squeaky-clean, wholesome reputation.
At what expense Martin made this choice is unknown, but Kaufman at one point wonders what her life might have been like had she been able to live more openly or freely. He gives, with a very light though compelling touch, some sense of what it was like to live in the closet in the 1950s and ‘60s, even in a world as permissive and accepting as the New York theater. Though the relationship between Martin and Halliday appears to have been an arrangement, it seems to have worked for them, and for several years after his death in 1973 she was lost without him.
Kaufman also traces the rocky relationship Martin had with her son from her first marriage, Larry Hagman, best known J.R. Ewing in “Dallas.” In order to focus on her career and go to Hollywood, Martin gave him up to her mother’s care. Later after his grandmother’ death, Hagman was more a presence in Martin’s life, though he and the controlling and despotic Halliday never got along, to put it mildly. It wasn’t until after Halliday’s death that Hagman was fully reunited with his mother.
Given the paucity of details revealed by Martin about her life, Kaufman has had to rely on many secondary sources. It’s a tribute to his skill as a biographer that he manages to convey such a vibrant sense of her life and world that makes engaging reading for any fan of theater and theater history and — like Peter Pan — allows Martin’s story to soar.
SOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS: THE GLITTERING LIFE AND TIMES OF MARY MARTIN | By David Kaufman | St. Martin’s Press | $29.99 | 432 pages