The charmed life and times of Broadway sweetheart Mary Martin (1913-1990).
Longtime theater critic Kaufman’s (Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, 2008, etc.) biography of stage star Martin will tick all the boxes for ardent fans of the performer—the author deftly summarizes her career and personal history—but those not part of the cult will find a curiously bland subject. Martin’s gift was an endearing quality, a unique ability to emotionally connect to audiences in a live setting; while a more than able vocalist, she lacked a truly distinctive vocal instrument, and her early-career onscreen forays (her attempts at movie stardom would come to naught) proved lackluster and unmemorable. Martin shone on the Broadway stage, where she capitalized on her winsome charm in storied productions of South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and, most famously, Peter Pan. Martin’s work in these roles inspired adoration, but there is precious little to dig into: the shows were masterpieces, she was excellent in them, and that’s about it. Perhaps attempting to invest dramatic stakes in the tale, Kaufman alludes to rumors of lesbian relationships between Martin and actresses Jean Arthur and Janet Gaynor, but gently and without much evidence to support the claims. The author evenhandedly recounts Martin’s longtime marriage to the gay, dictatorial Richard Halliday, a difficult personality who clashed terribly with Martin’s son, the free-spirited actor Larry Hagman (the product of a previous marriage), but even here the narrative lacks any real tension or drive. Kaufman has produced an encomium rather than a page-turner.
A warm and well-researched—though not particularly compelling—appreciation of one of the stage’s most beloved performers and, on the evidence here, least interesting legends.