Affectionate but not airbrushed portrait of the Broadway diva who got her first big break with a naughty Cole Porter song but flew into legend in a children’s classic.
Davis (Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy, 2001, etc.) draws upon a full shelf of oral histories he collected from various theater artists to tell the story of Mary Martin (1913–90). A stage-struck Texas girl who didn’t let a teenage marriage (or the resulting son, Larry Hagman) stand in her way, she was undeterred even by a humiliating 1935 rejection from theater impresario Billy Rose. In a moment worthy of Busby Berkeley, Martin told her mother, “I’m going back to California and I’m going to have a career.” She copped leads in several tepid movie musicals, but the camera did not love her. She turned to Broadway, which loved her from the moment she did a striptease while singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in 1938. Her signature roles, in South Pacific, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, were more demure, but she established an intense rapport with the audience in whatever she did. Clearly a Martin fan—indeed, he spent some time with her on the ranch in Brazil to which she more or less retired in the ’70s—Davis summons scores of anecdotes and testimonials demonstrating that she could be warm, generous and supremely professional. He also acknowledges that she could be controlling and temperamental, most notably during tryouts for the flop musical Jennie in 1963. Micromanaging every aspect of her career, second husband Richard Halliday irritated and frequently outraged nearly everyone in Martin’s life, including her semi-estranged son Hagman. In addition, Davis reports, Halliday was a mean-tempered drug and alcohol abuser and a closet homosexual. As for Martin’s alleged romances with Jean Arthur and Janet Gaynor, the author declares that the exact nature of those relationships is “unknown.”
Martin’s star quality prevails.