Book Reviews

Mary Martin, Broadway Legend
by Ronald L. Davis

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Mary Martin, Broadway LegendI remember as a child watching an NBC documentary special concerning a production of Hello, Dolly! which was touring wartime Vietnam. Imagine my surprise when my mother told me the plucky lady starring in the show was the same performer who'd made us all believe in fairies in that memorable TV version of Peter Pan.

When I was a bit older I read about the fabulous career of Mary Martin, who shared with Ethel Merman not only a few roles (including that of the meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi), but the title of Broadway's queen of musicals. While Merman was renowned as the stand and deliver, belt it to the rafters gal, Martin was a gentler, more puckish presence, with a considerable vocal range. Though she was never a great beauty, Martin could convince you she was (or she obviously never would have been cast as the titular goddess come to Earth in One Touch of Venus).

What Merman lacked but Martin had in spades, in addition to her musical talents, was warmth. This quality endeared her to her public for an enviably long time. Years before her death in 1990, author Ronald Davis had sought out Miss Martin to record her memories as an oral history of her life and times, and he ended up as a friend to her (and to many of her intimates, some of whom are still with us). And let that, ladies and gentlemen, be a warning to you! As a result, Mary Martin, Broadway Legend seems to have been written with the ghost of Mary Martin hovering protectively over Mr. Davis's shoulder. Now, Martin may indeed have been as sunny and giving a person as she's depicted here, but I'm left with the feeling that if she had ever been even a tiny pain in the ass, we wouldn't have learned about it.

Perhaps that's unfair, for we certainly do learn about Martin's reckless, get-me-out-of-this-house first marriage (and subsequent virtual abandonment of her first child, little Larry Hagman) in order to pursue her career. But, later on, Martin was fortunate enough to have her second husband as her manager. This was Richard Halliday, an alcoholic, sexually ambiguous martinet who served as the necessary dragon at the gate so that Martin could remain the demure princess. This man seems to have been nearly universally reviled by Martin's friends and co-workers (and by her understandably resentful son), but Martin gave Halliday credit for what he, without irony, referred to as "our career," and the pair was genuinely close.

While we're on the subject of sexual ambiguity, the copy on the back flap proclaims:

"Davis ... addresses long-standing questions concerning Martin's sexuality."

Well, not quite. I can't repeat here what Ethel Merman is famously rumored to have said about Martin's preferences, except to say that it was certainly succinct (ask someone in the know to whisper it to you), but Davis fumbles the ball, writing about a "supposed liaison" between Martin and the actress Jean Arthur:

"Even close friends vowed they didn't know whether the speculations were true and the exact nature of Mary's sexuality remains in question."

Well, then, that should be that, shouldn't it? Still, Jean Arthur and Judith Anderson, the godmothers to Martin's second child, were only a few of the women among Martin's close friends who are supposed to have been members of old Hollywood's "sewing circle" of lesbian and bisexual woman. It's also been observed that the role of Peter Pan, the eternal boy, seems to attract actresses who are either famously out, such as Eva Le Gallienne, or who may have been closeted, such as Jean Arthur (yes, her again) and, of course, Martin.

In any case, the book does move along from triumphs (South Pacific, The Sound of Music) to flops (Lute Song, Jennie), though I must say that it is a bit of a slog to get through, due to its seeming to have been assembled nearly entirely from press releases. Time and time again I thought "Nice story, if it's true." Here's an example, concerning the young Mary Martin, in Hollywood:

" ... she remained essentially the same gabby girl from Texas she had always been. Once while eating lunch in the commissary, she noticed a still photographer taking pictures of a stock player. Mary jumped up, rushed over to the girl's table, and proceeded to get a better effect by fixing the girl's hair herself."

Well, it could have happened that way, but it has the distinct ring of public relations ballyhoo to me. The book also suffers from the curse of bad (or, if my sources are to be trusted, non-existent) copy editing:

"Mary was supposed to play the lead in the senior play at Weatherford High, which was a musical."

A school which was a musical? It sounds like the plot of - well, a, musical, doesn't it? Davis also, and this time intentionally, does something I believe he supposes is endearing, but which I find heinous, something which no one must ever do again. It seems that one of Martin's lifelong friends was a certain Miss Yeager. As an in-joke, her name sometimes popped up in the scripts of Martin's shows (you can currently hear it at Lincoln Center in South Pacific). Her first name? Big breath, everybody! "Bessie Mae Sue Ella." Now, while he may once in a while (to catch us off balance?) simply refer to her as "Bessie Mae," Mr. Davis more often subjects us to the whole shebang, calling her, yes, "Bessie Mae Sue Ella." If you think a car alarm going off somewhere in the night is an annoyance, I assure you, coming across that long, bucolic name-arama every few pages is positively mind-numbing.

I would say, then, that this is not the final word on the life and career of Mary Martin. It will do for now, and some people may actually enjoy it quite a lot—people who, perhaps, dote on names such as Bessie Mae Sue...

Mary Martin, Broadway LegendMary Martin, Broadway Legend
By Ronald L. Davis
Hardcover. 328 pages
University of Oklahoma Press
Publishing date: April 2008
List Price: $26.95
ISBN: # 978-0806139050