About Mary Virginia Martin
Mary Virginia Martin (December 1, 1913 – November 3, 1990) was an American actress and singer. She originated many roles over her career including Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music. She was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1989. She was also the mother of actor Larry Hagman.
Mary Martin's life as a child, as she describes it in her autobiography My Heart Belongs, was secure and happy. She had close relationships with both her mother and father, as well as her siblings. Her autobiography details how the young actress had an instinctive ear for recreating musical sounds.
Martin's father, Preston Martin, was a lawyer and her mother, Juanita Presley, was a violin teacher. Although the doctors told Juanita that she would risk her life if she attempted to have another baby, she was determined to have a boy. Instead, she had Mary, who became quite a tomboy. Her birth was an event as all of the neighbors gathered around Juanita's bedroom window, waiting for the raising of a curtain to signal the baby’s arrival.
Her family had a barn and orchard that kept her entertained. She played with her older sister Geraldine (whom she called “Sister”), climbing trees and riding ponies. Martin adored her father. “He was a tall, good-looking, silver-haired, with the kindest brown eyes. Mother was the disciplinarian, but it was Daddy who could turn me into an angel with just one look” (p. 19). Martin, who said “I’d never understand the law” (p. 19), began singing outside the courtroom where her father worked every Saturday night at a bandstand where the town band played. She sang in a trio of little girls dressed in bellhop uniforms. “Even in those days without microphones, my high piping voice carried all over the square. I have always thought that I inherited my carrying voice from my father” (p. 19).
She remembered having a photographic memory as a child, making it easy to memorize songs, as well as get her through school tests. She got her first taste of singing solo at a fire hall, where she soaked up the crowd’s appreciation. “Sometimes I think that I cheated my own family and my closest friends by giving to audiences so much of the love I might have kept for them. But that’s the way I was made; I truly don't think I could help it” (p. 20). Martin’s craft was developed by seeing movies and becoming a mimic. She’d win prizes for looking, acting and dancing like Ruby Keeler and singing exactly like Bing Crosby. “Never, never, never can I say I had a frustrating childhood. It was all joy. Mother used to say she never had seen such a happy child—that I awakened each morning with a smile. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that I never wanted to go to bed, to go to sleep, for fear I’d miss something” (p. 20).
As she grew older, Martin dated Benjamin Jackson Hagman while in high school, before being sent to the Ward-Belmont finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee. Besides imitating Fanny Brice at singing gigs, she thought school was dull and felt confined by the strict rules. She was homesick for Weatherford, her family and Hagman. During a visit, Mary and Benjamin persuaded Mary's mother to allow them to marry. They did, and by the age of 17, Martin was legally married, pregnant with her first child (Larry Hagman) and forced to leave finishing school. However she was happy to begin her new life. She soon learned that this life was nothing but “role playing” (p. 39).
Their honeymoon was at her parents' house, and Martin's dream of life with a family and a white-picket fence faded. “I was 17, a married woman without real responsibilities, miserable about my mixed-up emotions, afraid there was something awfully wrong with me because I didn’t enjoy being a wife. Worst of all, I didn't have enough to do” (p. 39). It was “Sister” who came to her rescue, suggesting that she should teach dance. “Sister” taught Martin her first real dance—the waltz clog. Martin perfectly imitated her first dance move, and she opened a dance studio. Here, she created her own moves, imitated the famous dancers she watched in the movies, and taught “Sister’s” waltz clog. “I was doing something I wanted to do—creating” (p. 44).
Wanting to learn more moves, Martin went to California to attend the dance school at the Franchon and Marco School of the Theatre, and opened her own dance studio in Mineral Wells, Texas. She was given a ballroom studio with the premise that she would sing in the lobby every Saturday. There, she learned how to sing into a microphone and how to phrase blues songs. One day at work, she accidentally walked into the wrong room where auditions were being held. They asked her what key she’d like to sing “So Red Rose”. Having absolutely no idea what her key was, she sang regardless and got the job. She was hired to sing “So Red Rose” at the Fox Theater in San Francisco, followed by the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles. There would be one catch — she had to sing in the wings. She scored her first professional gig, unaware that she would soon be center stage.
Soon after, Martin learned that her studio had been burnt down by a man who thought dancing was a sin. She began to express her unhappiness. Her father gave her advice, saying that she was too young to be married. Martin left everything behind, including her young son, Larry, and went to Hollywood while her father handled the divorce for her. In Hollywood, Martin plunged herself into auditions—so many that she became known as “Audition Mary”. Her first professional audition and job was on a national radio network. Among Martin's first auditions in Hollywood, Martin sang, 'Indian Love Call'". After singing the song, “a tall, craggly man who looked like a mountain” told Martin that he thought she had something special. It was Oscar Hammerstein II (pp. 58–59). This marked the start of her career.
Mary Martin struggled for nearly two years to break into show business. As a struggling young actress, Martin endured humorous and sometimes frightful luck trying to make it in the world, from car crashes leading to vocal instruction, unknowingly singing in front of Oscar Hammerstein II, to her final break on Broadway granted by the very prominent producer, Lawrence Schwab.
Using her maiden name, Mary Martin began pursuing a performing career singing on radio in Dallas and in nightclubs in Los Angeles. Her performance at one club impressed a theatrical producer, and he cast her in a play in New York. That production did not open, but she got a role in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me!. In that production, she became popular on Broadway and received attention in the national media singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". With that one song in the second act, she became a star 'overnight'." Martin reprised the song in Night and Day, a Hollywood film about Cole Porter, in which she played herself auditioning for Porter (Cary Grant).
"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" catapulted her career and became very special to Mary — she even sang it to her ailing father in his hospital bed while he was in a coma. Martin did not learn immediately that her father had died. Headlines read "Daddy Girl Sings About Daddy as Daddy Dies." Because of the show’s demanding schedule, Martin was unable to attend her father’s funeral.
She received the Donaldson Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award in 1943 for One Touch of Venus. A special Tony came her way in 1948 for "spreading theatre to the rest of the country while the originals perform in New York." In 1955 and 1956, she received, first, a Tony Award for Peter Pan, and then an Emmy for appearing in the same role on television. She also received Tony Awards for South Pacific, and, in 1959, for The Sound of Music.
Although she appeared in nine films in her career, all between 1938 and 1943, she was generally passed over for the filmed version of the musical plays in which she starred. She herself once explained that she did not enjoy making films, because she did not have the "connection" with an audience that she had in live performances. The closest she ever came to preserving her stage performances were her famous television appearances as Peter Pan (she had starred in a musical version on Broadway in 1954, and this production was subsequently performed on NBC television in RCA's compatible color in 1955, 1956 and 1960). While Martin did not enjoy making theatrical films, she did apparently enjoy appearing on television, as she did frequently. Her last feature film appearance was a cameo as herself in MGM's Main Street to Broadway in 1953.
Martin made an appearance in 1980 in a Royal Variety Performance in London, performing "Honeybun" from South Pacific.
While visiting San Francisco in 1982 she was involved in a traffic accident that left her with two fractured ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a punctured lung. Also in the accident were Janet Gaynor, who died two years later from complications from her injuries, Gaynor's husband Paul Gregory, who survived, and Martin's press agent Ben Washer, who died in the accident.
Martin appeared in the play Legends with Carol Channing in a one-year US national tour, opening in Dallas on January 9, 1986.
She received the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual honor for career achievements, in 1989.
Mary Martin died a month before her 77th birthday from colorectal cancer at her home in Rancho Mirage, California on November 3, 1990. She is buried in East Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas.
Mary Martin's Timeline
December 11, 1913
Weatherford, Parker, Texas, United States
September 21, 1931
Fort Worth, Tarrant, Texas, United States
November 3, 1990
Rancho Mirage, Riverside, California, United States