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Some Enchanted Evenings
The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin
By David Kaufman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 David Kaufman
All rights reserved.
"A STAR IS BORN"
It was my first taste of show business and I found it delightfully habit-forming.
— MARY MARTIN
At the turn of the twentieth century, the frontier town of Weatherford, Texas, had seven churches, several schools, a courthouse, three banks, four hotels, and a single theater for cultural entertainment. The Haynes Opera House was located at the top of a steep staircase, above the R. W. Bonner Grocery Store, in a two-story building in the center of town. With their wives and their children, farmers and ranchers would come from miles around to see minstrel shows, melodramas, Shakespearean plays, and, later, touring vaudevillian acts. In 1889, the Order of Knights of Pythias held their twenty-fifth anniversary ceremony at the Haynes Opera House.
Billing himself as the "most wonderful brain and eminent thought reader living today," Charles F. Haynes performed mind-reading feats at his father's opera house. According to an extant handbill announcing his performance, the junior Haynes offered a "$1,000 Forfeit! For His Equal in the World." He lured paying customers by providing "free street tests," avoiding any obstacles in his path while, blindfolded, making his way around the public square.
Known as the Buzzard's Roost, the last few raised rows of the auditorium were reserved for foot-stomping, whistle-blowing, catcalling patrons. As the audience assembled, they could gaze at the house curtain, which depicted a Greek temple graced by three muses cavorting in the foreground. Then, before the show began, a second curtain appeared to display advertisements for local merchants: "Robert H. Johnson: Tinner and Plumber," "TURP the Tailor — North Side Square — Good taste and good tailoring go hand in hand," "Merchants and Farmers State Bank: Small Accounts Cheerfully Accepted."
Since it was the only game in town, the Haynes Opera House became a "splintery-floored barn of a place," still functioning even after it was declared "unsafe." Weatherford native Ellen Bowie Holland recalled being told by her father to get tickets whenever a performance was imminent: "But go first in the grocery store and see where Mr. Bonner has the flour stacked and buy the tickets exactly above. I don't want to fall into a barrel of herring when the building collapses."
For more than a decade after Weatherford was incorporated as a town in 1858, nearby settlers continued to flock there to escape Indian raids. There was, of course, no electricity; telephones and automobiles were conveniences of the future. And, like Charles Haynes, your neighbor would just as soon con or rook you as lend a helping hand. Here was the true American West of old, in all its absence of any glory. And here is where Preston and Juanita Martin made their home, before bringing their second daughter, Mary, into this world.
* * *
With roots planted firmly in the southern United States, Mary Martin could boast of a predominantly Scottish lineage. Her father, Preston Martin, the third of nine surviving children, was born on April 6, 1872, in Poplar Creek, Mississippi. Preston's grandparents were plantation owners. His father, James Albert Martin, was a schoolteacher and a farmer who fought with Forrest's Cavalry for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Preston's mother, Geraldine Hearon, was also from Alabama, and also the child of a plantation owner. She married James when she was twenty years old, in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. The Martin family settled in Long Creek, "woodhouse country," fifteen miles southeast of Weatherford, where James farmed and ranched until moving into town in 1905. Preston Martin was, by then, a prosperous attorney in Weatherford, but everyone referred to him as "Judge" Martin.
* * *
Of Scotch-Irish descent, Mary Martin's mother, Juanita Pressley, was born in Brenham, in east central Texas, in 1878, but grew up in Fort Worth. She was the youngest of six surviving children whose father, William B. Pressley, a publisher from South Carolina, was forty-seven at the time of her birth. Juanita's mother, Mary Robinson Pressley, from Georgia, was forty-one. After her parents perished in an accident under mysterious circumstances, Juanita (called "Nita") was raised by her two eldest sisters, Ida and Mary. According to a descendent's transcribed 1880 census report, Mary (or Mattie, as she was known), the eldest, was twenty-four years older than Juanita and also, apparently, a "famous violinist" who "played before all the crowned heads of Europe" — but this may be only family lore.
The refined and cultured Juanita was teaching violin at Weatherford College when she married Preston Martin on August 10, 1899. Their first child, Geraldine, named after Preston's mother, was born two years later. Weatherford was, at the time, still a horse-and-buggy town with a population of five thousand, far smaller than Fort Worth, thirty miles to the west. As depicted in an early, colorized postcard with a watermelon larger than a person propped up on a wooden stand, Weatherford proclaimed itself "The World's Greatest Watermelon Center." The Weatherford High School yearbook was named, appropriately, the Melon Vine.
With their frequently bedridden daughter Geraldine in tow, the Martins moved into a house built in 1894, at 414 West Lee Avenue, in 1907. The house featured a multipillared wraparound porch and a sizable property, including stables and an orchard. The Martins added a second story before Mary Virginia was born at noon on December 1, 1913, a Monday — "first Monday," the day set aside every month for ranchers to sell their livestock in town. "My father always insisted that they traded off a horse and got me," claimed Martin, who entered this world in "papa's library," a sunny and airy downstairs front room with a southern exposure that opened onto the porch. (The family would move nine years later to a more colorful gingerbread-style Victorian house at 314 West Oak Street, only a few blocks away.)
When Mary was born, her eleven-year-old sister still suffered from a heart condition that had kept her confined to her bedroom for much of her childhood. Geraldine's fragile state may have been inherited from Juanita's own delicate constitution. "Doctors told [mother] she could never safely have another baby, but she wanted a son so much that she just had to try once more," Martin wrote in her memoir, though she failed to mention that Juanita had, in fact, already lost a son two years before Mary's birth, when he was only a couple of months old. Intending to give his next child every possible advantage and, presumably, hoping for another boy, Preston Martin even joined the Weatherford school board while Juanita was pregnant with Mary. "I must have known that [mother] really wanted a boy," continued Martin, "because all the time she was trying so hard to make me feminine, I wanted to be a boy. I climbed trees, hung by my heels from the trapeze, ruined all my lacy dresses, and lovingly un dressed all my beautiful dolls on Christmas morning, never to play with them again."
Mary would, in a sense, live the life of three children: in addition to thriving as a child herself, she had to make up for the son her parents had lost and also for her considerably older sister, Geraldine, whose illness denied her a normal childhood. Even after Geraldine recovered from a leaking valve in her heart, her younger sister continued to stand in for her. When Mary was eight years old, Geraldine had been crowned Princess of the Cotton Palace — Weatherford's own version of Mardi Gras — and when photographers came by the house that morning to take snapshots of "Jerry" in her "royal attire," everyone was caught off guard as Mary marched into the living room wearing her sister's costume. Mary also used to take her bedridden sister's lunch to her on a tray, only to stop on the stairwell, sometimes, and devour it herself.
Unlike many others who turn to the stage for the attention they lacked at home while growing up, Mary was adored by both her parents. If Mary had, in a sense, lived a life for three children, she had, in another respect, three parents: in addition to Preston and Juanita, for whom she could do no wrong, Mary was raised by Billie Jones, the Martins' black maid, who always wore a starched white uniform. Mary came to expect from the whole world the undying attention and affection that were hers from the very beginning, as if they were a birthright. What's remarkable is the extent to which she would receive them. But she would also prove uncomprehending whenever they weren't forthcoming.
All Mary had to do was step outside onto the streets of Weatherford to have the town's adoration showered on her. "It was all joy," proclaimed Martin about her childhood. "Mother used to say she never had seen such a happy child." "Everyone loved her because she was 'the judge's' daughter," recalled Harvey Schmidt, a Texan himself, and the composer of what would become Mary Martin's final Broadway musical, I Do! I Do! "Mary told me that when she was growing up, she just loved going around the town square, where the courthouse was, singing real loud and so proud, knowing that her father was inside."
The tall, handsome, and thriving Preston Martin had his four-room attorney's offices on an upper floor of a building overlooking the town square. "Daddy had time for everyone," Martin wrote. "I have seldom known anyone who had the depth of feeling for other human beings that my father had. No problem was ever too small to bother with, no problem so big that he wouldn't tackle it."
"It was a very wealthy community," recalled Joyce Hayes Gertz, who was born in Weatherford when Mary was twelve years old. "Most people had ranches, and a lot of them had oil. It was great cattle country, and the farmers had watermelons and peanuts in those days. There were also many churches in Weatherford, but only one movie house" — the Princess Theater, which opened in 1912. In fact, the larger Palace Theater, which opened the year Gertz was born, was probably where Mary Martin became a fan of a British songwriter, playwright, and actor named Noël Coward, with whom she would work during the heights of their respective careers.
"You wouldn't stop in Weatherford for anything but gasoline in those days," continued Gertz, "because there wasn't any place to eat that was decent." Weatherford was also an alcohol-free town within the dry Parker County, which is part of the reason nearby Mineral Wells became a popular spot for tourists, serving not only local spring waters, with their supposedly curative powers, but alcoholic libations as well. "My mother and my father both came from Mineral Wells," said Gertz. "I grew up with Mary. Our families knew each other. Her father was a very prominent man in town, very comfortable, and I met Mary somewhere along the way. In Weatherford, people had get-togethers a lot. My mother and Juanita were close friends. Though this was a dry county, my mother used to have parties, where they'd drink and have fun."
Mary had a first beau when she was five years old: Ford White, with whom she sang "When the Apples Grow on the Lilac Tree" at a firemen's ball. Looking back, Ford saw himself as a rather reluctant, preadolescent beau. "Mary was always pretty much of a tomboy when she was small," White would say in an interview, nearly four decades later. "She'd always want to hang around with the rest of the boys. We'd always go about three blocks from home, where there was a hill called Oyster Hill. The kids used to like to go up there and dig in these Indian graves for trinkets and arrowheads. ... Well, Mary always wanted to tag along. Three of us boys started up there one Saturday morning, and Mary came along, saying, 'I'm going, too.' We didn't like it at all. We were just kids and naturally we were all barefooted, and we told her that if she didn't go back home, why, we'd pick up a rock and throw it on her feet. And we did throw several practice rocks, but it didn't faze Mary at all. Finally I picked up one that I could barely lift, and I said, 'Mary, if you don't go home, I'm gonna throw this rock on your foot just as sure as we're here.' And she didn't go home. And sure enough, I dropped that big, heavy rock on her right big toe. And to this day, there's a scar on it."
Mary had a best friend in the full-faced Bessie Mae Sue Ellen Yeager, who lived in Mineral Wells and had been primed to become a friend for life. "When Juanita Martin was teaching violin at Weatherford College [before she married Preston Martin], she lived with my great uncle and his wife," recalled Yeager, who was a year older than Mary. "So there's always been a family connection." When the girls were in the third or fourth grade, they started seeing each other every Saturday, riding donkeys together or attending movies in the afternoon and sleeping on a screened-in porch in Weatherford or in Mineral Wells whenever Juanita drove her daughter there to spend the weekend. Eventually, the two friends became members of a local girl's club and, later, of a high school sorority, Beta Sigma. (It's telling that Bessie Mae's father, a physician, took to calling Mary "boy.")
Martin would also call herself the "best customer" at the Palace, the larger of Weatherford's two movie houses when she was an adolescent and talkies were first appearing. It was here that Mary saw Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler and taught herself to imitate comic player Zasu Pitts. "They were my babysitters," said Martin, recalling how Juanita would drop her off early in the day and she'd sit through the same films four or five times, dreaming of becoming a star herself. "My ambition to be part of the world of make-believe was born right there," Martin would say. "To me those people on the screen were live." Dancing up a storm, Mary even won a Ruby Keeler look-alike contest sponsored by the movie house, garnering a year's worth of free passes — and setting in place her lifelong knack for imitating others.
While Mary derived her confidence and her congenial, jovial manner from her father, she inherited her musical ear and her love for performing from her mother. Whether breaking out in song while skipping around Weatherford or dressing up in her sister's clothes, little Mary was always giving a performance. With her artistic eye and her sewing machine, Juanita encouraged her daughter's natural bent for entertaining. "My mother would tackle anything," recalled Martin, who added that Juanita "could have been a great designer or costumer. Once when I was a little girl she made me a butterfly costume, of many shades of silk and lamé, that would stand up to the best of [famed theatrical costumers] Mme. Karinska's or Irene Sharaff's. She also constructed a cocoon of burlap from which I emerged, became a butterfly, and then died."
In addition to appearing at a firemen's ball when she was only five, Mary was one of three little girls who sang at the Weatherford bandstand, in the middle of town, on Saturday nights: popular songs such as "Moonlight and Roses" or "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." "Her mother pushed her," observed Mary's cousin, Don Martin, who also grew up in Weatherford. "As a little kid Mary performed all the time, but her mother was behind that."
According to the adult Martin, Juanita was "marvelous" about letting her offspring decide which religious sect most appealed to them. While Juanita and Geraldine became Methodists, "Daddy I'm not sure ever made up his mind, but he went with them to the Methodist church every Sunday." Though there wasn't a single synagogue in Weatherford when Mary was growing up, there was a Jewish family (the Haases), and Mary apparently spent a lot of time in their kitchen. She also "loved" Sunday school at the Methodist church, but eventually chose to attend the Episcopal, "which finally had everything I was looking for: beauty, formality, pageantry, singing, and a great minister." During her childhood, Mary sang "from morning till night," including "in any church that would turn me loose. I also sang for the ladies of the Garden Club, the Music Club, the DAR, and the Eastern Star. Then I graduated to the men's clubs: Lions, Rotarians, Elks, Shriners, and the Knights of Pythias."
* * *
In her memoir, Martin would cite only two books that she read as a youth, specifically when she was eleven years old — even though one of them, The Well of Loneliness, wasn't published until Mary was fifteen. (The other was The Life of Isadora Duncan — a noted bisexual.) Written by British author Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness would come to be considered a classic lesbian novel of the twentieth century. Shortly after its arrival in 1928, the controversial work was "attacked in several courtrooms" for its suggestion that "inverts" should be tolerated. Though she was sure to add that she "didn't have the remotest idea what these books were all about," Martin's taking the trouble to name The Well of Loneliness — without even bothering to bury it in a much longer list of books — might be viewed as an intended message to her readers that she grew up with a definite and unequivocal lesbian influence.
Mary was verifiably eleven years old when she saw the silent film version of Peter Pan, James M. Barrie's classic tale of the boy who refused to grow up. Chosen by The New York Times as one of the ten best films of 1924, it was directed by Herbert Brenon and starred Betty Bronson, who was only six years older than Mary and who, in keeping with the stage tradition of the original Barrie play, portrayed a boy in the film.
Excerpted from Some Enchanted Evenings by David Kaufman. Copyright © 2016 David Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1. "A Star Is Born",
CHAPTER 2. Finding a Voice,
CHAPTER 3. The Unlikely Movie Star,
CHAPTER 4. A Little Touch of Mary in the Night,
CHAPTER 5. From the Far East to ... the Far East,
CHAPTER 6. Mary Got Her Gun,
CHAPTER 7. "Some Enchanted Evenings",
CHAPTER 8. A New Direction,
CHAPTER 9. "The First Lady of Television",
CHAPTER 10. By the Skin of Her Teeth,
CHAPTER 11. "Together with Music",
CHAPTER 12. "Everything Old Is New Again",
CHAPTER 13. Hail Mary,
CHAPTER 14. "Poor Jenny, Bright as a Penny",
CHAPTER 15. "The Real Theater of War",
CHAPTER 16. "Love Isn't Everything",
CHAPTER 17. Deep in the Heart of ... Brazil,
CHAPTER 18. An Icon Speaks,
CHAPTER 19. "Sunnyside Up",
CHAPTER 20. What Becomes a Legend Least?,
CHAPTER 21. Benefit Mary,
CHAPTER 22. "What a Way to Go!",
Also by David Kaufman,
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