Mary Virginia Martin (December 1, 1913 – November 3, 1990) was an American actress, singer, and Broadway star. A muse of Rodgers and Hammerstein, she originated many leading roles over her career, including Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. She was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1989. She was also the mother of actor Larry Hagman.
Martin was born in Weatherford, Texas. Her 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 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”.
Martin, who said “I’d never understand the law” , 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 – herself, her sister, and Marion Swofford, 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”.
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” . 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” .
During high school, Martin dated Benjamin Hagman, before she was packed off to finishing school at Ward-Belmont in Nashville, Tennessee. During that time, she enjoyed imitating Fanny Brice at singing gigs, but she found school dull and felt confined by its 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 Ward-Belmont. She was, however, happy to begin her new life, but she soon learned that this life, as she would later say, was nothing but “role playing” .
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” . 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. As she later recalled, “I was doing something I wanted to do—creating” .
Cultural scholar Lillian Faderman has written that Martin and actress Janet Gaynor often traveled together.
While living in 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.
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 City Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas.