Mary Martin

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Only Peter Pan can stay young forever, and Mary Martin stopped flying children off to Never-Never Land more years ago than she wants to remember. The strawberry-blond-red hair that became famous in South Pacific when she washed that man out of it eight times a week is snowy now, and the shower is pretty much the only place she sings. But this fall, 15 years after her last Broadway musical (and three after gaining a new kind of fame as the real mother of TV's J.R. Ewing), Martin is back performing again regularly as co-host of Over Easy, a PBS talk show for the over-40 audience. "I thought I had something to offer," she says. "My main theme is that even if you have to retire from your job, you should never retire from life."

Or from motherhood either. For the last 10 years, after stormy beginnings, Mary and Larry Hagman have formed a mutual admiration society. "She has magic," Hagman says of his mother. "Olivier has it, Brando has it—that 'other' thing that makes you want to look at her onstage." Replies Martin: "I've watched Larry grow into the fabulous actor he is. As J.R., he is despicable, but there is something about his charm that comes through. When we were in England last year there were 50 bobbies to control the crowd. He's that popular!"

Unfortunately, mother and son took several decades to patch up the emotional wounds of Hagman's unhappy here-and-there childhood. It is a story of unintended neglect rather than malice, which began in Weatherford, Texas. Mary, the adored younger daughter of local lawyer Preston Martin, had begun singing at church socials when she was only 5 years old. At 16, she was sent off to finishing school in Tennessee. She hated it and was lonely for home—a problem she solved by driving across the Kentucky state line, with her mother, Juanita, in tow, and marrying Ben Hagman, a flame from Fort Worth. "I loved him like a brother," she reflects, "which was not conducive to marriage." Nevertheless, the couple moved back to Weatherford, where Larry was born 11 months later. His mother was 17.

While Ben read law with her father, Mary opened a dance studio and her mother minded the baby. Traveling to Hollywood to learn the latest steps, Mary wandered into an audition—by mistake, she says—and won. First prize: an offstage singing gig with a team of precision dancers. "I was paid $75, which seemed like a lot in the Depression," she recalls. "I was hooked." Back home in Texas she had a long talk with Ben, and they arrived at a friendly decision to split. "There was no divorce until three years later," says Mary. "We remained very close until he died in 1965, and Ben's second wife is still a good friend of mine." Returning West, Mary trooped haplessly from audition to audition until she broke her losing streak by singing a classical waltz, II Bacio, at a nightclub talent show. "I never could take my soprano very seriously," she recalls, "but I started out doing my best, and then in the middle I started to swing it. Everybody stood up. I thought they were walking out." Instead, they were cheering. "That," says Martin, "changed my entire life." Promised a part in a Broadway show, she went back to Texas in euphoria only to learn that the show had gone bankrupt. Undeterred, she continued on to New York on a freighter from Galveston.

Once in Manhattan, she was summoned to an unusual tryout. As Mary remembers it: "There was a man in a hospital bed with a piano suspended from the ceiling. I'm not sure I even knew who Cole Porter was." After she sang, however, the composer, recovering from injuries he suffered in a fall from a horse, obviously knew who she was: the ingenue he wanted for his new musical Leave It to Me. Playing a publisher's naive mistress, she stopped the show singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy, during which she did a remarkably chaste striptease. "I was appalled," remembers Larry, then 7, who had been living in Texas with his grandmother. "There was my mother taking off her clothes in front of hundreds of people!" Paramount was more favorably impressed, and signed Mary to a 10-picture contract.

The movies that followed, like The Great Victor Herbert, with Allan Jones, and Rhythm on the River, with Bing Crosby, were less memorable than Mary's dazzling social life. It included eligible bachelors like Winthrop Rockefeller. Then she discovered Richard Halliday. "We met on the Paramount lot," she recalls. "He had a very big career as a story editor, and he didn't like me at all. He was the only executive at the studio who had turned down my screen test." The two eventually met again at a party, and were married in 1940. Their daughter, Heller, so named because prenatally "she kicked like mad," was born the following year. In 1942 Halliday gave up his career to oversee Mary's. Stardom, they decided, beckoned on Broadway.

First Mary paid her dues in vehicles like Lute Song, in which she played a Chinese princess married to Yul Brynner as a slick-pated mandarin. Meanwhile her mother died, and 12-year-old Larry came from Texas to live with her. "I was onstage all the time," she says. "He had been the star at home, and here I was the star. That was the way it was, and Richard was in the middle. Oh, we had a rocky road. When I was doing My Heart Belongs [her 1976 autobiography], I wrote and rewrote the section on Larry many times." Hagman, who to this day has not read his mother's book ("I will, I will," he promises), recalls vividly the price he paid as a celebrity's child. "I would never see Mother until just before dinner, when she went off to the theater, and that was it until the weekend," he says. "Then she'd be exhausted." Halliday wanted to adopt him, but Larry refused, drifting from one private school to another and eventually returning to his father in Texas.

Mary's career peaked in 1948, when she and Halliday met with Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were adapting a new musical from a collection of James Michener World War II stories. Martin was dubious about playing Nellie Forbush, an Army nurse, and intimidated by the prospect of singing opposite Ezio Pinza. "I said, 'What do you need with two basses? I can't sing with an opera star.' Dick Rodgers said, 'I'll fix it so you'll never be competing.' " Martin still wasn't convinced but capitulated after hearing Some Enchanted Evening. Two years later she left the show as a superstar.

Within three years came another smash, Peter Pan, followed by the 1955 TV adaptation of the show that Halliday produced for NBC. The Sound of Music, in 1959, capped a decade in which one triumph had been heaped on another. (During this period, however, Mary didn't always make the right career decisions. For example, she turned down Oklahoma!, Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady.) Through it all, Halliday was husband, manager and jealous protector. "He was her watchdog," says a family friend. "He did everything from cutting her hair to co-producing her shows. Nobody brought her bad news directly. He absorbed all that." Says Martin: "I learned so much from Richard. He gave me a great deal of rope, but he never let me hang myself." There were times, though, when his caution seemed almost obsessive. When daughter Heller's first two children were born, she remembers, "Daddy kept Mother so sheltered she had to sneak out to see me and the babies." Ultimately, Mary had to come to terms with her husband's alcohol problem. "There were times when he would drink himself into oblivion," she admits. "It was devastating to watch this man destroy himself."

In 1960 Halliday committed himself to a hospital and spent several months drying out, during which Mary was forbidden to see him. She was having medical crises of her own. After a hysterectomy and a near nervous breakdown, she was starring in Hello, Dolly! on a 1965 tour of Vietnam when she suffered a severe allergic reaction to penicillin. It required massive doses of cortisone. She was still under medication four years later when she undertook a road-company production of I Do! I Do! her 1966 two-character hit. At that point she developed a stomach abscess the size of a grapefruit, but did not realize it because the cortisone was masking the pain. "In the play," she recalls, "I had to run and jump on a bed. The abscess could have burst at any time." Instead, she woke up in Detroit one morning in such pain she was unable to move. When she emerged from the hospital six weeks later, she and Richard took refuge at Nossa Fazenda (Portuguese for Our Farm), their 600-acre Brazilian jungle retreat. They returned to the U.S. only once—briefly—before Halliday's death following abdominal surgery in 1973.

Widowed after 33 years of marriage, Martin finished her autobiography, began designing sheets for Fieldcrest and doted shamelessly on her six grandchildren. (Larry and Maj Hagman have two of them; Heller has two from her first marriage and two by her second husband, Houston oil executive Bromley DeMeritt Jr.) Though Mary spends much of her time at her homes in Palm Springs and Brazil, she refuses to consider herself in retirement. Only last year, when British betting parlors were laying odds on who shot J.R., she went along as Hagman's surprise guest when he starred in a London benefit for the Queen Mother (a devoted Dallas fan). Together they sang mother-and-son renditions of Honey Bun and There Is Nothing Like a Dame. Hagman, 51, has repaid her with a guest shot on Over Easy. Early this fall she showed up to see Larry's star placed north of hers on Vine Street on Hollywood's three-mile Walk of Fame. Observed Larry: "Looks like I'm getting top billing." Replied Mary sweetly: "It all depends on which way you walk down the street."

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