A stage star of the 1940s and 1950s, Mary Martin created some of the best-loved characters of the American theater. She was the first actress to perform the role of Maria Von Trapp in the now-classic Rodgers and Hammerstein play The Sound of Music. In the first production of South Pacific, another Rodgers and Hammerstein play, Martin played Nellie Forbush. She sang the now-famous song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” while shampooing her hair in more than 1,000 shows.
Martin was born and raised in Texas. She sang in public for the first time at a local fireman’s ball; she was five years old. When she was fourteen, she fell in love with an older boy named Benjamin Hagman. Though her parents didn’t approve of the relationship, Martin and Hagman married a few years later. Ultimately the marriage didn’t last; it did, however, produce one child, a son named Larry. Larry Hagman eventually followed in his mother’s footsteps and had a successful television career, starring in the popular shows I Dream Of Genie and Dallas.
When her marriage failed, Martin moved to Hollywood. Determined to become a star, she auditioned regularly but was only hired to sing on radio shows. Finally, she got a job singing at the popular club, the Cinegrille Room. It was there that a New York producer discovered her and offered her a part in a Broadway show. She left Hollywood to perform on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me. Audiences were immediately taken with Martin; after performing for just a week on Broadway, Martin appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Soon, Paramount Pictures offered her a contract.
After her return to Hollywood, Martin married for a second time, to a Paramount story editor named Richard Halliday. Halliday soon became Martin’s manager and agent, committing himself to developing her career. It was Halliday who recognized that Martin’s talents were better suited to the stage than to the screen and encouraged her to concentrate on her theater career. Though she turned down parts in some of the period’s most important musicals—including Kiss Me Kate, Oklahoma!, and My Fair Lady—Martin met with great success in New York and on national tour in One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S.J. Perelman, and in England in a production of Noel Coward’s Pacific 1860. When she wasn’t on stage, she often appeared on the small screen on television variety shows and popular specials.
Martin and Halliday retired to Brazil, but after her husband’s death, Martin returned to Hollywood. She appeared occasionally on television shows and, during the early 1980s, co-hosted her own talk show. In 1986, Martin made her final return to the stage, appearing with her friend Carol Channing in a touring production of James Kirkwood’s Legends, a play about two aging actresses.