Thanks to perceptive author David Kaufman and his new book “Some Enchanted Evenings”(St. Martin’s Press), subtitled “The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin,” theatergoers of a new generation have the opportunity to learn about the woman who once was the toast of the theater. Kaufman, having done a vast research job, brings Martin to life vividly and informatively. The inclusion of many colorful anecdotes adds to reading enjoyment.
Kaufman, clearly smitten with his subject, applies his talent as a story teller, making the exploration of Martin’s entire life fascinating, both for those who lived through the period of her stardom, and for younger readers who might like to know what the theater was like during the time when Martin flourished in her iconic shows “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.” The author goes into the complex trajectory of Martin’s distinctive career. Examining both the achievements and the flops, Kaufman elegantly fleshes out the portrait with writing that is steadily crisp and meticulous in detail.
We get a picture of Martin as the down-home Texas gal and the star she became. The way Kaufman tells it, when Martin appeared in Cole Porter’s “Leave It t Me!” in 1938, she didn’t realize the sexy meaning of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the song that continued to be associated with her throughout her life.
Covered in the book is the long-time antagonism, bridged later in life, between Martin and her son, actor Larry Hagman, born of her marriage before she married Richard Halliday. As her husband, Halliday, a closet gay and an alcoholic, kept a tight control over her career and often alienated those who resented his relentless involvement.
The author implies, as have others, that Martin was having lesbian affairs with noted movie actresses Janet Gaynor and Jean Arthur. But Kaufman handles such information without being sleazy, but in keeping with the overall tone of attempting to discover just who Martin was, what her marriage was like, how she coped with success when her show was a hit and how she coped with a flop.
“Some Enchanted Evenings” is rich in descriptive material about the milieu in which Martin existed. There is information about Ethel Merman, a theater superstar of the era, and although she and Martin competed for attention, the two joined in a renowned television singing appearance. (You can see it on youtube.com) There are a host of references to other notables of the time in relation to Martin, her shows and her life.
As someone who has written about the theater for many years, I came across individuals whom I have known and are quoted or written about. For example, Sondra Lee, who played Tiger Lily in “Peter Pan,” talks of her knowledge of Martin. I also knew Ben Washer as a publicist, but didn’t realize that he became such a close friend of Martin. Washer died tragically in a car accident, with riders Gaynor and Martin seriously injured. Kaufman’s book is full of details that inspire one to read carefully, discovering entertaining nuggets along the way.
This treasure of a book is a natural for those infatuated with show business history, but anyone can have a grand time learning about the life of one of the stage’s most illustrious stars. Reviewed August 13, 2016.