Mary Martin's wasn't just a life but a lesson in life, and we got to live it, and learn it, with her. Stubbornly resilient, sassy and brash, tough and blunt and uncomplaining, she showed a remarkable ability to sustain the hardest of knocks and yet pop right back up again, ready for more.
Mary Martin sprang eternal.
Even in her seventies, she embodied the spirit of youth, partly of course because the greatest role of her life, the one that more people saw her play than any other, was Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up. As Peter, she not only defied gravity, swinging from the rafters on tiny wires, she also defied mortality.
In real life, she gave the impression she too might be capable of defying mortality. But no. Late Saturday, at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., death took Mary Martin. What a rotten thing to do.
"I'm 75 now, and I'm still not grown up," she said pluckily last year before the first telecast in 16 years of her original "Peter Pan" on NBC. The color videotape she'd made in 1960 had been found and dusted off, and millions of TV-generation parents could at last introduce their children to the sentimental musical that had made them laugh and cry as kids -- laugh and cry and clap hands loudly to prove they believed in Tinker Bell.
What we really believed in was Mary Martin. She not only made it completely sane and natural for a mature woman to be playing a young boy, she made it seem almost impossible for anyone else to inherit the part. Others did try. Others even flew. But Mary Martin soared, and our spirits with her.
"It's been a fabulous life and a wonderful career," she declared in December. "I'll keep living until it's time. Then I'll just go on to another stage. That doesn't bother me. That's the way life is. The secret is to accept it and enjoy it."
This philosophy saw her through innumerable sorrows and setbacks, from the many minor injuries she received over the years while airborne as Peter ("I've hit all the theater walls in the United States," she once said, giggling); to the broken bones she sustained in a serious 1982 auto accident that eventually claimed the life of her friend Janet Gaynor; to the death of her husband, producer Richard Halliday, in 1973.
She developed liver cancer in the '80s but doctors told her she'd licked it. She knocked on wood and said she hoped they were right.
Peter Pan wasn't the only role Martin played that seemed to reflect her own ebullient buoyancy. As Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific," she was "a cockeyed optimist, immature and incurably green," who sang that falling in love with a wonderful guy made her feel "bromidic and bright as a moon-happy night pouring light on the dew."
As Maria von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" on Broadway, her operating philosophy was that "when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don't feel so bad."
And as Peter Pan, she lured children and would-be children off to a place "where dreams are born and time is never planned," Never Never Land by name: "You'll have a treasure if you stay there, more precious far than gold, for once you have found your way there, you can never, never grow old."
Mary Martin invested enough sly, infectious sauciness in such characters to keep them from becoming mere Pollyannas. She wasn't a goody-goody, and indeed she made her bow on Broadway in 1938 with a burst of naughty-naughty, singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" while doing a satirical striptease in Cole Porter's "Leave It to Me."
She said later that she was so naive at the time -- just a little girl from Weatherford, Tex. -- she didn't even know what the song was about, or who this "Daddy" guy was supposed to be.
Never comfortable in the movies, which she said she "loathed" doing, Mary Martin nevertheless had no trouble at all adapting her theatricality to television, not only in "Peter Pan" but in several other specials (then called "spectaculars") that aired in the live-TV '50s. One of the most memorable was a historic duet with Ethel Merman on "The Ford 50th Anniversary Show," an all-star revue televised simultaneously on NBC and CBS in 1953.
The special wore its lavishness as a badge of honor, but Martin and Merman proved themselves the consummate show stoppers by singing medleys of their hits while simply sitting on two stools. They not only stole the show, they proved something about the nature of television -- that it was a personality medium on which intimacy was the best policy.
Later, in a two-person special called "Together With Music," Mary Martin starred with Noel Coward, the idea being to contrast Coward's erudite wit with Martin's folksy, grass-roots scampishness. But it wasn't that much of a contrast; even though she often referred to herself as "corny," Mary Martin was corny only in a sophisticated, polished, rarefied way. The two stars began the show singing "Ninety Minutes Is a Long, Long Time," and then proceeded to disprove that thesis.
When she inherited roles that had been originated by others -- in "Annie Get Your Gun" or "Hello, Dolly!" -- Mary Martin made them all hers, bringing to them the impish bubbling laugh and the taffy-apple voice that made her unmistakable. Mary Martin's was the definitive sparkling personality. She dared you not to love her.
To resist would be to deprive oneself of one of the simpler, happier pleasures of a golden age.
"They all think I'm nuts most of the time," Mary Martin said laughingly of her six grandchildren (some the children of her son, actor Larry Hagman) and one great-grandchild when asked once how they reacted to seeing Granny on tape as Peter Pan. Then she repeated a story she'd often told about how she wanted the end to come. She said she wanted to soar through the air once more, this time in some huge arena like Madison Square Garden.
"If they put a window in, I could do the last thing of 'Peter Pan' and then just fly out the window and never come back," she said. "I may do it some day. You just never know." In 1977, she said flippantly of "Peter Pan," and of herself, "When I pop off, they'll put it on every year like 'The Wizard of Oz.' Ah-ha! I'll be flying in your windows like crazy."
It would certainly be justifiable, all these decades after James M. Barrie created the character, to refer to it as "the immortal Peter Pan." It would also seem fair to refer to the great actress and lovable kook always to be remembered for the role as "the immortal Mary Martin." Two alliterative names -- both mythic, both magical, both forever very hard to say without a wistful, grateful smile.