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By (September 1, 2016) One Comment

someenchantedSome Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin
By David Kaufman
St. Martin’s Press, 2016

Then and Now
By Barbara Cook, with Thomas Santopietro
Harper, 2016

The Golden Age of the American musical—flourishing between the corn-fed optimism of Oklahoma! in 1943 and the scruffy discontent of Hair in 1969—rested on the shoulders of a coterie of composers, lyricists, librettists, directors, and choreographers working at the height of their gifts. Radios hummed with songs mined from the latest scores. Living room turntables spun with original cast albums. Magazine covers regularly trumpeted the newest hits.

But it was the performers, the stars, who provided the delivery system, who became the worshipped—dazzling entertainers with outsize personalities who often seemed almost identical to their Hirschfeld caricatures. Alfred Drake, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Robert Preston, Gwen Verdon, Judy Holliday—above-the-title names that defined an era, but who are today alive mainly in the memories of those who witnessed their dazzle first-hand.

This summer brings us a sturdy biography of one of Broadway’s defining mid-century stars as well as a frank, entertaining memoir of another, less celebrated light—though one who, ironically, may leave a more powerful mark in theatrical history.

The biography: Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin, by David Kaufman. Martin was a major star for more than four decades. She headlined in several greatly admired musicals in the Golden Age, three of them enduring classics that owed much of their success to her presence. She appeared in movies with the likes of Bing Crosby and Cary Grant. Her television specials broke ratings records. She won four Tony Awards and an Emmy, and wrote two bestselling books. In 1989, she was a Kennedy Center honoree, and in 1965, a cultural ambassador, performing Hello, Dolly! to thousands of grateful, sweltering troops in Vietnam. There were record albums, a daytime talk show, magazine covers, countless personal appearances, and lengthy tours and concerts. “Our Mary” she was often called, so loyal, protective, and smitten were her fans.

But time is a thief for stage performers, even the greatest. Take Gertrude Lawrence. Few actresses of the 20th century were as acclaimed and beloved as she was—Noel Coward’s muse, and equally adept in drama, comedy, and musicals. But why? The evidence is scant. She left recordings with a voice that seems ordinary and off-pitch. Her one major film role was ill advised. Yet hundreds of contemporary accounts tell us she was magic.

The list goes on. Ethel Merman. Think her corny and shrill? Ah, you probably never saw her live. Gwen Verdon. Find her less than persuasive in the movie version of her big hit, Damn Yankees? You never saw her live. Alfred Drake? Pearl Bailey? Carol Channing?

The same.

Mary Martin was luckier than most. Part of her national popularity depended on her frequent television appearances, and she was a charming and skillful small-screen performer.

It was in fact those televised performances that made me and many other gayling boomers first fall in love with her. For me it was on a 13-inch black-and-white console set in the living room of our second-floor flat in Bellevue, Kentucky, one block from the Ohio River. From the bedroom I shared with my older brother, the lights of Cincinnati gleamed. It was March 7, 1955, and NBC, one of the three major networks, was airing Peter Pan as a television “special”—or “spectacular” when marketing went into overdrive. Of course it was special: No guarantee of a rerun, no way of saving it for posterity. Be there that evening or maybe lose it forever.

So families gathered with rickety TV trays and Swanson’s TV dinners. Four indigestible courses, including dessert, on one flimsy aluminum tray. TV reception was iffy then. Rabbit-ear antennae helped, especially with scraps of aluminum foil coiled around the tips. But even with the “snow” and the wavy lines, I was transfixed by this enchanting creature who lived in a magical land, fought evil pirates whose captain had a hook, had loyal Indians and other Lost Boys as friends, and never had to grow up. And he (she? I’m not sure I even noticed) could fly with a sprinkling of fairy dust! She flew! Who wouldn’t want to fly out of Bellevue, Kentucky?

Kaufman describes the performance: “[Martin] truly looks and moves like a boy who was recently hatched by some glorious bird with spindly legs, her joyous performance knows no bounds, appealing to viewers of all ages.”

This Peter Pan was unique; it was broadcast shortly after the musical had ended its Broadway run, and was by far the most successful of the several stage incarnations of the play. In its TV version, seen by 65 million people that evening, it was the most popular single TV show to that date. (And if you compare Martin’s performance—all versions can be found on DVD—with that of the recent execrable attempt at the role by Alison Williams, you need to search no longer for the chasm between stardom and amateur arriviste.)

The production was filmed live again the following year, and again in 1960, this time “in living color” and with a 47-year-old Pan. Diva worship had me in its clutches, although by that time I was beginning to be aware of some of the sniggering I heard when Peter asked all boys and girls to clap if they believed in fairies.

In the interim, I had discovered South Pacific, Martin’s 1949 milestone, and then the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon—the usual gateway drug to show queendom in those days. My pushers were two older girls who inexplicably hauled me from a day camp playground to one of their houses to play South Pacific for me. When I expressed my delight at the recording, one of them said with surprise: “Wow, you’re not like other boys.” No, probably not, as I was quickly learning.

Mary Martin, her given name and one made for a marquee, was born in Weatherford, Texas, in 1913, the daughter of a prosperous attorney father. Ebullient and outgoing all her life —“It was all a joy,” she said of her childhood— she was talented and ambitious in equal measure, with a natural affinity for singing and dancing, and so sure of her future success that little could stand in her way. A rushed marriage at 16 to a high school sweetheart and an almost immediate pregnancy ended in an early divorce; seeing a baby as little more than a vocational impediment, she handed her son over to her mother to raise. Martin and child were estranged for years, but in a karmic twist, her son, Larry Hagman, grew up to star in the television mega hits “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Dallas,” giving him more popular visibility with a single episode than his mother could ever command in a long-run show. This imbalance did not always sit well with our Mary.

For years, Martin did journeyman work in Texas and Los Angeles, from radio gigs to running a dance studio to singing onstage. So frequently did she answer casting calls that she was known as “Audition Mary.” But it was Broadway that offered her a golden ticket, singing a specialty number in a Cole Porter musical, Leave It To Me. Kaufman describes the impact on her career:

With the trials and travails that typically best a career in show business, it can be difficult to isolate any single development as making a performer a star. Not so with Mary Martin. . . . Barely clothed in a waist-length white fur jacket, straddling a trunk at a Siberian railroad station, and all but performing a striptease, Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the song that would be identified with her ever since. It was an immediate sensation, catapulting [her] to overnight fame. (British theater critic Sheridan Morley would call it ‘the most starry overnight debut in the history of Broadway to date.’) Her innocent and teasing rendition of the number would help shape and define Martin’s persona both onstage and in life: studied innocence, cultivated naïveté.

Years later, Stephen Sondheim, accurately abbreviated her stage persona to just three words: “sly and sugary.” The qualities were her yin and yang and when kept in perfect balance proved irresistible.

The Porter song is rife with double entendre, but Martin claimed not to understand, even in adulthood:

If I invite a boy some night
To dine on my fine finnan haddie
I just adore
His asking for more
But my heart belongs to Daddy


Though other dames
At football games
May long for a strong undergraddy,
I never dream of making the team
‘Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

As was routine for anyone making Broadway noise in those days, Martin was lured back to Hollywood, but though the films she made were pleasant enough, the camera didn’t appreciate her elfin, angular face, and she never gained a foothold as a movie star.

So it was back to Broadway, where Martin thrived and triumphed for the next four decades. Kaufman details the journey with meticulous detail, from bits of backstage gossip to the furnishings of her series of palatial homes, presenting a fascinating portrait of mid-century theatrical stardom, and the difficulty of balancing a pristine public image, with, in Martin’s case, a private life that today would be the stuff of TMZ.

Enter Richard Halliday, a transplanted New Yorker working as a story editor at Paramount Studios. Introduced at a Hollywood dinner party, the couple maintained a friendship/courtship for a year before they married in 1940. That Halliday was clearly gay seemed to make no difference to her; indeed, Kaufman counts it as a plus: “ . . . she instantly recognized that she had an ally in Halliday, as opposed to in any heterosexual . . . who would not impose on her libidinal energies, which needed to be preserved for her career, her mission in life.”

Halliday (described as a “mama’s boy” long devoted to three women—his mother, sister, and aunt) became Martin’s manager, coach, stylist, agent, Svengali—and at least occasional lover. They had one child, a daughter, Heather, born in 1940. Where her career was concerned, Martin, serene and adorable, was able to stay far above the fray in any conflict, while he played the heavy—and with relish. According to one associate, “Mary made the bullets. Richard fired them.”

Kaufman never misses an opportunity to demonstrate Halliday’s pettiness, viciousness, and cruelty, especially when drunk, which seemed to be almost always. Larry Hagman loathed him; Halliday once nearly choked him to death in an alcoholic fury. In his own memoir, Hagman reports that he seriously considered shooting his stepfather with a .22 rifle he had received from his own father. Mother and son were estranged for years; not only were his early formative years spent in Texas, far away from his mother, but any subsequent visits were spoiled by the two men’s mutual disdain.

Kaufman speculates that Halliday’s foul personality was largely the result of his own self-hatred and the pressures of being a closeted homosexual in an era where openness was impossible, particularly when any disclosure of his sexual nature would have shattered the well-crafted brand he and Martin so carefully created. (A friend of mine who had appeared in a touring production of The Sound of Music told me that a frequent backstage refrain among the men of the ensemble was: “Mr. Halliday, if you don’t get your hand off my ass, I’m going to tell your wife.”)

As for Martin’s own libidinal energies, the closet was a crowded place in those days. Rumors of her lesbianism have been rife for years. (Was she hiding in plain sight when in her 1973 memoir, she talks of “devouring” books, including the lesbian classic, The Well of Loneliness?) First there was her close friendship with actress Jean Arthur, known for her major roles in Frank Capra comedies, and as the frontier mother in the classic Shane. Arthur pops up frequently in Kaufman’s book as Martin’s “best friend” and doppelganger; both embraced the Peter Pan character—including the boyish haircut—as their own. Arthur had appeared as Peter in a successful but short-lived 1950 Broadway version, with songs by Leonard Bernstein, and both she and Martin seemed to have found their true selves in the character. Martin recounts in her memoir that they frequently attended costume parties and raced to be the one who was dressed as the Lost Boy.

Biographies of Arthur have raised the issue of her sexuality, but her own fierce protectiveness of her privacy through the years set up a permanent roadblock to scholars. Far more is known about Martin’s relationship with Janet Gaynor, a movie star scarcely remembered by the general public but much revered by movie buffs. She was the first to win a Best Actress Academy Award in 1929; in 1937 she starred to great acclaim in the first version of A Star Is Born. Two years later she retired from acting, and spent much of the rest of her life, it seems, hanging around Mary Martin. She was in a lavender marriage with Adrian, a gay Hollywood costume designer, and her second husband, Paul Gregory—still living—doesn’t have much to say in the biography, except how much he always detested Our Mary.

The Hallidays found one effective way to avoid public scrutiny. When Gaynor and her first husband moved to a farm in Brazil in the 1950s, the Hallidays bought the adjoining property and there developed the acreage to raise huge numbers of cattle, livestock, and crops. It was a 27-hour journey from the states to “Nossa Fazenda” (Our Farm), certain to discourage spontaneous visits. The intense privacy allowed Martin and Gaynor to sunbathe nude together and for Halliday to install a live-in butler-chauffeur-lover, who was also a “fabulous cook”— always a plus during the daylight hours.

The book’s only verified physical affection between the two women is from a colleague who walked into Martin’s dressing room to find the two women sitting with their pinky fingers linked “and mooning over each other. “ Not exactly in flagrante, but enough, along with all of the associations, to justify their inclusion in a recent book on gay culture, and other gay history accounts, as “lovers.” Whatever one chooses to believe, I relish how that salty old sage (and longtime Martin frenemy), Ethel Merman weighed in on the subject. . According to Kaufman, Merman was standing backstage watching Martin at a concert in which both were performing. A nearby stagehand said admiringly, “Isn’t she great!” Replied Merman: “Yes. She certainly is. She’s a dyke, you know.”

The Hallidays chose her vehicles brilliantly, although over the years Martin would turn down leads in Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Mame, even Funny Girl, where her characterization of the Jewish star Fanny Brice would have been something to see. Her leading lady roles began in 1943 with the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash musical One Touch of Venus, with Martin as the goddess of love who came down to earth to fall in love with a mortal. With the help of a couturier genius of the moment, Mainbocher, a movement consultant, and sheer will, the innocent “Daddy” gamine was turned into a glamorous sex symbol. (It’s delightful to learn, by the way, that the designer’s name, pronounced as a French word by his elite clientele, was actually from Chicago and born “Main Bocher,” to rhyme with “plain docker.”)

1946 saw her in the oddball Lute Song as a 14th-century Chinese maiden. Not surprisingly it failed, but did little to detract from her reputation; it did, however, fuel the Hallidays’ reputation as creative bullies when they insisted the story’s ending be rewritten “to better suit a star of Mary’s magnitude.” It was so done.

That magnitude would only increase on April 7, 1949, when South Pacific opened on Broadway. The fourth stage collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the poets laureate of lyrical middlebrow sentiment, the musical was based on James Michener’s Pultizer Prize-winning collection of stories drawn from on his own experiences in World War II. The authors (including Joshua Logan, also one of the master directors of the era) took two of the book’s threads to craft the powerful story of a Navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, stationed on a remote South Pacific Island. Her love for an expatriate French planter, Emile de Becque, dissolves when she discovers that he has fathered children with his late Polynesian wife. Nellie’s dramatic arc finds her overcoming prejudice and embracing the children as her own. (She wins the sexy planter to boot!)

Despite Rodgers and Hammerstein’s track record (Oklahoma! and Carousel were their previous triumphs), the show’s success was not sealed, particularly with its head-on assault on racial prejudice and its bold portrayal of mixed-race relationships; the secondary duo were a Naval lieutenant and the daughter of a local huckster, Bloody Mary, who arranges a romp between her daughter and the seaman in the hopes of giving the girl a better life.

The duo’s genius score, romantic and lush, was the first tent pole of the show’s success, followed by an intelligent and sensitive libretto and the raw emotion generated by the audience’s recent memories of the war. Casting opera star Ezio Pinza as de Becque was an erotic plus.

And then there was Mary, whose “Knucklehead Nellie” was written to her exact specs. The role tapped into her inner tomboy, her goofy charm, and her bright, clarion voice. Her rapport with Pinza was palpable and intensely sensual; the song “Some Enchanted Evening,” recorded by dozens of singers at the time, became the all-time classic of love-at-first-sight.

South Pacific was the Hamilton of its day—nine Tony awards, including Martin’s, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The cast recording was the number one album in the country for 69 consecutive weeks and remained on the charts for nearly eight years. And as Kaufman reports, the show was an early adaptor of merchandising goodies: “There were South Pacific sheets and pillowcases, scarves and neckties, perfumes and lipsticks, even [my favorite] fake ticket stubs that people could leave on the coffee table as status symbols.” Fooling people into thinking you had seen the show was apparently the next best thing to being there.

Martin received almost unprecedented praise. The great actress Helen Hayes, widely known in those days as “the First Lady of the American Theater” listed Martin’s performance as one of the ten most memorable she had ever seen, ranking her with Brando in Streetcar, Olivier in Oedipus Rex and Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. Even the brittle and persnickety British critic Kenneth Tynan confessed to heaving “huge sobs of delight” while watching Martin, and continued: “Skipping and roaming the stage on diminutive flat feet, she had poured her voice directly into that funnel to the heart which is sealed off from all but the rarest performers.”

Martin played the character for three years, two on Broadway and one in London, missing a mere handful of performers. Throughout her career, she insisted on living up to audience expectations, no matter the circumstances. Even a badly injured arm didn’t deter her from a performance of The Sound of Music (which she also played for a full two years); she simply went onstage with her arm in a sling.

It was Martin’s idea to bring the story of the von Trapp Family Singers to the stage. Returning to the safe creative embrace of Rodgers and Hammerstein, she first asked them to write a few incidental songs before it was agreed it should be a full-fledged musical. The result was another triumph for Martin (her fourth Tony). Few critics were impolite enough to mention that at 46, she would have been history’s oldest living novitiate nun; most were as enamored of her as audiences were. But the show itself went in for something of a drubbing: “Crushingly unexciting” was one assessment; “a show for children of all ages, from six to about eleven and a half” was another. Nonetheless, it ran for nearly four years, two after Martin’s departure, and became R&H’s most popular show; none could have imagined then the success of the screen version, one of the highest-grossing films in history. But by then, Julie Andrews was Maria von Trapp, and only the devoted—or charter AARP members—still have Martin’s “Lonely Goatherd” in their ears.

Full obeisance to a star requires bearing witness to a live performance. Naturally, I wanted desperately to see Mary Martin in person, especially in The Sound of Music, which tapped directly into to my then-sentimental attachment to nuns. (Catholicism can run deep and uncomfortably in the bones.) But we were not a travelling family, so a New York trip wasn’t going to happen. But Martin didn’t tour in this show. We were stuck with Barbara Meister, which wouldn’t do at all. Never heard of Barbara Meister? Exactly.

Fortunately, we then lived near Detroit, in those days a popular try-out town, used by pre-Broadway shows hoping to work out the kinks before heading to the more critical judgment of New York. At the brand-new Fisher Theater, musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof worked out the kinks quite nicely. Others, like Pleasures and Palaces, Skyscraper, and Sophie did not.

Nor did Jennie in 1963, the major misfire of the Martin/Halliday career. Based on the early life of Laurette Taylor, the musical’s book was unfocused and dull, the score disappointing. But no one seems to have told Mary Martin that she was in a flop. She played the role with fierce commitment, total charm, and the kind of charisma only the gods can provide. She didn’t make the show a success, but she made it well worth the effort it took to endure it. The cast recording offers a taste of that performance. The songs are mostly second-rate, but from her throat they’re like listening to sunshine. Only a performer of the first caliber could make these lyrics seem fresh and wise:

High is better than low
Joy is better than woe
Glad is better than sad
And just in case you didn’t know
Up is better than down
Smile is better than frown
Don’t be dragging a fearful tearful
Face around the town.

(And let’s not forget, “Bubbly’s better than troubly”!)

How do you transfer the alchemy of a live performance into prose? Kaufman addresses the difficulty. He describes

[Martin’s] aura that seemed to transcend time and space even while reveling in them. Every performance was the same, even to the extent that it was different. By living and acting in the moment, Martin pinned down what was effervescent, making it seem everlasting.

Let’s add “joy” to that description, a word used liberally in contemporary descriptions of her work. Few seemed to revel in the art of performance as she did. And this, from a friend of mine: “She was like a fireplace on a cold night. You just wanted to be near her to warm yourself.” Even in a troubly bomb like Jennie.

Halliday died in 1973 after a long series of illnesses. Martin continued to work until her death in 1990 at 77. There were late-career triumphs, including her last Broadway musical appearance in I Do! I Do!, a 1966 musical version of the retrograde play The Fourposter, with Martin and Robert Preston as the sole magnificent performers. And though she had declined to take on the original production of Hello, Dolly!, she accepted the role in an exhausting and often dangerous tour that took her to London, Japan, and Vietnam. There were also misfires, none so abject as her lengthy tour with Carol Channing in a dismal play, Legends, that cast the women as longtime movie star rivals now down on their luck. It was a sad professional low for both women, but particularly for Martin, whose hearing loss and declining memory forced her to use an earpiece that allowed the stage manager to feed her lines; technical snafus resulted, including one incident when her earpiece began receiving local taxi dispatches.

By this time, Halliday had been replaced, at least in business terms, by a public relations pro, Ben Washer, who became her manager/amanuensis. (He once described his job as taking care of “the biggest baby in captivity.”) When Martin, Washer, Gaynor, and her husband were involved in a taxi accident in San Francisco, Washer was killed instantly, and Gaynor suffered injuries that precipitated her death months later. Martin was devastated, but continued to work, tireless in maintaining the brand—personal appearances, concerts, television shows, even a book of her needlepoint work. She died of colon cancer in 1990, aged 77. In a front-page New York Times obituary, director Elia Kazan summarized her appeal: “She was full of the love of being loved.”

Martin’s remains are interred in Weatherford, Texas; a thousand miles away, those of Janet Gaynor lie in a cemetery in Hollywood. Each of them is buried next to her gay husband.

Since reading Kaufman’s book, I’ve asked a number of people what the name “Mary Martin” means to them. Only theater fans had an answer; others draw a blank or perhaps vaguely recall Peter Pan on television. So fragile is fame, even for one as celebrated in her time as she was. Kaufman, whose book is a commendable effort at establishing her place in theater history, recounts an anecdote told him by Larry Hagman’s daughter, Kristina. It was after Martin’s memorial service in New York, at a party at Sardi’s, where caricatures of theater stars have lined the walls for many years. Kristina was dismayed to see that Martin’s portrait was gone, after years of what had seemed a permanent presence. “Okay, now I get it. [Fame] is fleeting,” she thought. “I shared it with my father, and he said, ‘That’s show biz, honey.’”

* * *
thenandnowSome Enchanted Evenings demonstrates just how much work went into being Our Mary, not only the effort and dedication required to becoming a Chinese princess, an adolescent boy, and an Austrian novice onstage, but also upholding the image of domestic bliss that was the essence of nearly every article written about her.

Barbara Cook walked a similar tightrope in her decades-long career, which overlapped Martin’s by some 15 years. For a time she was the iridescent personification of Broadway romantic innocence, while her life offstage was beset by crippling personal problems. But whereas Martin seemed to float above the fray (some might call it denial), Cook was nearly undone by her demons. Ironically, Cook’s ability to triumph over them—a struggle that provides the dramatic core of her new memoir—has perhaps assured her a deeper and more enduring legacy.

Now and Then vividly relates her troubled childhood, a failed marriage, an adulterous affair with her “soul mate” (actor Arthur Hill), alcoholism, substantial weight gain, and the collapse of her theater career—all capped by a second act that makes a liar of Scott Fitzgerald.

She was born in Atlanta and had a veritable Dickensian youth. Her sister died of pneumonia when Cook was three; her adored father left the family when she was six, and the blame for both traumatic events were laid at her feet by her mentally troubled mother. Financial woes forced mother and daughter to share the same bed until she was 20. Little wonder that Cook took the first chance to flee to New York to follow her destiny: “I was born; I breathed; I sang. I have no memory of a time I didn’t sing.”

She was never a Martin-Merman-Verdon superstar, but proved that divahood can be bestowed on those who also serve by creating indelible moments in short-lived shows. But in the roughly fifteen years from her first Broadway appearance to her last book musical, Cook reigned as the theater’s greatest theatrical soprano. In Flahooley (1951) and Plain and Fancy (1955) she won kudos for her pert, old-fashioned beauty and her sincere acting. Her exquisite voice, pure and clear as a mountain stream, was unmatched, and in the 1956 musical Candide, she made history. Had she performed no other role or recorded no other song than “Glitter and Be Gay,” she would have secured herself a place in the show queen pantheon.

Candide, a musical version of Voltaire’s 17th-century satire, was created by a team of heavyweights: Leonard Bernstein (music), Lillian Hellman (libretto), and lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur, with assistance from John LaTouche and Dorothy Parker, Hellman, and Bernstein. The score is inarguably one of the best ever written for the theater, but the show died after 73 performances. Some say Hellman’s work and the production were heavy-handed, and Hellman herself must have been dissatisfied: she made it clear in her will that this version could never be staged after her death. Yet that hasn’t dissuaded others from trying their damnedest to place the gorgeous score in other versions that often veer awkwardly toward the cartoonish or camp. A colorful—some might say dumbed down—version on Broadway in 1974 ran for 740 performances. It set the audience in the midst of the action, with orchestra seats replaced by benches and cushions, and cast members often frolicking nearby. It was great fun, but without bite. Opera houses and theaters alike have taken their turn over the years, ever hopeful that their take will be definitive. (New York City Opera will give it a second try early next year.)

The 1956 original cast album is its enduring souvenir. Never out of print, it would surely be on innumerable Desert Island Discs, with “Glitter and Be Gay” its centerpiece. The maiden Cunegonde, virginal until an enemy’s pillaging takes her from her fiancé Candide, now finds herself in Paris, a demi-mondaine in the sexual thrall of both a marquis and a sultan. (“And here I am, my heart breaking, forced to glitter, forced to be gay.”) The aria proceeds to alternate between her despair in captivity and the very real compensation of worldly goods. (“If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!”)

Cook describes her reaction to seeing the sheet music for the song during her first audition: “It was twelve pages long. Holy Hannah!” (Cook loves her folksy outbursts.) She counted all “the extra lines above the treble clef. This was a killer piece of music,” she writes, “and a killer score with four e-flats above high C, six D-flats above high C, sixteen B-flats, and twenty-one high C’s.”

No one was more surprised than Cook when she won the role, and her stories of its creation and quick demise are among the book’s best passages, including the sartorial flamboyance of Bernstein and Hellman: He favored “a rather long, green loden cape, lined in red satin that swirled around him, an outfit finished off by black patent-leather loafers. Wow!” Hellman traveled to the show’s brief Boston tryout with a dozen hatboxes and “two huge steamer trunks.” On opening night in New York, Bernstein casually told her that Maria Callas was in the audience. “Oh my god, I could have done without knowing that,” she told him. Bernstein: “Don’t be ridiculous. She’d kill for your E-flats.”

Candide put Cook on the theatrical map. “Glitter and Be Gay” regularly received ovations of up to three or four minutes—“an eon in a show.” (And, for the record, no one has sung it better.) In her next show she found herself in her first genuine smash. Playing Marian the Librarian, the spinster-but-perhaps-not-a-virgin in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man won her a Tony and a very long run. But not a role in the hit film version; she too found herself passed over by Hollywood.

Over the next decade she was rarely out of work, celebrated in plays and revivals of classic musicals—Showboat, The King and I, Carousel—summer stock, and a handful of original shows better known for their cult status than their financial success: The Gay Life, She Loves Me, The Grass Harp. And in each of these she was awarded two or three solo songs still deeply cherished by aficionados.

But the theater was changing, adapting to the raw, rebellious ‘60s. Cook was harder to cast in what she calls her “ ‘middlescence’—too old to play the ingénue, too young to play the wise, feisty older woman.” She was in her forties, and as she says, “nowhere.”

She began to drink, and saw the dissolution of her marriage to a controlling husband. Their teenage son began to spend more time with his father, and Cook faced a dim future of alcoholism and clinical depression. “I didn’t shower or brush my teeth for days at a time. I couldn’t imagine cooking a meal, or writing out checks, or going to sleep without liquor.” She also began to gain shocking amounts of weight, enough to make her uncastable in most roles; food became as addictive as alcohol.

It was only when someone suggested that she return to cabaret singing (her occasional job in the ‘50s) that she resuscitated her life and career. With the inestimable assistance of music director and best pal Wally Harper, she began a four-decade-long series of appearances in nightclubs, theaters, and concerts halls—launched spectacularly with a 1975 sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. The evening is preserved on a recording that demonstrates both her exultant pleasure in the art of performance and the rapture of an audience’s devotion and appreciation of that art. And more than two dozen subsequent recordings stand as a testament to Cook as one of the greatest of all interpreters of the American Popular Songbook. She writes, “For a long time I wasn’t fully aware of how much of my own life I put into interpreting lyrics… I put my life, everything that ever happened to me, the good and the bad, into these songs.”

This past July, she gave a series of intimate “farewell” concerts. 88 years old and confined to a wheelchair, often reading from notes to aid her memory, she nonetheless evoked a warm response from audiences and critics. From Stephen Holden of The New York Times: “As though waving an invisible wand, she evoked a profound mixture of resignation, reassurance, and understanding.”

These qualities suffuse her book as well, although had it been written decades earlier it might have been enriched with more detail and anecdote. She notes that much of it was born from a series of conversations she had with co-author Tom Santopietro, and the casual, conversational tone brings out the best of what Cook delivered in concert (where I have been a fortunate audience member many times): frank, self-effacing, and full of still-powerful Southern charm. For all of the abundant praise and adulation laid at her feet, Cook was never grand. But her singing was.

Case in point: In 2011, she was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Yo Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Sonny Rollins, and Neil Diamond. Flooded with complimentary telegrams, emails, and tweets, she counts this as her favorite: “Who the fuck is Barbara Cook?”

These two worthwhile books dovetail nicely in a story related by Cook, who auditioned, unsuccessfully, as Wendy in Peter Pan. “Mary Martin began to take a real interest in me and my career. . . She would send me little gifts—it was so nice of her. She was the biggest star on Broadway, and it was all very flattering.”

Cook’s next show, Plain and Fancy, was moving into the Winter Garden Theater, where Peter Pan was closing. Martin found out which dressing room was to be Cook’s, and wrote on the mirror in lipstick, “Good luck from Peter Pan. Peter loves you.”

Years later, Martin and Halliday came backstage after Candide to visit Cook, who had a sudden brain freeze and forgot Halliday’s name. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how this could have happened but your name has just flown out of my head. I apologize.

“Mary never spoke to me again.”

Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.