Texas Girl Becomes a Star

Mary Martin as Peter Pan, NBC Productions

Growing up in Weatherford, twenty-five miles west of Fort Worth, Mary Virginia Martin loved to mimic movie stars—dancing and acting like Dick Powell’s co-star, Ruby Keeler and singing like the crooner Bing Crosby. Martin’s mother, a violin teacher, had planned to have a son in 1913. Instead, her lively little girl became the family’s tomboy, romping and playing in the orchard and barn and riding ponies with her older sister Geraldine. She claimed in her autobiography My Heart Belongs to have had an idyllic childhood and that her photographic memory made it easy to memorize songs and remember the answers for school exams.

She performed her first solo in a fire hall and remembered soaking up the crowd’s admiration. Then, she sang with a trio of little girls dressed like bellhops on the town’s bandstand right outside the courthouse where her father used his powerful voice to present his law cases. She realized her voice was powerful, too, because even without a microphone it rang out across the town square.

Her family sent her to Ward-Belmont, a strict finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee, where entertaining the other girls with imitations of Fanny Brice was not enough to assuage her homesickness, especially for Benjamin Hagman. She and Hagman convinced her mother, who was the family disciplinarian, to allow them to marry. As it turned out, marriage and expecting her first child (Larry Hagman, future J.R. Ewing in Dallas) at seventeen was not the dream she had imagined.

Following her sister’s suggestion, she opened a dance school in nearby Mineral Wells and embarked on a series of choices that finally propelled her into stardom. She divorced Hagman, left her son in Weatherford, and headed to California to study dance. Over the next two years, she became known as “Audition Mary” for never missing an opportunity to try out for a job as a singer or a dancer. She took whatever work she could get including a stint at theaters in San Francisco and Los Angles.

She arrived in New York after a producer saw her performance and offered her a role in a play that never opened. Then she was cast in Cole Porter’s production of Leave it to Me, which debuted in November 1938. She captured the audiences with the song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

The media attention finally opened the door to Hollywood in 1939, and in the next three years, she starred in ten movies. Radio performances included Good News of 1940 and Kraft Music Hall.

In 1940 she married Richard Halliday, an editor and producer at Paramount, who became her manager. She won the New York Drama Critics Poll for her role as Venus in One Touch of Venus. She contributed ideas for the songs and choreography for her role as Ensign Nellie Forbush in the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein hit South Pacific. For ten years, she performed on stage and television in Skin of Our Teeth and Annie Get Your Gun, however, she said that her favorite role was that of Peter Pan that ran briefly on Broadway and then repeatedly on NBC-TV.

Martin claimed many awards including Tony Awards for Peter Pan, for her portrayal of Mary Rainer in The Sound of Music and for her role as nurse Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. She was presented with a special Tony in 1948 “for spreading theatre to the rest of the country while the originals perform in New York,” and she received the annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 for career achievement. Although she is credited with fifteen films and fourteen television performances, Martin said she preferred the “connection” she felt with a live theater audience. She performed in twenty-two stage productions.

Mary Martin died of cancer on November 3, 1990, and is buried in her hometown of Weatherford, Texas.

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Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy

At the beginning of the Civil War, 17-year-old Marie Isabella (Belle) Boyd hardly fit the image of a daring spy.  A tall, slender blonde with a hooknose and protruding teeth, Belle had graduated Baltimore’s Mount Washington Female College and enjoyed the luxury of a Washington debut.  Family stories abound of the lively, oldest child of eight growing up as a tomboy climbing trees and finally in protest for being excluded from the adult dinner table at age eleven, she rode her horse into the dining room and announced, “Well, my horse is old enough isn’t he?”

Belle’s family lived in Martinsburg, Virginia (present West Virginia) and owned six slaves, one of whom, Eliza, became Belle’s constant companion.  Secretly, at night by candlelight, Belle defied the law by teaching Eliza to read and write.  When Belle began her other secret adventures—spying on Union troops—Eliza reportedly helped by carrying messages to Confederates in a hollowed-out watchcase.

In Belle’s memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison published in 1866, she relates a story that appears to signal the beginning of her involvement in the Civil War.  The Union captured Martinsburg and while ransacking homes and businesses, a group of drunken soldiers invaded the Boyd home and tried to raise a Yankee flag.  Mary Boyd, Belle’s mother, exclaimed, “Every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.”  Belle continues the story by writing that one of the soldiers “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.  I could stand it no longer . . . we ladies are obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.”  Belle drew her Colt 45 pistol and killed the gentleman.

The subsequent inquiry found Belle had “done perfectly right,” according to her account.  For a brief period sentries posted around her home kept watch on her activities, which worked to Belle’s profit.  She charmed secrets out of one of her overseers and related the information to Confederate officers—the beginning of her career as a spy.

Union officials began to watch Belle’s activities, but she managed to take advantage of her minders’ sense of chivalry and their natural deference to “ladies” to gather detailed information on Union movements that she passed on to Confederate commanders.

After visiting her father who was serving in what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, Belle began carrying messages between generals Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard.

In May 1862, probably while employed in a hotel owned by her relatives in the Shenandoah Valley town of Front Royal, she overheard plans to send Union forces east out of Front Royal, reducing the Union’s strength in the town.  She rode that night; some accounts say fifteen miles through Union lines to pass the information to Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.  When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to the edge of town to meet Jackson and inform him of the light enemy strength.  Jackson’s aide later described seeing a woman in white gliding swiftly out of town seeming to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waving a bonnet as she came.  Belle claimed in her memoir, “Federal pickets . . . immediately fired upon me . . .rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me . . . numerous bullets whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing.”  Jackson captured Front Royal and wrote a personal letter of appreciation for Belle’s bravery.  Some accounts say she received the Southern Cross of Honor.

The detective, Allan Pinkerton wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “She (Belle) gets around considerably, is very shrewd, and is probably acting as a spy.  She is an open, earnest, and undisguised secessionists, and talks secession on all practicable occasions . . .informant considers her more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operation than any three men in the valley.”

After being arrested in July 1862 and again the following year, she became known as the “Joan of Arc of the Confederacy.”  She volunteered to carry Confederate papers to England aboard the blockade-runner Greyhound only to be stopped on May 10, 1864.  She “managed” to escape, fled first to Canada, then on to London where she married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had captured the Greyhound.  Upon Hardinge’s return to the United States, he was jailed for aiding and abetting an enemy spy.  Soon after his release, he either died mysteriously or disappeared.

Belle remained in London where she wrote her two-volume memoir, gave birth to a daughter, and began a stage career.  By the end of 1866 Belle retuned to the United States with her daughter and made her stage debut in St. Louis under the name of Nina Benjamin.

Belle’s Texas connection began in 1868 when she acted in several plays in Houston and Galveston.  She moved on to Austin when she gave several dramatic readings at the Texas postwar constitutional convention.

Belle sampled domesticity in 1869 when she gave up her stage career to marry Dallas businessman, J. S. Hammond.  Their union produced three children and lasted until 1884 when Belle divorced Hammond and two months later married the twenty-four-year-old stock-company actor, Nathaniel Rue High.

Belle returned to the stage in 1886 under her maiden name, Belle Boyd, with High serving as her business manager.  She opened her Toledo, Ohio, debut with the dramatic story of her exploits as a Confederate spy.  She toured the country performing in a Confederate gray uniform and cavalry-style gray hat.

In 1900, after ending a lecture with the dramatic words “one God, one flag, one people—forever,” Belle Boyd died of a heart attack.