20th Century Boy
Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door
By Hugh Martin. Trolley Press. 409 pages, $29.95
Damn that Eddie Fisher for telling the world that his pianist—composer Hugh Martin—got him hooked on speed. It’s hard enough to imagine that the fellow who wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was addicted to amphetamines for 10 years without further tarnishing his image into that of a dealer pushing dope to some half-assed pop singer. But not to worry; Hugh Martin was duped by the wicked Dr. Max Jacobson, who convinced his star-studded clientele that they were being injected with liquid vitamins, not speed. (President Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote were among Jacobson’s patients. Of the doctor, Martin wrote: “Sometimes it seemed as if Truman Capote were giving one of his galas in the doctor’s office.”)
With impeccable timing, Martin wrote his autobiography Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door a year before his death this March, at age 96. The Birmingham-raised Martin was a master at vocal arrangement and piano accompaniment.
He tells the story of his charmed show-business life with amusing self-deprecation. Martin was smitten with music and theater as a child. His mother often left him in the care of his grandmother for months at a time so that she could go to New York City to indulge her fondness for the arts, particularly Broadway musicals. She instilled in the young Martin an infatuation with the magic of show business, and in his memoir he repeatedly praises her for nourishing that passion. His world always revolved around show biz—whether as a child in love with movies and musicals; performing with vocal groups as a teen; accompanying Judy Garland on piano for her triumphant two-week run at The Palace in New York City in 1951; or, while engaged in bayonet training at a World War II boot camp, imagining he was stabbing the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz
Born in Birmingham in 1914, Martin headed to New York City in 1934 for his first attempt at breaking into the entertainment world. Making the rounds of radio and other entertainment venues earned the singing piano player numerous rejections, but apparently he got someone’s attention because the still-unknown Martin soon got a phone call from Mae West. She became agitated when Martin assumed the call was a friend impersonating the starlet to play a prank on him. The embarrassed Martin apologized profusely but West simply let him off the hook with: “Never mind. Skip the apologies. I have a hard time sometimes convincing people that I am who I am.” She had called looking for a pianist and vocal arranger to tour with her for six months. When Martin turned her down because he didn’t want to leave New York City West got mad, shouting, “How dare you turn down Mae West . . . you’re insane!”
Many thought he was indeed insane when his repeated attempts to enlist for combat in World War II finally came to fruition (Martin had been earlier rejected for being underweight). After the war ended in Europe, Martin was stationed near Paris where he indulged his love of music and theater. He recalls an evening spent with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
“The ladies felt an urge to do their patriotic bit for us friendly troops, so they opened their famous residence at 27 Rue de Fleurs one night a week. Two lucky soldiers would show up at 8 p.m., and Gertie and Alice would entertain them with hors d’oeuvres and wine and some really classic conversation . . . We sat directly beneath Picasso’s famous portrait of Miss Stein, which made us feel somehow part of history. While she was fixing some tidbits for us in the kitchen, Alice leaned forward surreptitiously and whispered, ‘Gertrude is in one of her anti-capitalist cycles at the moment. Oh, I do hope she lets me have one more afternoon in Macy’s basement!’”
Martin’s circle of friends and peers reads like show biz archives: Ed Wynn, Tony Bennett (he called Martin his favorite songwriter), Irving Berlin (who Martin did not particularly like), Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer (Martin’s first song was in collaboration with Mercer), Rodgers and Hart, an unknown Carmen Miranda. Hugh Martin writes of the good fortune show business brought his way in dramatic style, and seems eternally grateful that he got to work with legends. Midway through his autobiography, Martin shares snippets of chatter with famous friends that pop into his head from time to time. Gore Vidal once asked Martin, after Princess Diana’s death, “Do we really want Elton John to sing at our funerals?” Besides being Judy Garland’s vocal coach, Hugh Martin also tutored the great Lena Horne, who once told him: “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d just as soon not sing that lyric you wrote about darkies loving cornbread.”
Hugh Martin was in love with life and joyously shares every dramatic moment. Reading The Boy Next Door is forthright and intimate; it’s as if Martin invited the reader over to his front porch for a cup of tea to hear about the good ol’ days of show biz. &