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After a Tragic Auto Accident, Mary Martin Heals Wounds of the Body and the Heart

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Nine days after a car crash that killed one friend and critically injured another, Mary Martin was ready to leave San Francisco General Hospital. A nurse took her to the basement in a wheelchair, put a walker in front of her and told her to walk to her car. “It took a long time,” Martin recalls. “All the way, doctors and nurses were hanging out windows and clapping and yelling, ‘We believe! We believe!’ “—just as the kids did in Peter Pan. “That really got to me,” Mary says. “I burst into tears.”

Mary Martin, 68, is flying again, as well as she can with two broken ribs and a broken pelvis, with the painful loss of her manager-companion, Ben Washer, 76, and with worries about her still-hospitalized friend, actress Janet Gaynor, 76. “I have to walk two blocks a day. It’s therapy for my axle—that’s what I call my pelvis,” Martin says with uninjured humor. “Right now, though, I just can’t lift my darned foot. I go up and down stairs backwards. You know, when I was performing I think I slammed into every theater wall playing Peter Pan…. But I never broke my pelvis before.”

Even so, this week Martin will be back as co-host of Over Easy, the PBS show for people over 40. “I can’t wait,” she says. “Missing shows isn’t my thing. I plan to do the first show using the walker,” Mary adds. “I want it to be a message: It could happen to you, so whatever you do, keep moving.”

Her guests for this special October 8 show on traumatic events will be her son, Larry Hagman of Dallas, her daughter, Heller DeMeritt, and Larry’s wife, Maj—who all rushed to her side after the accident. Hagman says simply, “I’m delighted she’s alive and well and recovering so nicely.” “To have the whole family there made a difference,” says Mary’s nurse, Bee Kilgore.

Martin doesn’t remember much of that Labor Day Sunday after the four friends—Martin, Washer, Gaynor and Gaynor’s husband, producer Paul Gregory—got into a cab heading for a Chinatown dinner. “The cab driver had the longest hair,” Martin recalls, “and I thought, if I had scissors, I’d snip it right off. That’s the last I remember until I woke up in the hospital and my children were standing over me.” When the van allegedly ran a red light and broadsided the cab, Washer probably died on impact; Gaynor suffered 11 broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, a ruptured bladder, a bleeding kidney and a broken pelvis (even three weeks after the accident she remained in critical condition); Gregory, 62, had broken ribs and minor kidney damage (he’s left the hospital). The driver of the borrowed van, Robert Cato, 36, and the cab driver, Ronald Drury, 45, escaped with minor injuries.

They all were taken immediately to San Francisco General, a teaching facility for the University of California medical school, where Gaynor received the intensive care that kept her alive. “I think every city needs a trauma hospital,” Martin says. “It’s not who you are that counts at San Francisco General. The second night I was there, there were five stabbings and each of them got special treatment.”

As soon as she was able, Martin visited Gaynor, her friend of 40 years. “She can’t talk still because she has all those tubes down her throat,” Mary reports. “But she can write notes. She’ll write, ‘I love you….’ Janet is an unbelievably loyal friend who is there when you need her the most. She has a great deal of faith on her own and she always says the right thing when the chips are down. It’ll take her a while to get better, but she will.”

She turns from optimism for Gaynor to grief for the loss of her friend Ben. Though there was no romance, their friendship was profound and Washer, a former publicist, had taken care of Martin since her second husband, Richard Halliday, died in 1973. “The oldest baby-sitter for the world’s oldest baby,” Martin affectionately called him. He had just helped her move into a new home in Palm Springs. “Ben had already fixed up his suite,” she says. “I’m going to get a brass plaque and call that ‘Ben’s Saloon.’ He always thought it was one of the prettiest words in the language.”

Martin takes her slow, painful strolls around her San Francisco neighborhood these days, talking to neighbors as fans cheer her from their passing cars. She says she was spared because “I guess I have something else to do. I believe that, and I darn well am going to do it—whatever it is.”