Old Tony Martin, in his day, cut 14 gold records and shot a panty hose commercial even before Joe Namath, but the pivotal act of his life came 28 years ago when he recaptured a woman from the then still insatiable Howard Hughes.
Martin was at the time himself a carousing club crooner. “Johnny Meyers [a Hughes aide] came over to me at the Mocambo one night when Cyd Charisse and I were there,” Tony recalls, “and said if Cyd and I weren’t in love, Howard wanted to meet her. I had been married to Alice Faye, and I had gone through things with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, so I told him it was all right with me. I felt if I wasn’t strong enough to keep her, I didn’t deserve it. Cyd thought it meant I didn’t care. It almost ruined us.”
Hughes gave Martin two open first-class airline tickets to anywhere, figuring he’d wing away with yet another score. Instead, Tony took Cyd off to a London honeymoon. She became his second, and so far final, wife. Cyd was then the ravishing Hollywood ballerina whom Fred Astaire considered the greatest partner of his career (so she has written). Cyd’s classic movie dances with both Astaire and Gene Kelly gave MGM’s two-part That’s Entertainment! it’s most spectacular moments, and in Broadway’s hit musical A Chorus Line one male dancer sums up his frustration by blurting about “all those years of pretending I was Cyd Charisse.” As for himself, says Martin, “she still turns me on after 29 years.”
The success of their durable marriage, as Tony, 62, puts it in their just-published joint autobiography, The Two of Us, is that “we were never competitive.” Cyd, 55, and still sveltely elegant in her Halston dresses, elaborates: “I’m the dancer and Tony is the singer.” Who’d think otherwise?—even if she claims Tony “does a nice rumba. I think it’s also important,” she adds “that we were both married before. You learn a lot from a first marriage.”
Home, these days, when they’re not on the road with a joint act, is an 11-room aerie atop Beverly Hills adorned with costly paintings (including a Utrillo) and Chinese and pre-Columbian art. Yet for most of the year the place serves as a garage for Tony’s silver Cadillac Seville and Cyd’s beige Jaguar sedan. “We’re gone so often that nobody wants to invite us out,” complains Cyd. “I told Tony we should take a page in Variety announcing that we’re home.” Besides their Hollywood pals like Vincente Minnelli, the Ricardo Montalbans and the David Janssens, Tony and Cyd are close to the Reagans and visit the Nixons regularly in San Clemente. This month the staunchly Republican Tony played Gerald Ford’s answer to Gregg Allman, lending his buttery tones to a GOP fund raiser in Florida.
If Tony frankly enjoys prosperity, it’s because he grew up (as Alvin Morris) in a struggling family of second-generation German-Russian Jewish immigrants in Oakland, Calif. He was raised by his tailor stepfather after his real father, a tombstone maker, was divorced from his mother and later killed himself. Tony’s grandmother bought him a soprano saxophone, and in high school he formed his first dance band, Al Morris and His Four Red Peppers. He went on to a Catholic college but soon dropped out to go into music. Martin worked up to be a $72.50-a-week nightclub crooner and broke into movies (Banjo on My Knee, Casbah) when one of his radio fans turned out to be MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Tony then became one of the top nightclub cabaret stars in America, with such standards as Begin the Beguine and There’s No Tomorrow.
Martin’s personal life, meanwhile, was supporting the gossip columns. His early marriage to then superstar Alice Faye ended after two years. “I was too immature,” Tony admits. “I almost resented her success. She was making $5,000 a week and I was making $165.” But Martin’s worst embarrassment came during World War II. He was discharged as “unfit” by the Navy after the court-martial of an officer friend accused of accepting a car from Martin in return for trying to get the singer a commission in the reserve. Martin still fumes that the 1942 cause célèbre was a “farce” rooted in the Navy’s anti-Semitism. He finished up the war in the Army, winning a Bronze Star as a noncombatant in the Far East.
For all her exotic elegance, Cyd, or rather Tula Ellice Finklea, grew up in the Texas dust-bowl town of Amarillo. Her Baptist jeweler father, a closet balletomane, encouraged “Sid” (a corruption of “Sis”) to begin her ballet lessons for health reasons at the age of 6. (She was a frail child who still suspects her back was partially atrophied from childhood polio.) But at 12 Cyd studied ballet in L.A. under the French-born Nico Charisse, who later became her first husband. (She has a son, Nicky, now 34, from that brief marriage.) At 14 she danced with the prestigious Ballet Russe in Europe for a year before returning to L.A. and a 14-year stint in the MGM movie mill. “When Cyd and I first started working together, she was very shy,” remembers Gene Kelly, her partner in Singin’ in the Rain and Brigadoon. “The hardest thing I had to do was to get her to show off her beautiful legs and beautiful style.”
She still keeps herself at 5’6″, 118 lbs. with a daily 90-minute dance class as well as taking a thumping from Tony’s masseur. Tony’s given up his lucrative line of After Six dinner jackets, and he’s surrendered the panty hose spot, because “my legs got too heavy and they brought Joe Namath in.” One other form of commerce Martin has retired from is gambling at the Friars Club, where fellow players like Phil Silvers and Zeppo Marx were fleeced by bunco artists using electronic devices in a famous 1960s ripoff. “I was never involved in those big games,” he protests. “But no more cards for me; I lost my ass.”
That’s one of Tony’s few regrets—other than not finding Cyd earlier. “She’s so beautiful,” he gushes. “I only wish I had my life to live over so I could live it with Cyd. She doesn’t think I’m beautiful, though,” he adds self-mockingly. “She always dug Ty Power.”