June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

When those formative folkies Peter, Paul and Mary disbanded in 1971, Mary Travers panicked at the prospect of going solo. “Anxiety?” she asks. “I was so frightened that my throat muscles tightened and I developed a cystic polyp on my vocal cords my first year singing alone.” A surgeon excised the growth, but it took a shrink years to exorcise Travers’ fear of failing. “When you’ve been a tremendous success as a ‘we,’ ” she discovered, “you must separate the ‘I’ from the ‘we.’ If the hall wasn’t filled I felt guilty and wondered what I’d done wrong.”

Seven years, five solo albums (the latest: It’s in Everyone of Us), six British TV specials and 120 cabaret bookings per annum later, Travers no longer worries—she’s found her way in the liberated ’70s and fetches $1,500 a shot on the lecture circuit. So now, with little left to prove on her own, Mary’s come full circle. PP&M had gone their centrifugal ways—Paul Stookey into evangelical Christianity and Peter Yarrow into record producing after he was sentenced to 90 days for improprieties with an underage female fan (“Terrible for the image,” Mary understates). Now they have reunited for a new LP and a 17-concert sentimental journey beginning in August. “It’s so exciting,” she says. “It’s like the teeth of three gears coming together and meshing perfectly after eight years.”

Simultaneously, after an unsettled private life in which three marriages yielded two daughters and three divorces, Mary is venturing a cautious commitment. He’s Richard Ben-Veniste, special prosecutor at the 1974 Watergate trial, who, at 35 and 5’8″, is both six years younger and two inches shorter than she. They met, appropriately, leavin’ on a jet plane from LaGuardia for the Carter inaugural. It wasn’t love at first flight (it took a week), but Travers thinks this romance is realistically grounded. “I’m not arguing with myself anymore about whether or not I should work. It’s a given. Richard,” she says, speaking for her man, “is in love with a lady who goes out on the road and is not always available.” “Mary has a wonderful mind,” agrees Ben-Veniste, “and the rest should be obvious.” So far, though, it’s strictly a commuter romance. Her career is based in Manhattan, while his law practice locks him to Washington. They shuttle together for weekends and on-the-fly rendezvous as far a field as Mexico. “We speak to each other once a day, no matter where we are,” she declares. “Our phone bill is vulgar.”

Travers was born in Louisville, Ky., the daughter of two union-organizing newspaper reporters, and grew up on picket lines in New York’s Greenwich Village. She sang in Washington Square Park, a scene that later included Bob Dylan and Richie Havens, and recorded three albums with Pete Seeger before she turned 15. (Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer later became a PP&M hit.) Travers left school in the 11th grade (but has long been a “compulsive” reader, devouring 10 books a week) and worked as a waitress and switchboard operator before finding Peter and Paul in 1961. Over the next decade their repertory, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Puff (the Magic Dragon), earned them three Grammys, five platinum LPs and command performances before Queen Elizabeth and JFK. But their most treasured gigs were with the protest movement at battlegrounds like Ole Miss, Selma, the Pentagon and Chicago. In the meantime Mary’s successive marriages to a writer, photographer Barry Feinstein and National Lampoon publisher Gerald Taylor all went blooey. “They weren’t mistakes, but attempted relationships,” she maintains. “I wouldn’t change any of it.”

Lately Mary’s liberalism has evolved into moderate feminism, “though as far as liberation goes,” she cracks, “I’d describe myself as having one foot out the door and the other stuck in a pan of cement.” She copes with the single parenthood of daughters Erika, 18, and Alicia, 11, in a book-crammed West Side gothic apartment building. “I’m not one of those parents who says if my kid is going to sleep with her boyfriend she’s going to do it at home. That liberal I’m not. But,” she adds, “I told Erika she ought to deal with the Pill or the diaphragm if she felt it was impending, not afterward.”

Mom also sees no need to legalize her ties with Ben-Veniste “unless he decides to run for office, which he has not.” For now, she’s satisfied with the balance—an expression like “bottom line” would be anathema—of her life. “I love my work. I love my children, and they love me. Everything’s in order.”

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