By Carolyn See
Do you remember last year, when some of us stopped watching the 11-o’clock news? Do you remember when we first met Mary Hartman, that travesty of all that America holds dear? Do you remember how, after struggling with the shine on our own rotten kitchen floors, we got to watch Mary struggle with the exact same thing-and lose, decisively? Do you remember her best friend, Loretta Haggers, and Loretta’s balding husband, Charlie, and those magic nights at the Capri Lounge?
Well, we’re a year older now. And perhaps the Presidential elections brought us back to the 11-o’clock news. Or maybe we got tired of Mary – because on our bad days she reminded us too much of ourselves. But all through that declining wasteland of joke-no-joke that makes up the whole terrain of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Loretta Haggers, alias Mary Kay Place, came up smelling consistently like a rose.
Through my exhausted 11 P.M. laughter, I developed a certain amount of contempt for Mary, and an increasingly heartfelt admiration for Loretta, who wants more than anything in the world to make it as a singing star, who loves her wispy, middle-aged husband, yet maintains the stamina to cheer up her friends and urge them to have “a one-on-one with the Lord,” as they stagger through their own relentlessly boring lives. Ah, Loretta! On my bad days I feel like Mary Hartman and yearn to be you-bouffant wig and all.
I first met Loretta-Mary Kay without her bouffant wig and with a mild case of the fidgets in the offices of producer Norman Lear. Oh, she looks nice! Her hair is combed and curled, her face is scrubbed and only lightly tinted with makeup. Her blouse is perfectly pressed and she wears perfectly creased culottes over expensive boots. She leans forward, nervously, on the couch and chatters.
“You drove in from the Valley? I’m looking for a house of my own. I swear I’ve looked at ten thousand in the past six months, but I don’t think I’m ready for the Valley yet. I mean, I’m ready for a house, but I’m not ready for the Valley. I’ve gotten as far as plates that match, and maybe real tablecloths, but I haven’t made it all the way to the ‘bridal obsession.’ That would be a death-defying leap...“The same with a car. I know I need your regular, grown-up car. But I think I’ll just go on driving my 1970 Maverick for a while. It has a coat hanger for an aerial. When I first started writing those ‘M*A*S*H’ scripts, they wouldn’t even let me on that lot because I was driving that car...”
Mary Kay Place, even during “Mary Hartman’s” slump, has become a hot property. She has just completed her first movie, New York, New York, with Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, in which she plays a ‘40’s singer. She has cut her first record album, in country-Western style, under a curiously divided identity: “Mary Kay Place,” the jacket announces in the upper-right-hand corner, and down at the left there is a marquee that says: Tonite! At the Capri Lounge Loretta Haggers.
The fact is that Mary Kay Place and Loretta Haggers are indivisible. They are both blond, cute, religious, optimistic, Southern-born. And they are both happily enough in love with real, live nice American guys, but carrying on nervous flirtations with that shifty-eyed love object, success.
Mary Kay’s boyfriend is screenwriter-director Bill Norton. “I want to tell you that before he’d make on of those...intellectual statements, or before he’d ever even pick up a pair of those Gucci shoes, he’d die first. He, he’s wonderful. He bought his son a tarantula for Christmas. I can come home from work, he doesn’t demand my attention. On the other hand, he doesn’t dote on my success. He’s got his own, d’you know?” But she lives alone.
How do young, blond honeys get started, especially when they’re born in the middle of America? They become cheerleaders, and Mary Kay led cheers in Tulsa, for the Nathan Hale High School Rangers. She majored in drama at the University of Tulsa, and the day after graduation headed straight for Hollywood, “never doubting I would somehow be involved in this business.” Since she had prudently learned to type, she soon found herself serving as a secretary to Norman Lear on the set of “Maude,” then a new series.
After typing script after script, she came to the conclusion that it would be more fun to write them. “I was so lucky. At that time they were still in the process of figuring out what ‘Maude’ was about. We’d work maybe sixteen, eighteen hours a day, and I got to hear Norman explain, time after time, what something funny really was. It was an absolutely priceless experience.”
One day Mary Kay and another secretary came romping through the office singing a song they’d made up: “If Communism comes a-knocking at your door, don’t answer.” Lear overheard them, and gave them a chance to sing it on “All in the Family.”
From then on it became evident that Mary Kay had, in addition to her good looks, a couple of other, vaguely alarming attributes going for her: strong intelligence, very strong ambition.
She moved on to write for Mary Tyler Moore. She received an Emmy nomination for a “M*A*S*H” script. And when the idea for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” began circulating through the Lear offices, there was Mary Kay, honey-blond, a kid who kidded around with country music, smart as the proverbial whip and still set on acting. She got the part of Loretta.
[The McCall’s editor chopped the article here. Hopefully the only word missing was “at” or “around.”]
Christmas, 1976. Mary Hartman’s ratings look bad. The charges against Louise Lasser for cocaine possession have been dropped, but people still remember all the newspaper stories, and somehow the old jokes-that beloved waxy buildup-don’t seem so funny anymore. Mary’s in the nuthouse, Tom suffers from chronic impotence, poor Charlie has suffered that gunshot wound that has, to put it as delicately as possible, deprived him of his manhood. The writers seem to be suffering from chronic depression. The only ray of sunshine (and cheery cliches like that one do seem to cluster about her) is 29-year-old Mary Kay Place, the ebullient Loretta.
They are shooting the Christmas Eve show. On the Capri Lounge set, a sleazy master of ceremonies introduces “a wonderful girl who’s sure to make it soon to those hallowed halls of Super Stardom...our almost-star, Loretta Haggers!”
“I want more hubbub, ladies and gentlemen,” a director’s voice calls from somewhere, and the extras clap and cry out obediently “hubbub, hubbub!” A door opens, and out onto the Capri’s tacky stage comes Loretta, stunningly, crazily sexy, in a cowboy dress that shows great expanses of creamy breast and thigh. She earnestly confides to her audience, “My husband, Charlie’s, been gone for quite some time, and even before that, he was, uh, gone, missing in another way as well. I’ve been blue about it, and so I did what I always do when I’m in trouble-I had myself a little one-on-one with the Lord...”
And a terrific thing happens on the sound stage. The smiles on the extras at the Capri Lounge deepen. Old, bored technicians begin to grin. An assistant director muscles in front of me to catch her as she sings a little hymn to marital wishful thinking.
And at the end of the second chorus Charlie miraculously appears, cured and in command of his virility, at the back of the Capri Lounge. Mary Kay gives him a smile that transcends all pretending. The extras cheer, Charlie grins, Mary Kay purrs and gyrates and whangs at her hips with a tambourine. MerryChristmas!”
“Your song was great, Mary Kay,” the director’s voice says from somewhere. The background musicians pack up their instruments and get ready to leave. Mary Kay stands frowning in the middle of the now deserted set of the Capri Lounge, forlorn, exhausted, pleased. Outside the sound stage, Graham Jarvis, who plays Charlie, says to me: “Mary Kay’s very gracious! Yes, she’s very gracious. Well, what I mean, I guess I can tell you this, don’t take this wrong, don’t get this wrong – she, well, she, she, well, she really turns me on! She knows that, I guess she knows that, but we never say anything about that – you know it gets very personal sometimes, very intense, when you’re making love in front of the cameras day after day-I mean, she could get offended, couldn’t she? She could say – you know – she could get offended. On the other hand, and this could be even worse, she could think I was really coming on to her. And that would be terrible! Because I have a wonderful wife. So what Mary Kay has is a real terrific sense of the situation. And she has something else, which I respect.”
The words come out, dignified, on the rickety steps of a Hollywood sound stage on a bright, smoggy day. “Her parents are Christian Scientists. Mary Kay has an inner calmness, a sense of, if it’s not, it’s not. Do you know what I mean? She believes in something better than herself. She believes in God. She’s a beautiful person.”
About a month had passed since the first time I talked to Mary Kay. She was busy, her secretary kept telling me; she was overscheduled; she was hot. Meanwhile, I kept in secondary touch: I watched her at 11 every night. On the East Coast, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” got its first really bad review. But every morning on my way to work I listened to KLAC, Los Angeles’ leading country-music station, and every day Mary Kay’s clear, unpretentious voice belted out the strains of her new hit, “Baby Boy”:
“He was old as my Pappy
But that didn’t make me unhappy…”
And every day “Baby Boy” climbed from 17th, to 12th, to seventh, to third on the country-western charts.
February, 1977. On a tiny street, in sweltering 85-degree California weather, I visit Mary Kay Place at home. She lives in a rented house on a side street in downtown Beverly Hills. A small house, next to other small houses from a more peaceful time. Apartments. Cars everywhere – on tiny circular driveways, on lawns, up over curbs. The patch of earth where Mary Kay’s lawn should be is covered by soft, smelly asphalt.
“Come in,” Mary Kay says exhaustedly. “The plumbing’s backed up, can you believe it? And a girl friend of mine came to stay last night. We’ve been moving boxes all morning.” She’s blinking in the sun, and the harsh light reveals the beginning of tired lines about her eyes. Mary Kay’s house is small and dark, and furnished in the style of the counterculture. Refinished oak dining-room table. Lace curtains. Ethiopian brooms affixed to the wall in pleasing patterns. A bowl of polished pebbles on the table.
Mary Kay tries to talk and measure coffee at the same time. She finally has to stop and count. “Can I get you something to eat? Some bagels? Some fruit?”
Mary Kay is still smarting from that critic’s bad review of the show. “I’m not saying he wasn’t right. He said I was getting stale-well, I’m trying to acknowledge that, I’m trying to let it teach me a lesson. The review came out about the same time that I was working on the album and the movie. I’d come in from eight or ten or twelve hours on the set, and then I’d tape a song...
“I’m trying to take that review – everything like that – and turn it around, let it give me a good kick in the ass, so that I won’t slack off. I won’t go stale. I’m appearing on a John Denver special along with Johnny Cash. People are inviting me now to do an act in Vegas. Don’t you see?” she said despairingly. “I don’t even have and act.” That afternoon I dropped by a record store to pick up a copy of her album. Behind the counter, a sullen clerk stopped flexing his tattoo long enough to answer. “She’s back there under P. Who is she anyway? She must be something. Everyone’s been asking for her.