Goodbye, Beautiful Long Legs
She danced while others simply walked. Parts of two days I spent with Cyd Charisse; the night belonged to her new husband, Tony Martin. He did all the talking, as I recall. She satisfied herself with smiles and a quiet but fiercely radiated warmth.
As most very young men in the years beyond World War II, I lusted after the absolutely beautiful lady with the dark hair. She was sexier in a long, long dress than virtually anyone in this age when female "charms" are flaunted. By the score, we bought tickets to see Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in big musicals, but she was really the one we wanted to see.
The freshly wed Martins showed up in the castle where I both lived and worked. Control rooms and studios of the American Forces Network were installed in the 18th century mansion, together with the command structure. We slept, mostly, behind the girdled moat in the antique tower that dated from 849, more or less; it was built to guard a Main River crossing, started by the Romans.
The honeymooning Hollywood couple came to Germany for another historic event: They showed up for the Berlin Airlift that had started a few weeks before. Accompanying them was syndicated columnist Bert Bacharach who, after only a slight warm up, pitched his composer son.
The writer on men's fashions insisted that I come to California where he would help me get a radio station.
The unspoken requirement, but clearly understood, was that I promote songs by Burt. As it turned out, the child became much more famous than the father – with absolutely no help from me.
The columnist spieled at a party for the Martins in Wiesbaden's Four Seasons Hotel, hosted by Pan American Airways. Only later did I learn Pan Am was the prime contractor for the Airlift, engaged by the brand-new U.S. Air Force, separated from the Army only the year before. For all I knew, the lovely dancer-actress and her husband may have come to Germany on Pan Am's tab. It didn't really matter.
That June, exactly 60 years ago, I met the lady who, together with actress Rita Hayworth, lived in so many American teen-age boys' dreams. The new Mrs. Martin with dark hair balanced the redhead, by color, if not by talent. Ms. Hayworth's "gifts" went entirely to raising the pace in men's hearts around the globe. (Dancing with her before we did a radio program nudged upward my teen-age temperature; she sought refuge with U.S. forces in Germany, as a strategy, we later learned, to assure marriage to Prince Ali Kahn.)
Ms. Charisse, on the other hand, approached films chastely and demurely, except for her dancing, which drove male audiences wild. That may have been a product of that more inhibited sexual age. Even now, however, watching film clips on the Internet in recent days, much of that brooding temptation and tempestuousness still come into play.
In the company of new husband Tony Martin, she kept her talent for infatuating under lock and key; and still there was a great magnetism that rose out of her movements. That's not quite fair: she had the same attraction while sitting still.
She was pregnant with a son that made her decline the invitation to appear with co-favorite partner Gene Kelly in "American in Paris." Mr. Kelly ranked with Fred Astaire. My, my, how she danced with each. When asked to compare them, she glided away with the observation: "They're both delicious."
I cannot recall a single rumor that detracted from my first impression that she was a genuine lady of the best, old-fashioned kind.
Several years ago when on a California visit to my last boss at NBC, I was taken to a benefit for ailing actors and the Martins were there. At my distance they both seemed unchanged from that Airlift summer, roughly 40 years before. When I made the comment, my hostess insisted that I should go over and say hello. I declined with some vapid reason.
In truth, I did not want to disturb the memory from when she was 26 and her great films had not yet been made. "Singing in the Rain," her big breakthrough appeared in theatres some five years later. "Brigadoon" and "Bandwagon" followed.
Perhaps because of the time she spent with "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo," her favorite remained "Silk Stockings:" she appeared as a Soviet commissar unable to control her temptation for a "decadent" life, especially the underclothes. Employing only luxurious lingerie as her partner she created a classical ballet solo, in film.
There was no way that night in Los Angeles I could cross the ballroom, trailing through the banquet tables and try to identify with the boy I was at 20. Tony Martin didn't matter, but that would have meant disturbing an icon from my youth, forcing her to try to reach for a moment that happened long ago and far away.
Her passing this week was celebrated by media around the world, including Moscow's Pravda and London's BBC; it was front-page news in most American papers. It should have been. Her death of a reported heart attack brought to mind a smile that enchanted every heart within range, both male and female. She was a warm, caring human being.
Several centuries before her Texas birth, William Shakespeare wrote words about Juliet that certainly apply in this instance. Coming upon his apparently dead bride, Romeo said: "Her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light."
Ms. Charisse/Mrs. Martin turned 87 in March.