The year is 1941, 9-year-old Morty Klein is singing in the hallway of his apartment building, and a neighbor says to his mother, “Shirl, why don’t you give him voice lessons? He’s got this beautiful soprano voice.” His parents enrolled him in the Marie Moses School of Dance and Singing, with such future-star classmates as Donna Reed, Ann Blythe, and Rita Moreno. At age 101⁄2, he was cast as a newsboy in the Broadway show Mexican Hayride with June Havoc. He did other shows and commercials until his voice changed at 13, when he was forced into early retirement. “My mother said, ‘Now you can lead a normal life,’ and I said, ‘Yes, a normal depressed life.’ ” At 17, now a baritone, he began performing in nightclubs under his new Waspy moniker. Richards spent two years at NYU studying architecture, his grandfather’s profession, while singing at night, but then quit to pursue show business full-time.
A scrapbook of yellowing clips charts his rise as a crooner: On May 21, 1956, the Daily News trumpeted an upcoming performance on an NBC show of “young baritone Mart Richards, a teen-age sensation. This Bronx-born buddy of Sal Mineo . . . first became popular when he did commercials for a candy bar.” He landed small parts in TV shows such as Naked City and The Defenders and movies such as The Hustler and Rat Race. He was dazzlingly good-looking; in his old head shots, he resembles a young James Dean.
As he gained traction as a singer, Richards loved regaling his family with tales of his glamorous life, but one thing he never revealed: He was gay. After a brief marriage in 1952, Richards realized he played for the other team. “It was the fifties, you didn’t talk about those things then,” he says. “My mother would have jumped out the window, she would have thought she did something terribly wrong.” He adds, “I never walked around in a tutu. The only difference was, I liked guys.” In 1962, Richards recognized that he wasn’t going to make it as a singer and landed jobs as a casting director. He began working for Fox and Paramount, finding bit players for Manhattan-location movies including The Seven Year Itch, Sweet Charity (where he first saw Fosse and Rivera from afar), The Boston Strangler, Sweet Smell of Success, and BUtterfield 8. Strapped for cash, Richards would occasionally stay at his family’s apartment: His younger brother, Bruce Klein, remembers the excitement when a woman called and identified herself as Elizabeth Taylor. “I had to get Marty out of the bathtub,” Klein recalls. Richards adds, “Because she was waiting and she was not exactly my bosom buddy, I ran, and I slid on the linoleum and landed on my rear.”
He’s always been starstruck, citing his behavior, as a lowly casting director, on location of the film Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn. “I am still in awe of people who I admire, but I’ve learned not to attack them,” he says. “I followed Audrey Hepburn around with a chair, just in case she wanted to sit down, until she asked the director, ‘Will you please tell that nice man I don’t want to sit?’ ”
While casting for veteran movie-and-Broadway producer Robert Fryer, Richards took on his own first project, raising $60,000 for an Off Broadway show, Dylan, with Rue McClanahan, which won an Obie. After proving his money-raising moxie, he was asked to join producers Fryer and James Cresson in raising $800,000 to launch Chicago.
His subsequent 27-year fixation with that dark musical can partly be explained by the fact that Richards was such a gawky novice on the show. Lyricist Fred Ebb recalls that at the first auditions, “Marty came and sat down two rows in front of Bobby Fosse, and somebody had to tell him to move. You didn’t do that.” Rivera recalls that Gwen Verdon took an instant dislike to the producer. “Marty was very sensitive and new,” Rivera says. “He wasn’t treated too well. But when a heart attack sent Fosse to the hospital just before the opening, it was Richards he counted on to find “the kids” temporary jobs—something that earned him the director’s lifelong friendship.
The same year that Chicago opened, Richards met Mary Lea Johnson and her second husband, psychiatrist Victor D’Arc, who were interested in investing in theater and movie projects. The meeting was arranged by John Fino, a bit actor who was working as the couple’s chauffeur and hoped to jump-start his own theatrical career.
The oldest child of the fabulously wealthy and eccentric Johnson & Johnson heir Seward Johnson, Mary Lea had already led a troubled, money-can’t-buy-happiness life. (Her sad story has been well documented in two books about the battle over her father’s $500 million legacy: Barbara Goldsmith’s best-selling Johnson v. Johnson and David Margolick’s exhaustive account, Undue Influence.) A sweet but deeply wounded and insecure woman, she later went public with accusations that her father sexually assaulted her starting when she was just 9 years old.
By the time she met Richards, her life was on a downward spiral. Johnson had studied as an actress in her twenties, even playing a maid in a touring company of Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead, but gave it up to marry a press agent turned gentleman farmer, William Ryan, a devout Catholic. During that first marriage, she lived on a New Jersey chicken farm and was pregnant ten times, giving birth to six children. She contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion during back surgery; the disease eventually destroyed her liver and led to her death.
After her divorce from Ryan, Johnson met D’Arc, a psychiatrist at St. Luke’s, when he treated her son Seward Ryan for drug addiction. (Even her friends admit that the depressed Johnson was not gifted at motherhood. As one pal says, “She was neglected as a child, and she neglected her children. She felt guilty, she’d give them money.”)
Mary Lea and D’Arc married in 1972, but the couple’s relationship quickly turned sordid: As detailed by Goldsmith, the bisexual D’Arc coerced Johnson into kinky threesomes with other men, including the chauffeur Fino. “She did anything that men wanted,” Richards says, sadly, “because of the abuse with her father.” As her eldest son, Eric Ryan, says of his mother’s relationship with D’Arc, “It was pretty wacky stuff, all in all.”
Small wonder that Johnson, enmeshed in this tormented marriage, took comfort in leaving her New Jersey estate and coming into Manhattan to spend time with the funny, charming, and eager-to-please Marty Richards. “Marty did wonders for her self-esteem,” says Maryanne Dittmann, who has worked for members of the extended Johnson family for three decades and is now Richards’s business manager. “She came out of her shell.” Costume designer Florence Klotz, a close friend of Johnson’s, says, “She had been thrashed by her childhood and her life, and Marty took care of her.”
He couldn’t afford to give her expensive baubles, but when this poor little rich girl complained that she’d never had a Shirley Temple doll as a child, Richards found a vintage model and repaired it as a gift. Johnson would frequently join Richards at performances of Chicago. “Mary Lea and I used to watch it together,” he says of the sold-out show. “We’d sit on the steps until the usher made us move.” Rivera remembers seeing them together: “Marty was extremely protective of Mary Lea. He saw how shy and vulnerable she was.”
In 1976, with a million of Mary Lea Johnson’s dollars, Richards and Johnson established the Producer Circle and began developing two projects, a movie that eventually became Fort Apache, the Bronx, starring Paul Newman, and a Broadway-musical flop called Rockabye Hamlet. When ther marriage collapsed and D’Arc demanded a divorce, Mary Lea went to Richards and asked if she could stay with him. She was aware that he was gay—“She knew everything about my background,” he says—and it started out as a Rock Hudson–Doris Day two-beds-side-by-side friendship. They eventually got separate apartments in the Sovereign on East 58th Street.
A traumatic break-in and bizarre alleged murder plot against them cinched their relationship. Johnson heard rumors, in a convoluted way, that her estranged husband had hired a hit man to murder her and Richards: There was even a tape of D’Arc purportedly plotting the deed with an accomplice. She hired a bodyguard and insisted that Richards stay by her side. Two men subsequently broke into her apartment one night. “We were almost killed in our sleep,” Richards says. “They ripped our phone off the wall, they hit our bodyguard, he had blood all over his head, he chased them.” The intruders got away.
Eric Ryan went with his mother and Richards to meet with the Bronx D.A. and ended up wearing a wire to dinner with his stepfather, D’Arc. “I had two detectives in the booth near me, and my job was to get Victor to talk about the murder plot,” Ryan recalls. “Victor denied the plot, but suggested that were I to help in the divorce, I’d benefit financially.” After listening to the tapes, prosecutors declined to indict D’Arc, who denied all charges. But Fino refused to testify and spent 26 months in jail for contempt of court. Johnson and D’Arc’s divorce was finalized in 1977 (he has since died of AIDS). Mary Lea and Marty married a year later.
Ask Johnson’s friends why she’d tie the knot with a gay man, and the universal answer is that she was happy for the first time in years, that it was a revelation to feel loved. “She couldn’t believe it,” says a friend. “I do believe that my mother derived a great deal of pleasure from her relationship with Marty,” says Eric Ryan. “She very much enjoyed the show-business lifestyle. They were quite happy together.”
Richards insists that marriage was her idea, and that when she first broached the topic, “I said, ‘Mary Lea, I’m a very screwed-up person, and my life is weird, and I don’t want to be the whipped cream on top of your sundae. You’ve had it.’ ” But in June 1978, they took a trip to California and had an impromptu ceremony in a lawyer’s office, not even inviting her children. It was the only Richards-Johnson production that wasn’t a lavish extravaganza. As a wedding gift, she gave him the Southampton estate on Gin Lane, a gorgeous home on the beach with a swimming pool and a tennis court and a football-field-size lawn. Morty Klein had truly arrived.
Their relationship was the source of much gossip and speculation, but Richards insists, “We had a totally normal sexual relationship. The macho part of me wanted to protect her. She made me feel handsome and virile, she gave me everything.”
Michael Douglas, whose mother and Mary Lea’s mother were sisters, has watched a lot of the family action from the sidelines over the years. “Marrying into the Johnson family, that’s a world in and of itself,” says the actor. “Mary Lea had gone through a lot of pretty weird stuff in her life, and it was nice to see them together. Mary Lea and Marty adored each other.” And what did people make of Richards’s past life? “In terms of the gay issue,” he replies, “it wasn’t as open or understanding back then, the bond and love that people can have. They really had it, it was a real marriage.”
While Johnson’s millions fueled the couple’s fantastical lifestyle (the Bentleys, a three-month cruise on the QE2, the chartered yacht at St. Barts, the spending sprees on art), Richards gave her a whole new set of creative and talented friends. Hal Prince recalls that she loved all the nitty-gritty elements of putting together a show. “Mary Lea was very good at art direction—the ads were her department,” he says, adding that she was completely unpretentious, despite her moneyed background.
Her children, still bitter about her last marriage, did not embrace their new stepdad. “The kids were close to me,” he says, “but the day after we got married, it was open warfare.” Mary Lea’s five youngest children tried unsuccessfully to restrict her access to the trust (Eric did not join in). Upon her death in 1990 after complications from a liver transplant, Richards got the bulk of the estate, roughly $44 million; Eric was rewarded with $14 million for his loyalty; his siblings got $3 million each.