Martha Levinson is a character on the series Downton Abbey. She was played in the third and fourth seasons of the series by venerable American actress Shirley MacLaine.
A Modern American Woman
Having homes in both New York City and a "Summer cottage" on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, Martha was a clearly modern (and nouveau riche) woman and she never tired of telling people about how she loved her wealth and position.
She was the widow of a Cincinnati, Ohio based dry goods store owner, Isidore Levinson, and from him had two children, a daughter named Cora and a son named Harold. She is also the grandmother (called Grandmamma) of Cora's three daughters, Lady Mary Crawley; Lady Edith Pelham; and the late Lady Sybil Branson. She is also the great-grandmother of their children; Sybbie Branson; George Crawley; and Marigold Gregson.
"A modern American Girl" as she called herself, Martha certainly knew how to get under the skin of her daughter's mother in-law (and her arch-foil), the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, and often rubbed it in about her modern life and would often tease her about being forever stuck in the past. The two clearly respected one another, but they did not like one another. She also had a tendency to shoot her in-law barbed comments.
Though modern, she did have some semblance of tradition. which was why she had a lady's maid named Reed. She had a flirtation with Alfred Nugent, while they were in Downton. Reed, according to her son's valet, Ethan Slade, would finally give her notice after being yelled at far too many times by the oftentimes overbearing Martha.
However, Martha, for all her modernity and joie de vivre, had a slightly reserved relationship with Cora, who had been taken from her school rooms and was married off into the aristocracy in her early 20s. While Cora did love her mother, she could also get very annoyed with her constant outspokenness, especially when she went too far, which she did do from time to time.
Martha was also meddlesome, especially in her family's lives and in their affairs. She and Robert had a strained relationship, as she tended to interfere in everything. One example was when she was comforting her broken-hearted granddaughter Edith (of whom she had a bond with) after Robert and Violet drove her paramour Sir Anthony Strallan away from Downton.
After Martha had left, Robert would give in, and that would lead to Edith almost marrying Strallan, but he would later jilt her at the altar, thanks to the plotting of Violet, who was truly at her most ugliest at that time.
She was also known for several interesting quirks, including helping out when the family had a major dinner party coming up and in the face of the kitchen stove going on the blink, as she would no doubt put it, came up with the novel idea of a picnic right inside Downton.
This was to put a stop to an absolutely disgraceful campaign dreamed up by Mary and Violet to fleece Martha out of her fortune to shore up Downton again. While Cora, Martha and Isobel were excited by the prospect of doing something new and different, Robert, Violet, Carson and Mary, traditionalists all, were not so excited by the idea.
In spite of their reservations, the picnic ran very smoothly and was a rousing success. Martha also sang the famous standard Let Me Call You Sweetheart to a rather rattled (yet extremely flattered) Violet.
In spite of Mary and Violet's best attempts, Martha would not loosen her fortune to help Downton, as her late husband, Isidore, tied the capital up very tightly, with the lions share going to Harold. She attended Mary's wedding, shooting a barbed comment to Violet about how the future isn't reflected by the past.
After the picnic, she began to feel homesick for America, and soon after, she left to go back to her high life in New York and Newport, but not before she and her son in-law, Robert Crawley shared a drink of whisky in the library.
Although he thought she was quite interfering, especially with Edith's situation with Strallan, Robert does love and respect and appreciate his mother in-law.
She then made an appearance at Rose's coming out season, where she fended off the advances of a Lord Aysgarth who wanted to marry a wealthy widow for her money. His daughter, Madeleine Allsopp, tried to do the same to Harold.
However, while Harold and Madeleine gained a true friendship, despite her gold-digging; Martha skillfully deflected Lord Aysgarth's advances and put the kibosh on him taking any portion of her fortune.
She would generously extend an invitation to Lord Aysgarth to come to new York and Newport, where she would match him up with widows who would want to be great ladies in London. Although she strung him along and admitted to him that it was great fun to do so, she just did not want to be one of the great ladies of London, although it would have put her closer to her daughter. She was happy in America, and would not have been happy in London.
She also got one up on Violet when she told her, quite venomously, that while her world was coming closer and closer, because she was not afraid of the future, Violet's world was slipping farther and farther away because she was afraid of the new world coming.
After that exchange, Martha gave Violet a very terse good night and went to bed. After that, she was not seen again.
Martha would be referred to one last time in the final episode, when she sent a telegram to Edith after she married Bertie Pelham, the newly-minted Marquis of Hexham. She referred to not being on the sea, as she felt that she was too old to be among them, but mainly she wrote saying that she was pleased that Edith had finally found the happiness that had eluded her for so long.
It is hard to say what happened after the end of the show. Possibly, due to Isidore's wise investments, she might have been spared any repercussions from the Great Depression, although she might have lost some of her fortune. No doubt, this "modern American woman" would have had enough money to live out the remainder of her days in happiness.