Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
“The American Theater’s First Broad”
Elaine Stritch, R.I.P.
1 August 2014
Publicity photo from Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Sifting through background material for Somebody, my biography of Marlon Brando, I came across a quote from Elaine Stritch. The actress/singer, who had been a student with Brando in Stella Adler’s drama class, remarked that “Sending Marlon to acting school was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” Clearly, this was a lady worth interviewing.

Through friends, I obtained an audience. Stritch met me at a restaurant in the Carlyle Hotel, where she had occupied a suite for the last dozen years. Her commute was from the fifth floor to a private table on the main floor. No matter. She wore a full-length mink coat and a blue diaphanous scarf, as if posing for one of those old Blackglama ads inquiring: WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST?

Fair enough; Elaine Stritch was a legend, as I was to learn in a series of conversations and performances. In her eighties, the Broadway diva still had great legs and the kind of whisky contralto that could ricochet around the second balcony. I was in attendance when Nathan Lane introduced her at a Tavern on the Green festschrift: “Helen Hayes was the First Lady of the Theater,” he said. “Elaine is the First Broad.” No one laughed harder than the honoree. She played the part onstage and off, describing herself as “a loud, Catholic, diabetic, alcoholic, pain in the ass.”

In fact, Stritch had stopped drinking in her sixties, when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Up to then, she recalled, “I was Frieda Fun,” knocking back shots to drive away stage fright on Broadway, on the West End in London, in films, and on live television. Much of the savor went out of her life in 1983, not only because she went dry, but because she lost her beloved husband, actor and playwright John Bay, to brain cancer. They had been married since 1973. For a long while she stayed offstage. But mourning did not become her, and eventually she returned to the second-greatest love of her life—show business.

Stritch sparkled in revivals of Show Boat, and in such straight plays as William Inge’s Bus Stop and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Yet these were mere way stations en route to her greatest triumph. With the collaboration of John Lahr, the New Yorker theater critic, and director George C. Wolfe, she starred in Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, a retrospective of her long, winding career. (The narrative was later revived at the Carlyle, where the opening line never failed to bring down the house. As she mounted a few short steps, she seemed to trip. Hearts stopped. Stritch looked out at the sea of anxious faces. “As the prostitute said,” she assured them, “it’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”)

Hers was an epic journey. The Detroit-born ingénue, already a serious tippler when she hit New York at 18, started working four years later. Her long-lashed, house-counting eyes appraised the audiences of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey and On Your Toes, as well as Coward’s Sail Away. Impressed by the lady he called “Stritchie,” Sir Noel built the show around her.

A self-confessed virgin at 30, Stritch chastely dated a series of men, including Senator John Kennedy, who never got out of the limo when he realized sex was not on the schedule. At last she fell for actor Ben Gazarra, who lived with her for two years. She dumped him for Rock Hudson. (“We all know what a bum decision that turned out to be.”) There were other men and other shows before her marriage and her career took off.

Even so, it was Stephen Sondheim’s breakthrough musical, Company, that made Stritch an iconic figure. Her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” remains an unforgettable portrait of curdled privilege:

Here’s to the ladies who lunch
Everybody laugh
Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch
On their behalf
Off to the gym
And then to a fitting
Claiming they’re fat
And looking grim

A decade later, she made another Sondheim song her own. If the lunching ladies suggested Sondheim’s less-than-beloved mother, “I’m Still Here,” from Follies, evoked no one more vividly than the singer herself:

Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and, my dear
I’m still here
Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here.
I’ve stuffed the dailies in my shoes,
Strummed ukeleles, sung the blues
Seen all my dreams disappear
But I’m here.

She stayed on top almost to the end: hilarious as Alec Baldwin’s mother in the TV comedy 30 Rock, and provocative and mysterious in a revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. When her eyesight began to fail and she could no longer remember lyrics, she bid New York a fond farewell and went home to her family in Michigan.

Stritch passed away last month at the age of 89. Obits ran in all major newspapers, citing her five Tony Award nominations, her eight Emmy nominations, and her induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame. And all of them mentioned her final film, a documentary entitled Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. It showed the diva at sunset, but it also demonstrated her ability to hold audiences in her grip as she moved around stage in a white shirt and black tights, by turns brilliant, temperamental, forthcoming, guileful, angry, and explosively funny—always prowling, never still. Viewers finally understood that there had been another tiger in Stella Adler’s jungle school.

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