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In remembrance of Elaine Stritch

Oxford University Press is saddened to hear of the passing of Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. We’d like to present a brief extract from Eddie Shapiro’s interview with Elaine Stritch in November/December 2008 in Nothing Like a Dame that illustrates her tremendous life and vitality.

“What’s this all about, again?!” came Elaine Stritch’s unmistakable rattle of a voice, part Rosalind Russell, part dry martini, part cheese grater, on the other end of the phone. I was taken aback. After all, we had spoken the day before and the day before that. On the first call, she had told me that she was swamped but really wanted to get this interview out of the way. “Well,” I had offered, “there’s no great rush. I would rather you do this when you feel relaxed than when you are cramming it in.” “Don’t you worry about my disposition,” came the steely reply. “I’ll worry about my disposition.” She hated me, I thought, until the second call, during which she called me “dear” and apologized twice for her schedule. So now, on call number three, when it seemed we were back at square one, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, it’s the interview for my book, Nothing Like a Dame,” I explained. “You asked me to call today.” “And when did you want to do this,” came the deliberate reply. “Well, you asked me about today.” “Today? I can’t possibly do today.” “That’s fine. It’s just that when you called me on Friday, you said you wanted to get it done this weekend.” “I don’t recall saying that to anyone. Gee, Ed, I hate to leave you hanging like this. How about Thanksgiving?” “Thanksgiving Day?” “Yeah, before dinner. You could come for tea.” “That would be fine.” “But I tell you what, give me a call on Wednesday night after 11:00, just to confirm. And I promise I’ll remember.” And that is how I ended up having tea with irascible, cantankerous, outspoken, and utterly charming Elaine Stritch at The Carlyle Hotel on Thanksgiving Day.

Elaine Stritch was born outside of Detroit in 1925. She came to New York to study under Erwin Piscator at The New School, where her classmates included Marlon Brando and Bea Arthur (with whom she’d compete for a Tony Award sixty years later. And win.). She made her musical debut in Angel in the Wings, singing the absurd “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo (I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo)” before her long run as Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam. Since Merman never missed a performance, Stritch never went on, and felt safe simultaneously taking a one-scene part in the hit 1952 revival of Pal Joey a block away. “I was close if they needed me,” she says, “which they never did.” When Call Me Madam went out on national tour, though, Stritch, all of twenty-five, was leading the company. Goldilocks followed, before Noel Coward wrote the role of Mimi Paragon in Sail Away just for Stritch. Mimi, like her inspiration, knew her way around an arched eyebrow and a sarcastic bon mot. Not surprisingly, Stritch was a sensation. It nonetheless took almost a decade for her next Broadway musical, but this one was legendary.

Elaine Stritch in her dressing room at the Savoy Theatre, London. 1973. Photo by Allan Warren, via WikiCommons.
Elaine Stritch in her dressing room at the Savoy Theatre, London. 1973. Photo by Allan Warren, via WikiCommons.

As Joanne in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, Stritch bellowed the searing eleven o’clock number, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” To this day, it is considered one of the all-time greatest interpretations of any musical theater song. Hal Prince’s acclaimed 1994 revival of Show Boat was another triumph but the best was still to come. In 2001, under the direction of George C. Wolfe, Stritch premiered Elaine Stritch at Liberty, an autobiographical one-woman show in which Stritch gossiped, confessed, kvetched, cajoled, and reveled in a musical tour of her life and career. For At Liberty, she finally took home a Tony Award, before playing the show for years in New York, London, and on tour. In 2010, she successfully, if improbably, succeeded Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music.

Of all the women in [Nothing Like a Dame], she was the only one I was scared to meet. The phone calls didn’t assuage my fears, nor did the Carlyle’s waiter who, upon hearing I was there to meet Stritch laughingly said, “Good luck!” But I needn’t have worried. Stritch isn’t mean, she’s just blunt to a degree that’s so unusual it’s occasionally unnerving. As Bebe Neuwirth says of her, “She doesn’t know how to lie, on or offstage.” And she doesn’t suffer fools well. But once she trusts, she’s delightful. And warm enough to have extended an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.

In your show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, you said that you didn’t know why you wanted to be an actress. But you did choose to pursue acting over anything else. What gave you the instinct that you’d be any good?

I don’t think it’s an instinct, I don’t think that’s the right word. I don’t have an answer to that today.

Calling?

Those are all two-dollar words. I don’t believe in all of that, “calling” and “career.” I wasn’t thinking about . . . I think if I was really dead-honest, I was . . . everybody else was going away to college and I didn’t want to. I don’t know the reason why that was, either. I thought I’d rather learn by experience all of the subjects they were going to teach me in college. That’s a dumb statement. But I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be an actress but I still can’t tell you why. I think I’m . . . I don’t think I’m really a happy camper inside and I think it’s an escape for me. I’ve gotten to like myself a lot better as the years go by, but I’m still not hung up on myself.

You have actually said that it’s really hard for you to play yourself. During Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, you said that a vacation would be putting on a costume and playing someone else.

At the time I was doing Elaine Stritch: At Liberty I wasn’t thinking about philosophizing my position and what I would or wouldn’t like to do. This was a tremendously courageous thing for me to do, but it was good. Just like I read a good play—I read a Tennessee Williams play, an Edward Albee play—I read what I wrote and what John Lahr wrote and I liked it. I thought, “This is a good part for me.” That sounds like a joke but it was a good part for me to play. It was the first time I had an opportunity to put myself on the stage. Because I am a really true-blue actress. When I take on a part I play the part. Of course I bring Elaine Stritch to it, that’s why they hire me. But I am interpreting another, I am inside somebody else’s skin. So, you know, acting is . . . I don’t know what it is. I don’t think it’s given enough credit in the arts. I think it’s a real art form, acting. I don’t know. I don’t think a lot of people have the talent—my kind of talent—to be an actress. But there are a lot of good ones out there. I am always so thrilled when I go to the theater and see a performance. I just think that’s the best. There was a marvelous expression in the Times the other day in the review of Australia. They talked about all of the epic qualities of the movie but they said a very simple thing about Nicole Kidman, who I think is a very good actress. They said: “she gave a performance.” And I thought, “what a wonderful notice.” I hope she appreciates it.

I want to go back to your early days, you came to New York for whatever reason you . . .

For whatever reason. Look, it’s not as complicated as all that. I was not going steady with someone. My beau had already gone to New York to become an actor. He was a writer named James Lee. He wrote [the play] Career and he also wrote for television; he was one of the writers on Roots. So what was I gonna do? I didn’t want to go to college. I wasn’t in love. I mean, I loved Jimmy but I wasn’t interested in getting married. I wish it would stop there. I wanted to become an actress. Why? I don’t know. I think you deal with that better than I deal with it. I’d like to be able to answer it better. But I do think that I wasn’t too hung up on myself and I wanted to be everybody else I could think of.

The reason I used the word “instinct” is because I think sometimes people have a desire or gut feeling that isn’t calculated, but they know that something speaks to them.

Something stirring.

Yeah.

I see what you mean. Yes. And I also wanted out of Michigan. I love Michigan but I didn’t want to spend all my life there, I wanted to see the world. Another answer I’ve given to the question, “why did you want to become an actress” is that I wanted higher ceilings. It’s as good an answer as any. I once played a game at a party and we all had to give the best answer for “why did you become an actor.” Mine was, “to get a good table at 21.” Ho ho ho. I think “higher ceilings” would have won at that party but I hadn’t thought of that yet. [The actor] Marti Stevens gave the best answer ever. Actually, the question was, “why did you go on the stage” and Marti Stevens said, “to get out of the audience.” That’s a great answer.

Once you were in New York and at The New School, how did you get work and audition?

I was going to school.

Yes, but you were cast in Loco pretty quickly after school. Did that seem like a fluke to you or were your peers also getting work easily? Did it feel like a struggle?

I don’t know.

Did you have to work for money?

I waited tables at The New School, but I did it not because I needed the money; I did it for the experience.

The human experience?

Yeah.

Did it work?

Yeah. And I did it to show off to Marlon Brando.

Did that work?

Yeah. I was showing that I wasn’t just this rich girl from Michigan. I could be a waitress, too. You see there’s a little Joan Crawford/Mildred Pierce in all of us! It was all of those things. . . . I am very honest about things like that today. Then I wasn’t.

In what ways are you honest now that you were not then?

Well, I wish I could have laughed and told Marlon Brando that I was trying to influence him. But you don’t do that at seventeen. You wait ’til you’re in your eighties ’til you get that kind of honesty. I think I could do a lot of things today that I couldn’t do then as far as being straight- forward and on the level with people. I figured it out that none of us have anything to hide. There’s nothing about me that I couldn’t tell everybody in the world. There really isn’t. And that’s a good way to be. I love the expression “secrets are dangerous.” I really think they are. “Don’t tell anybody, but . . .” is the most boring line in the world. It really is. If you don’t want them to tell anybody, don’t tell them!

In saying secrets are dangerous, do you mean that the truth frees you?

Absolutely. And I think what has transpired without your knowing it is that you kind of, at last, dig yourself.

I need a Judy Garland story.

I’d have to look ’em up, Honey.

For people like me, it’s like sitting at my grandmother’s lap and listening to family legend.

I know, I know. Judy Garland, when she came to the opening night party of Sail Away, I made up my mind not to drink at all at that party. There were a lot of famous people there. Before I knew it I saw Judy leaving the Noel Coward suite, and she was going home. I thought, “My God, I haven’t talked to her, she hasn’t told me how she liked the show, and I really want to hear what she thought more than anyone.” They had those see-through elevators at the Savoy Hotel. I ran out to the hall and she was just on the elevator and it was starting to disappear. And before her head got out of view from me, she went, “Elaine, about your fucking timing . . . ” and then she disappeared. It was absolutely brilliant. She knew what she was doing! Her timing was divine! And music to my ears, of course.

Do you have any stories about working with George Abbott on Call Me Madam?

Oh, he was a marvelous director, a wonderful man and an extraordinary human being. I loved him. He did one great thing once with me. When I came down to get notes before opening night, I had a scotch and soda in a coffee mug. Of course I was making it very believable. ’Cause while he was giving the notes I was blowing on the coffee. I was blowing on the scotch. And all of sudden George Abbott said to me, “Can I have a taste of that Elaine? Is that coffee?” And my voice went up two octaves and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Could I have a taste?” And I said, “Sure.” I’ll tell you what a great guy he was. He took the coffee mug from me and he blew on it and then he took a sip. And then he handed it back to me and said, “Man that’s good coffee.”

Do you have Richard Rodgers stories?

Oh, I loved him. But he didn’t like me. He was an alcoholic, you know, and alcoholics resent other alcoholics. He paid me a great compliment once, though. He said, “I would give her the lead in a show but I just don’t think she could handle it. Because when she does a number, it is so good that I never think she can do it again.” It’s a great compliment but it isn’t very conducive to working.

It is a back-handed compliment.

Well he was a back-handed kind of fellow. He is a hard person to talk about.

Did you think it was personal?

Oh no, he liked me very much. But I made him nervous because I drank. That would make any director or producer—but the funny thing with him was that he drank twice as much as I did.

Did he recognize that?

No, he didn’t at all.

Both Abbott and Rodgers knew that you were drinking . . .

It never bothered George Abbott because I didn’t drink too much. Well, I probably did drink too much, but I was never drunk on the stage in my life.

Was drinking in the theater more commonplace in general?

Absolutely. Everybody had booze in their dressing room. Nobody does anymore. In London, in the theater you have cocktail parties at intermission. It’s a big deal having a little sherry or a little of this or that. But too many people have abused the privilege in this country. All of our great actors were huge drinkers. Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Bela Lugosi. So many. Lots and lots of people.

The people you mention famously got seriously drunk. That was never you, though.

No, absolutely not. Maybe a couple of times my timing was off because I had three instead of two drinks, but nothing to write home about.

Do you read reviews?

Oh yes, I can’t wait. Terrified to read them and thrilled to death when they are good. I haven’t gotten a lot of bad reviews; I’ve gotten a few in my life but nothing that upset me terribly.

There are a lot of actors who . . .

I can’t believe that they don’t read their reviews.

Do you go to the theater today?

Yeah, I go. But I am not going to see The Little Mermaid if that’s what you mean. I like Jane Krakowski, I think she’s good. And I like Kristin Chenoweth. I’m getting very excited about the opening of Pal Joey because my good friend Stockard Channing is in it. The theater is not what it was. It’s the fabulous invalid. It’s having a tough time because of the economy but it will come back. I worry about Maxwell [her nephew, a twenty-nine-year-old actor who just moved to New York]. Nobody who comes here to get into the theater can get an agent. It takes years. You have to go on those cattle calls. This is a tough racket. It really is a tough racket.

If performing hadn’t worked out for you, do you have any notion of what you might have been doing?

Supposition is really boring but I’ll give it a shot: Stay home!!

Is there anyone you’ve never worked with who you wish you had?

If I am supposed to, it’ll happen. I reiterate: supposition to me is a long yawn.

I think the word is “boring.”

[Laughs] OK, whatever you think is fair.

Excerpted from Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro. Shapiro is a freelance writer and theater journalist whose work has appeared in Out Magazine, Instinct, and Backstage West. He is the author of Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks.

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