Elaine Stritch, one of the last legends of New York, died in July, and I, like so many, was sorry to see that grand old boat pull out of the harbor. A bunch of years ago when I was an editor at a New York publishing house, I was lucky enough to go to her brilliant one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a performance harkening back to the days when musical comedy was the turf of true talents and genuine characters. Glamorous in a crisp white blouse with miles of leg in jet-black stockings, she was sober after decades of drinking and walked onto the stage to croak, “It’s like the prostitute said, ‘It’s not the work; it’s the stairs.’”
The show was more than hilarious, stylish, and moving; it was a celebration of performing and of talent liberated from the demons of its very human possessor. I stayed up the rest of the night after seeing it, writing Stritch a letter, asking if she wanted to write a book, though I suspected that about half the show’s anecdotes from her life were made up or embroidered. Something about her love stories made me think she wanted us to believe she had experienced a lot more affection than she actually got, at least offstage. But truth is often overrated, especially in the realm of the theater, and I figured Elaine could come up with more tales in maybe ten or fifteen minutes if we got her going. Especially if we could come up with a few bucks. Like many of the stage’s great, tough ladies, she had spent a lifetime haggling with producers over dough and decent hotel rooms. She was legendarily cheap and was known occasionally to fake a blood-sugar crisis in order to cadge a free glass of orange juice.
A couple of weeks later, I came to work to find this message on the phone: “Gargeeee, it’s Elaine. A book is a helluva an idea. Call me at the Carlyle, any night after 1:00 a.m. After I shoot up, I’m talky.” (She was a diabetic; she was shooting up insulin.) A couple of days later, I summoned the courage to call after downing about fourteen cups of coffee; I knew what was coming. After a cursory greeting, she launched into a monologue comprised of a brief history of Broadway, intimate confessions, and a truckload of grousing about half the people she had ever encountered. I think she thought she already knew me, or maybe that was just the way she treated everyone. I’m not sure she much cared about to whom she was talking. Even strangers got the same show, and she was always onstage, always performing. We hung up the phone at about 4:00 a.m., but she would have gone on. I don’t think she wanted to face the silence of the hotel room where she lived alone. Alcoholics, drunk or not, never want the party to be over. They don’t want to face the morning and the curses it throws. I think she wanted company or at least an audience all the time.
The call began a month-long chase to get Elaine’s signature on a contract with a deadline, that word that always makes an artist quake. I trailed her around the city, listening as she sang nonstop. She seemed to know every unknown song ever written for the stage and growled them uninhibitedly anywhere – on street corners, at a table at Sardi’s, everywhere. I had the feeling that women wandering into the restaurant restroom might find themselves treated to a rendition of “If Love Were All” wafting out of the stall, interrupted only by a flush. She was a bawdy old sailor in a Chanel suit and a collection of strange hats. I went with her to an A.A. meeting where she spoke: “My problem,” she confided to the room, “is I’ve never gotten over that idea that life is supposed to be a goddamn bowl of cherries. I just can’t get over the raisins.” (I suspected that this wasn’t the first time she had trotted out that line. Much of her conversation bore traces of lifelong revision.)
In her dressing room one night, I saw her looking quite scary in curlers and singing along with Peggy Lee, with whom she used to drink. “Deeevine,” she purred as she frowned at herself in the mirror and Miss Peggy whispered into her ear. Another night, at a Broadway show (The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), she shot up before the curtain (“Pretend I’m Billie Holiday, kiddo”) and slurped orange juice through-out the performance, when she was not snoring. “What the fuck?” she asked as the curtain closed on the first act. “Albee’s brilliant, but nobody is always brilliant. Except me.”
Afterward, backstage, she burst into the dressing room cackling about the play’s very handsome star, Bill Pullman, with the words, “Don’t worry if you’re naked. So am I!”
We ate dinner after the theater at Orso, or we were supposed to. She had to time her meals exactly because of her diabetes, but unable to resist a free repast, she ordered about fourteen boxes of stuff to take back to the Carlyle, where she lived. She commanded the taxi driver through every turn of the wheel. “This is my favorite time of night,” she told me. It was maybe 2:00 a.m. “Everyone else is asleep, but I’m going to be up there, cozy in my room, nibbling on this salmon and washing out a few socks.” Alone again, naturally. Watching her ascend the stairs to the lobby, I was reminded a little of Chaplin; there was a wistfulness as she barked her goodbyes. I thought I had bored her; she was used to the likes of Coward and Sondheim, but then again, I wasn’t so sure she knew I was even there.
Ultimately, we offered her half a million to do the book, but she chickened out. Even her difficult agent, Sam Cohn— notorious for tearing up contracts and eating them—made no bones about the fact that he thought her decision was a mistake. (“It’s not the money. Her fucking family owns a goddamn muffin company!”) But she was scared. She didn’t want to use a ghost. She wasn’t interested in creating a piece of merchandise. She wanted her own voice on the page, but she didn’t think she could make the book good enough. Like all addicts and alcoholics, she lived with fear. It followed her everywhere. And it was that fear, that extra hurdle she had to leap to get herself up there on the stage, that made her performances so human.
That voice: she played it like a battered, scratched-up instrument no one had ever heard before. Every song was an occasion for truth telling, and she didn’t flinch if the mood required more than a smile. This was a woman who would never play Marian the Librarian. There is a reason she was not known for her renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein. She was at her best when the truths were complicated enough to make us sad and sometimes quite uncomfortable. She was courageous enough to go beyond mere perfectionism. She let you see the mess; she brought it all onstage with her. The mess was part of the point. Maybe it was the point. And so she sang, and then she laughed – that late-night laugh, pretending that none of it mattered. She hinted at loneliness and the bravery it takes to live with it. The trouble, the melancholy, the hurt behind things: that was her territory. Although she was often celebrated, she knew what it was to be shamed, fired, turned away, down and out, and empty. And she didn’t pretend she didn’t know. The success of her last years was hard-won enough to be inspiring in a way far surpassing cheap Broadway uplift.
The Stritches of our time, a dying breed in a fallen world of tits and ass, can’t be put in a box with a neat selling label. They hate the box; they destroy the box. They kick their way out and rip the thing to shreds, always rebelling against the conformists and cash registers who try to put them in their place. They’re always in trouble, and that hurts more than they will ever admit, but they keep on fighting, turning their wounds into scenes easy to play only under the lights
I think America is going to look around one day and turn on the marketers and formula makers who turn theater into a strip-tease and ruin art and everything else, and ask, “Where are the personalities? Where are the greats, the originals?” Elaine’s voice will undoubtedly fall from the heavens: “I told you so, assholes. You’ve really fucked this up.” The role of Elaine cannot be filled. No one will ever play an Elaine the way this one played herself.