Elaine Stritch left Detroit for New York when she was seventeen determined to be a star. So wrapped up was she in achieving it, she says, she was a virgin till she was 30. Finally last year, when she was 77, her one-woman show ‘Elaine Stritch At Liberty’ crowned her as the queen of Broadway. For sixty years, to those who have seen her dazzle audiences with an extraordinary range from musical comedy to American drama, in Coward, Gershwin and Albee, she has always been a star. But she has been a theatre goers actress, an insider’s leading lady. Now, thanks to the show, the rest of the world might discover her.
In Britain only If you were watching TV in the mid seventies might you remember her co-starring with Donald Sinden in the BBC sit com “Two’s Company”. Or if you’re a musicals addict you will undoubtedly remember her singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company, live in the West End and on video. Giving the number class, desperation and alcohol she created a heartbreaking expression of grief for a woman’s life beached in an arid middle age. Then there’s the voice. If you’ve heard it you won’t have forgotten it. It is like gravel in a machine gun. Speaking or singing, she could sand your kitchen floor, just as the detonation of comic attack in her delivery could shoot a bird out of a tree. She has mastered the pause like no one else in show business.
She has waited a long while to be so feted. As she says in the show, “There’s good news and bad news. The good: I have a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad: I’ve had it for forty five years.” After four nominations, the first in 1956, she finally gave the speech on June 2nd this year. And wouldn’t you know it, CBS cut it short in the live broadcast. Her response was typical. When asked if they’d called to apologise. She said “In your dreams”. And if they do? “They can go f*** themselves.” Elaine Stritch is a straight talking broad. In her show she literally “opens up the veins of her life and bleeds” as one critic put it. To high comic effect. Through the triumph of truth over self -indulgence she has turned the one-woman show into an art form.
She co-wrote it with John Lahr, the New Yorker writer married to Connie Booth but best known in Britain for his revival of Jo Orton through biography and film. The credits in the programme actually say the show was “constructed by John Lahr, reconstructed by Elaine Stritch”. They talked together, or rather she talked and Lahr listened and wrote it down, over several months in the house she has just sold in Sag Harbour in The Hamptons. “I’m a good writer”, she says, “I write a story as I tell it. But John structured it. He made associations between the material. He directed me writing it.”
The show is organised autobiographically. It is conventional in form; the narrative linked by songs form the shows she has been in. It is extremely funny. But what sets it apart is the compulsion with which she performs and the undecorated truth, which that exposes. “I have discovered myself through this show”, she says without indulgence. Performing is her lifeblood. She finds it impossible not to do it. Sitting in the drawing room of the Savoy, across from two men who clearly have read nothing of their newspapers for the last hour, she says, “I used to sing for my supper almost every place I went. I turn into an entertainer when I enter a room. I can’t help it. I don’t mean to. I don’t plan it. I’d kill to shut up. I’d love to be quiet. But then if I do shut up socially someone, nine times out of ten, will come over and say ‘Are you alright?’”. Is she just seeking approval? “What anyone thinks of me is none of my business, but boy do I care. But I don’ t want to show off. I want to be understood.”
Hal Prince, her director in Company, says, “Elaine is a lot of trouble. But she’s worth it.” “That gives me goose bumps,” she says, “But of course, I go home with the first part on my mind.” She is trouble. Delightfully so. She tries to marry me off to the waiter within two minutes of meeting and her parting shot to her assistant Rick is “I am sorry about all those things that I said this afternoon.” The pause. “I meant every word of it.”. To get the full force of that, you have to really swoop onto ‘every’. Later she admits, “I do cause a lot of trouble. “ Then she contradicts herself, which is typical, “It’s not trouble I make. I bring change to a place. My way the high way, you know. It’s why people’s eyes go to you on the stage.”
She has spent most of her life terrified. And angry. Both emotions she used to deal with through drink. “I felt lonely when I drank. I used to think it was the other way round. The real truth is that I felt lonely and frightened so I drank and then it made me feel lonely and frightened. That’s not even catch 22 that’s just no win. There are a few moments after two martinis that I’d like to bottle. But you always think it’s going to be three or four.” I don’t blame anything on the booze but that wasn’t me, it was the person I had to become to get the courage to do anything in my life. ” On September 24th, or 25th she’s not quite sure, she will have been sober for fifteen years.
She started drinking young, at around twelve or thirteen. But she doesn’t blame her parents at all. She adored them. “My mother was hilarious. I was in Sail Away with Noel Coward. That Christmas Noel sent her a card, which she always accidentally had in her handbag when she went to the Country Club. The next season Noel was in a show called “The Girl Who Came To Supper” with Florence Henderson. It was el bombo! Christmas came around again but mother didn’t get a card from Noel. So she sent him a telegram. He framed it and put it on his wall. It just said “I guess you have to be Florence Henderson’s mother to get a card this year.”
While her older sisters left home and married at seventeen, Stritch really was a virgin till she was thirty. “You couldn’t make something like that up. If I ever thought for one minute of fooling an audience, I’d die.” So who was the lucky man? “Gig Young. He was so handsome. He drank though. To get up, go out, answer the phone, have sex. He also got involved with LSD. Cary Grant got him onto that. You know what happened to him in the end? He shot his wife and then himself. I think that was the LSD.”
After Young she lived with Ben Gazzara, whom she left because she fell in love with Rock Hudson. The pause comes out again. “And we all know what a bum call that was.” Eventually in the mid seventies, she met and married an actor called John Bay. In a deeply moving but never sentimental section of the show she talks about him and his death from a brain tumour after barely ten years together. Because she exudes such a palpable sense of solitude in her crazy sociability and hunger for contact, you feel compelled to ask whether he was the only person who stopped her feeling lonely? “He gave me warmth and security that I experienced but didn’t really fully have knowledge of. I just experienced it. I had him with me. We were together. I am not together with anyone now, except the audience. I don’t feel alone now though. “ Neither in person nor in the show is any of this maudlin. It’s just straightforward. What makes her performance so singular is the honesty with which the show vents her emotions. “ I am trying to get rid of a lot of feelings, a lot of energy, a lot of sadness, and a lot of joy. All those headline emotions. I want to get rid of them. I got to get them out of me by the time I go to bed at night. Otherwise I’ll get into fights in Trafalgar Square.” It’s more than worth the ticket price to watch her do it.