"I'm so so so sorry for your loss," a friend wrote on my Facebook wall this morning.
That is how I knew Elaine Stritch had passed. For the next few hours I received tens of text messages expressing sympathy.
"Are you OK?"
"Long live the queen!"
"Rough. Fucking. News."
There was one that just said, "STRITCH!" with five iPhone emoticons of the yellow face that looks like it's crying a river.
Clearly my love of Elaine is no secret.
My Stritch obsession started in high school. Until I discovered Pitchfork in college, I rarely listened to popular music. I filled my days with musical soundtracks I'd burned from the local library. From Gershwin to Sondheim to Rent, I gave myself a thorough education in the American musical. I once called the local NPR station to tell their theater reviewer that she didn't know what she was talking about.
I grew up near San Diego, in a small suburb famous for surfers and poinsettias. Tan and blonde was the dress code, and I was anything but. I hated going outside: The sun burned my pale skin and hurt my baby-blue eyes. I hid my large body in sweatshirts no matter the weather and was rarely without my neon-green CD player. I was not popular.
Musicals transport you in a way that popular music just can't, and boy did I want out of Southern California. Where did I want to live today? The Bohemian East Village? Buffalo Bill's Wild West? Iowa?
I was probably 17 when I found Elaine Stritch at Liberty at the library, and within moments of listening, I knew I'd found something magical. It opens with "There's No Business Like Show Business," and Elaine sourly responds to the song's famous lines one at a time.
Even with a turkey that you know will fold,
You may be stranded out in the cold,
Still you wouldn't trade it for a sack of gold!
The recording is live, and you can hear her captivate an entire Broadway audience for two hours. Her honesty and power are overwhelming, her stories filled with celebrities, most already long gone. She belts over the orchestra without a microphone, as performers did for decades, as she was trained to do.
Unlike other musicals, At Liberty transports you to a real place. Instead of hiding behind characters, Elaine lays her life before you, fatal flaws and triumphs sandwiched between showtunes. She explores her use of alcohol as a performance-enhancing drug, as well as her star-studded sex life -- or the lack thereof when she admits to having been a virgin until age 30.
Elaine is a unique Broadway star, and I have a theory as to why. At a young age she was thrust into broad musical comedies, but unlike Ethel Merman, who proudly admitted to never having had a voice lesson, Elaine studied acting with some of the best teachers in American theater history. Her performances are a mix of these two extremes: over-the-top, almost vaudevillian comedy, with an underlying honesty you only see from truly great actors.
In At Liberty Elaine talks about her early days at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village and her subsequent multi-decade Broadway career. While I was applying for colleges, I'd listen to her and dream of studying acting myself. I'd imagine how I would move to the big city, how I would understudy for Ethel Merman, how I would date Marlon Brando. Why not?
I moved to Chicago to study acting but found it dull. There were no Marlon Brandos at Columbia College, believe me. However, I soon fell in love with comedy, performing at places like iO, the Annoyance, and the Upstairs Gallery. I began creating solo material, mixing music and storytelling, and was unashamed to say that Elaine was my biggest influence.
In April 2013 I had already planned a week-long trip to New York when I heard that Elaine would be leaving New York soon, eager to return home to Michigan. At this point she was a legend, living like Eloise in the Carlyle Hotel, and would, from time to time, perform in their cabaret, the Café Carlyle. In true diva fashion, she was putting on one last show, and wouldn't you know it was during my trip.
I called the hotel for tickets, only to be told it was sold out. Photos from the event later showed it packed with celebrities, clearly the biggest event in the city that evening. I posted about it on Facebook, and my friend Sean (whom you may know from his Madonna-themed bar mitzvah video, just to give you an idea of his personality) messaged me.
"You know, she lives in the Carlyle Hotel, and once I called the Carlyle and asked to speak with Elaine Stritch, and they connected me. So what you need to do is call her, tell her how fabulous you are, and she'll give you tickets!"
I declined, and for a good reason: I had actually met Elaine.
It was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, at Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday, and even with Barbra and Angela Lansbury in attendance, Elaine was the obvious highlight, performing "Broadway Baby" the way only she could.
A friend of mine was working backstage and had arranged with Elaine's assistant for me to have a meet-and-greet after the show. I waited while other stars shuffled out the backdoor, until finally Elaine emerged, making a beeline for her private car. She was in no mood, screaming something about her diabetes. Her handler grabbed her, saying, "Just one photo, and then we can go, Elaine."
I was 18, clean-shaven, and shaking in my California Thespians sweatshirt. I couldn't think of anything clever and managed to blurt out, "I'm your biggest fan."
"Well," she said with her signature wrath, "I would hope my biggest fan would care that I need my insulin!"
"I do!" I pleaded. The camera flashed, and she was whisked away.
I was not anxious for an encore.
On the final night of her performances at the Carlyle in Manhattan, I was across the river in Brooklyn, performing in a basement, opening for a rapper named Jungle Pussy. Clearly my Broadway ambitions had been postponed. I was decked out in her signature style: tights, an oversized collared shirt, and pearls I'd bought in Chinatown. I was doing my best to bring Broadway to Brooklyn.
Elaine had a long career that you can learn about by listening to At Liberty or watching the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
Recently some of her best work has happened off the stage, like her Emmy-winning role as Alec Baldwin's mom on 30 Rock. She's the best part of the flop film Monster In Law, and she kills every interview, of which there are plenty of on YouTube (not to mention the video of Tina Fey calling her a sneaky bitch.)
Personally I think she's at her best in the 1970s British comedy Two's Company. She stars as an American mystery writer who moves to London and hires a quick-witted butler, who insults her (and Americans in general) almost nonstop. The butler's cheeky English putdowns blend perfectly with her sour American frankness. I can't help but imagine this duo was inspired by her real-life relationship with Noel Coward, who wrote the song "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" just for her.
Coward may have been one of her first gay admirers, but he certainly wasn't the last. The outpouring I received has been almost exclusively from gay men, which brings up the old question: Why are gay men so attracted to larger-than-life women?
Judy Garland's death helped spark the Stonewall Riots; who knows what Elaine's may lead to?
I did see Elaine one last time, at the Chicago Film Festival's screening of Shoot Me last October. I sat just one row and a few seats over from Her Majesty, who was dressed in a stylish, white designer suit and hat, of course. As the film showed, this Stritch was not the same one we know from At Liberty. A decade later, Stritch still has strength, but due to a combination of age and her reacquaintance with alcohol, you can see unsettling frailty beneath her lion-like exterior.
After the film she received a standing ovation, and her entire person seemed to emit a white glow. Although she could hardly hear and her brash verbal skills seemed off, her magic was still there. At almost 90, she'd made yet another crowd of strangers fall in love with her.
"She owes you an apology," my ex-boyfriend's mother once told me after hearing my Hollywood Bowl story.
I disagree. I wouldn't change a thing; how many people can say they've been yelled at by Elaine Stritch?
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