[Editor's note: In 2008, veteran entertainment journalist Brantley Bardin interviewed the brilliant Broadway baby Elaine Stritch, who died July 17 at age 89, for a women's magazine which ultimately decided not to publish it because the editors deemed it too "tough." Bardin, who has exchanged dialogue with an almost endless who's who of challenging show business legends and was a huge fan of Stritch's, calls his conversation with the no-nonsense entertainer perhaps his most harrowing ever. Bardin says Stritch, who decided she would only speak to him on Thanksgiving day while he had 10 guests at his home waiting for their dinner, "was in full, terrifying, high-curmudgeon mode when we spoke. By the end of the interview I was, literally, laid out flat on my bedroom floor. But so what? I got to interview Elaine fucking Stritch!"]
Blunt, brash and acerbic (and, okay, a little bit scary, too), 82-year-old stage, screen, and TV legend, Elaine Stritch, is certainly nobody’s cuddly, old grandma. Think more of an octogenarian Courtney Love. Take, for example, last year when she won her third Emmy, this time for her recurring role of Alec Baldwin’s ball-busting mom on 30 Rock. Accepting the award, Stritch showed her ‘sweet’ side when she accepted her statue with the response, “Un-fucking-believable! I’m a recovering alcoholic, a riddled diabetic, and I’ve got laryngitis…but I just won an Emmy!”
Born in Detroit in 1925, Stritch left home for NYC and the Broadway stage at 17 and, voila, at a mere 20, after having studied acting in the same class with a guy named Marlon Brando, found herself understudying Ethel Merman in the hit musical Call Me Madam. By 1970, after having been mentored by Noel Coward who wrote a musical, Sail Away, specifically for her, she became a bona-fide cult icon with her still unmatched rendition of the classic, booze-soaked anthem, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Her love life during those years included a romance with Ben Gazzara and an engagement with actor Gig Young to whom she broke it off to date…Rock Hudson (“And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be,” she later quipped). While living and performing in London in the 1970s she wed British actor, John Bay, who died 10 years later of a brain tumor. She’s been stoically single ever since.
Making no bones about the fact that, be it in film or on the stage, she imbibed at least two cocktails during every performance, her drinking days ended when, after the final day of shooting Woody Allen’s September in 1987, she suffered a near-fatal diabetic attack — a life-transforming episode she related in her dazzling, Broadway, multi-award-winning, 2001 autobiographical one woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Two years later an HBO documentary based around that show won her another Emmy and made her the undisputed star and running joke of the ceremony when she bounded up to the stage and announced, “Just look at the company I’m in here. And I’m so glad none of them won!”
Still dancing as fast as she can, Stritch recently shot another episode of 30 Rock and is in the midst of reviving At Liberty at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, a ritzy address the self-proclaimed “hotel baby” has called home for the last five years.
Though officially decreed a New York City Living Landmark in 2003 for her contributions to the Broadway theatre, when we first informed the diva that she was to be our inaugural icon in a new column devoted to the wit and wisdom that today’s with-it woman can learn from those who’ve run the race before them, she lit into us like a fireball. “Icon?! I’ve never known what that word even meant,” she harrumphed in her trademark gravel-meets-grindstone voice. “I think icon is a dumb word.”
Well, sorry, Ms. Stritch, but ya are. And so without further adieu, here are…
THE 10 REASONS WE LOVE ELAINE STRITCH
She can’t be buttered-up by a compliment.
They’re awfully superfluous — there’s a lot of compliments that you just can’t stand, because they’re just bullshit. But what kind of compliments do I like? I’ll know when it comes along.
She doesn’t overanalyze her life choices.
Why did I want to go into the theatre at 17? I have no idea. Who knows about those things? I don’t have a clue! I wasn’t born into a theatrical family, I was born into a very normal, upper middle-class family in Detroit and… well, I think a lot of it maybe had to do with just that and the fact that I wanted to get out of Detroit. Like, I once said — and I think it’s a pretty damn good line – “The ceilings aren’t high enough in this city.”
She’s prepared — and you damn well better be, too.
You have no business going out there unless you have it right and I know when I get it right and I know when I get it wrong — and I don’t get it wrong very often, not out there onstage. In life, I certainly do, though. Very often. But on the stage, I prepare so completely that…well, I mean people have jobs to do so they prepare for them and then they do them well or they don’t do them well. See, I find that an awful lot of people spend an awful lot of time going, “Oh, I hope I get this right,” but it’s all just emotion, instead of hard work. It’s a rough battle, but the stage is no different from anybody else’s job, no different at all.
She’s a perfectionist, but not proud of it.
I like to look back on my life and think that every time I’ve done a performance I’ve given it my all — I’m a perfectionist, unfortunately, I can’t do it any other way. But I don’t like being a perfectionist, it’s a very sad situation — it just wears you out.
She’s a workaholic…and has decidedly mixed feelings about that situation.
I keep performing, because it’s the only thing that gives me satisfaction. It doesn’t satisfy me to sit around and talk with friends and go to movies and plays, I’ve got to perform — it’s a necessity in me. That’s as simple as I can put it. But I don’t really want to do it. I really don’t! I’d rather just take it easy. Because, at my age, I should be relaxing, I shouldn’t have to do a performance every night and go through the nerves and anxiety that accompanies performing. So I don’t really want to do it, but it gives me what I need to live each day so I have to do it. I’m not happy about it. But it’s my reason for being here, for being alive. I don’t feel satisfied unless I’m putting forth some effort. I like to work, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes I work just so I can go to bed at night.
She’s got great gams.
I get a lot of exercise and I get enough rest, that’s how I keep in shape. I walk, at least, a couple of miles a day, sometimes, three or four. I wasn’t even conscious of the fact that I had great looking legs until somebody told me, but, yeah, I have good looking legs. I’ll admit that. Now, what’s the next question?
She’s funny, dammit.
I just did an episode of 30 Rock and being funny on a sitcom is a real trick of the week. Well, being funny any place is, because comedy is very, very hard to do right. What is it that Neil Simon once said? “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” You can’t push comedy or work too hard at it. As Noel Coward once said, “Keep it light, keep it gay, keep it fragrant.” Tragedy is so much more fun to do, though — I like the easy way out and drama is the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s just a cinch. But they never give me a chance to do it, because I’m so damn good at comedy. But, listen, I am really, really glad I have a sense of humor, because it gets me through terribly, terribly difficult things in life. And I really mean exactly what that means: A ‘sense’ of humor.
She knows her own worth.
Awards are presents and I love presents of any kind and the Emmy for At Liberty was my greatest award of all time. I was thrilled to death. And I really earned it: My show was the best and it won and, rightfully, so. There’s nothing better than when all those things are present — when I really should have won and I did win.
She appreciates being appreciated, but…
I keep finding out all the time — and am thrilled to death — that my performances have affected people and that they’ve learned positive things. But what do I hope they get out of me? That’s up to them. What the audience thinks of me is none of my business.
She’s still here, but to that she says, “Yeah? So what?”
I guess it’s natural that people make a fuss that I’m still going, but it’s just what I want to do. It isn’t a big deal.
Watch Stritch’s glorious one-woman show At Liberty in its entirety below.