The typical musical theater fan, when asked to choose a single moment to define the one-of-a-kind force of nature that was Elaine Stritch, would probably look to the unforgettable sequence in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on the making of the Company cast album, in which Stritch breaks down in the face of criticism over her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which had been compromised in quality by late night exhaustion.
But just as representative of Stritch’s particular, over-the-top theatrical flair was her 2002 Tony Awards acceptance speech. Stritch began the speech with an extended, stand-up-comedy-style joke about her stand-in at the Tony Awards dress rehearsal. Stritch then rambled on for several minutes, thanking the creative team members and producers of her one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. She also recognized her distinguished fellow nominees, including Barbara Cook and John Leguizamo. After three minutes, the Radio City orchestra tried to gently cut her, but Stritch kept on talking. There was no stopping her – so it got louder. In response, Stritch dramatically pleaded for more time (“Please don’t do this to me!”), but the camera finally zoomed away from the increasingly uncomfortable situation and cut to commercial. The moment was spontaneous, ridiculous, cringeworthy, heartfelt and totally representative of Stritch.
I never got an opportunity to meet or interview Stritch (aside from briefly asking her a few questions on a red carpet once), but Stritch still managed to make a visceral impact on me and virtually all other theatergoers who saw her perform. On July 7, 2014, an editor of mine felt the need to personally telephone me to inform me of Stritch’s death at age 89 and express his sympathy for my loss. More than being a brilliant performer, Stritch was a larger-than-life personality – both onstage and offstage. Decades before the confessional monologue/one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty and her cabaret shows at the Café Carlyle, Stritch made her presence known in the theater community and beyond by relying on newspaper columnists (from Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson to Liz Smith), using vulgar language, and expressing sharp and outspoken points of view.
In Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch (352 pages, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York Times feature writer Alexandra Jacobs presents a biography of Stritch that is meticulously researched (supported by extensive interview and archival records), gossipy, vivid in period detail and atmosphere, and even analytical, guided by a central attempt to come to grips with Stritch’s onstage luminosity and offstage behavior, including an unpaid bartending stint at Elaine’s, shoplifting groceries (yes, seriously), Catholic upbringing, Midwestern roots, and abstaining from sex until adulthood.
Jacobs suggests that the role that Stritch was always meant to play was the self-centered and demanding Rose Havok in Gypsy. As Jacobs recounts, Stritch nearly headlined the London premiere of Gypsy but got passed over for Angela Lansbury. Many years later, Stritch would perform “Rose’s Turn” at the Café Carlyle. This was just one of many roles that Stritch would lose out on due to the volatile qualities that made her so inimitable.
It should come as no surprise to learn that Stritch embellished the truth throughout her life. Accordingly, major portions of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty are revealed to be somewhat fictional in nature. In particular, Jacobs sheds doubt on Stritch’s claim of sobriety following a near-fatal diabetic episode. Of course, this just reflects Stritch’s flair for drama. Jacobs also reveals the sad details of Stritch’s final days, including her apparent regret at having left New York for quietude in Michigan.
Some sections of the book are admittedly less interesting than others, including those covering her family history and the less remarkable portion of her career between Company and her later comeback (including At Liberty and her Emmy-winning recurring role as Alec Baldwin’s crusty mother on 30 Rock). Nevertheless, the book is highly enjoyable and full of personality. For an additional dose of vigor, check out the audio version of the book, which is narrated by Broadway actress Andrea Burns, who recreates Stritch’s gravelly timbre and biting and abrasive temperament each time that Stritch is quoted.