Everyone who ever met Elaine Stritch—hell, anyone who ever saw her perform—has a Stritch story. She often told stories about herself, most memorably in her 2002 solo play Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Brilliantly sardonic, inspirational and self-eviscerating, it was the acme (amid valleys and long plateaus) of one of the great theater careers of our time, which came to an end with her death today in her home state of Michigan, at the age of 89.
Stritch gained new fans in recent years through her Emmy-winning role as the irascible Colleen Donaghy on NBC’s 30 Rock. But she was a theater woman to her bones, on stage and off. Her legendary Broadway run spanned 65 years, from her debut in the 1946 comedy Loco to her 2011 turn as the weary ex-courtesan Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Her performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the era-defining 1970 musical Company is on everyone’s top-ten list of eleven-o’clock numbers, down to its furious final command to join her in a toast: “Everybody rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!”
I have had occasion to write about the tough-talking, hard-living Stritch many times, including here (about her cabaret shows at the Carlyle Hotel, where she also lived) and here (about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the 2013 film documentary about her). As a performer, there was no one quite like her.
But it’s about the stories. In that spirit, here’s mine.
Elaine Stritch was my trial by fire: the first big star I ever interviewed professionally. She ate me alive. The year was 2001, and I had recently started writing for Broadway.com. The occasion of the interview was the DVD release of D.A. Pennebaker's classic 1970 documentary about the making of the original cast album of Company. Stritch’s performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is the movie’s crisis point. Pennebaker shoots Stritch singing it, then cuts to the studio control room, where the album’s producer dismisses it as “flaccid.” She tries the number again and again, with diminishing returns each time. She is frustrated and exhausted and humiliated, and it's all there on film. There’s a happy ending: Stritch goes back to the studio the next day, looking great, and she records the version that becomes iconic. But it’s hard to watch.
The interview was by phone; she was at her home in Sag Harbor, New York. I was nervous. I had watched the DVD several times, so I knew that it included commentary with Pennebaker, Stritch and Company's director, Harold Prince. During the “Ladies Who Lunch” sequence, Prince—on his commentary track—says something about how what you don't see on camera is that they had copious amounts of champagne in the studio, and everyone was drinking, and Elaine was drinking, and by that time of night she was in no shape to do the number.
I also knew that Prince’s comment would make Stritch mad. She had struggled with alcoholism all of her life, as she frequently discussed, and had a complex relationship to its role in her career. (Much of the tension in Elaine Stritch at Liberty comes from its alternations between her insistence that alcohol never affected her professional performances and her eagerness to share funny war stories about times when it clearly did.) I wanted to give Stritch a platform to respond to what Prince had said.
What I didn’t know was that Stritch had not seen the DVD, and didn’t know about Prince’s comment until I asked her about it. Instead of being the white knight bringing her a chance to defend her honor, I was suddenly in a very different position—the bearer of bad news. And she went off, at length, on a furiously defensive tirade: She wasn’t drunk at the studio, her character wasn’t drunk either, she had never let alcohol compromise her work. It was stuff that she had been rehearsing for years, and much of it later appeared, more or less verbatim, in At Liberty. (“I never overshot the runway!”)
I was mortified. I tried repeatedly to interject, to apologize, to tell her all the nice things that Prince had said about her, too, but she was having none of it. Finally, after literally my fourth or fifth attempt to change the subject, she allowed it.
“All right,” she said, in a growl like whiskey. “We can talk about something else. But, for the record: Alcohol had nothing to do with the delay, if you will, in them getting their fucking damn number the way they fucking damn well wanted it. And you can print that!” Then she paused. And then she added: “Well…Cut the fucks.”
I did. And I’ve been dining out on that story ever since. That’s our Stritchie: the mouth that launched a thousand dinners, and countless thousands of drinks. So now, please, a toast—nonalcoholic, if you like—to that all-but-invincible broad, Elaine Stritch. Everybody rise! And fall. And rise! And fall. And rise! And fall. And rise.