Appreciation: The remarkable Elaine Stritch

07/18/2014 3:39 PM

07/18/2014 3:40 PM

In Elaine Stritch’s self-revealing, one-woman show in 2002, the sharp-tongued star described herself as “an existential problem in tights.”

It was a clever turn of phrase. The tights, and the remarkable legs they contained, reflected Stritch’s history as an old-school Broadway and West End star, vulnerable and revealed, eight nights a week, especially when performing the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.

The adjective “existential” encapsulated her remarkably fearless candor and spectacular intelligence, not to mention her ability to translate the problems of a singular 89 years on Earth into a metaphor for the victories and defeats endemic to human life itself.

Stritch died Thursday at home in Birmingham, Mich. She had returned to the Midwest to be close to family as her health began to fail, following many years spent famously “at home” in the Carlyle Hotel in New York (which, conveniently enough, had a cabaret room downstairs). That residence followed many similar years, with her late husband, “at home” at the Savoy Hotel in London, making her a similarly beloved figure on the other side of the pond.

Stritch was frank and fearless and completely unaffected by the usual caution of artists who fear the wrath of those who sign their paychecks. Stritch feared none but herself.

Stritch’s career began in the 1940s and included her fair share of appearances in movies, including Woody Allen’s “September” (1987) and “Small Time Crooks” (2000), and on television; well into her 80s, she played a recurring role on the NBC comedy “30 Rock” as the domineering mother of the television executive played by Alec Baldwin.

But the stage was her true professional home, where, whether in musicals, non-musical dramas or solo cabaret shows, she drew audiences to her with her whiskey voice, her seen-it-all manner and the blunt charisma of a star.

Plain-spoken, egalitarian, impatient with fools and foolishness, and admittedly fond of cigarettes, alcohol and late nights – she finally gave up smoking and drinking in her 60s, although she took it up again – and she was completely unabashed about her good-time-girl attitude.

She was the most fun of all when she was on the road, when she would writhe and complain like a fish who had leaped (or been pushed) from its customary tank and had no clue how to return.

Stritch, a diabetic, was dependent on insulin shots.

None of this diminished her capacity for frank conversation or recollection.

All one had to do was tee up the right questions.

What’s it like to tour? “One of the things I loved about touring a show was falling in love with the leading man. This time, there isn’t one.”

Does money matter? “Hell, yes. I get as much of it as I can.”

What was it like to work with Bertolt Brecht? “Horrible man. Never bathed. The man smelled.”

She was more reticent when it came to talking about Sondheim, not out of caution but adoration, it seemed. Their relationship was complex.

And the years of all the booze? “Every time I went to the ladies’ room, I got better looking.”

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