The remarkable life of Elaine Stritch
For a long time, there was a set of unwritten rules for actresses: Look young, peak young, and then accept your fade from relevance without kicking up a fuss. If you're lucky, you might get some parts as a kindly grandmother. Leave wild antics and memes to the kids.
And no, you absolutely do not tell Alec Baldwin in a radio interview how your first real orgasm occurred during a performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Somehow, none of those rules applied to Elaine Stritch, who passed away in 2014 at a still-salty 89. As illustrated in Still Here, a nuanced new biography of the Broadway legend by New York Times feature writer Alexandra Jacobs, Stritch's career didn't follow the usual arc. It was a bottle rocket that zig-zagged for decades — she worked with everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Woody Allen to Tina Fey — before making one final thrust upward, when she won her first-ever Tony Award for her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty in 2002 at the age of 77.
How did she react? By telling reporters that the CBS executives who cut her speech short could "go f--- themselves."
The youngest in a well-off Detroit family, blessed with long legs and a belting alto that easily reached the cheap seats, Stritch arrived in New York in 1943 as a teenager and managed to hang on as Broadway adapted to changing social mores. Along the way, she had stints as a well-remunerated Upper East Side bartender and an overgrown Eloise living it up in posh hotels (Jacobs' account recalls that on the night of Barack Obama's election, Stritch ran through the lobby of the Carlyle in New York in a bathrobe and slippers, carrying sparklers). Though Jacobs is clearly a dogged researcher, it must not have been too hard to find interviewees who were eager to share an Elaine Stritch anecdote.
Not that she endeared herself to everyone. Her lifelong problems with alcohol and crippling stage fright — along with a sense of entitlement that sometimes became unbearable — resulted in firings, estrangements, and lost chances for plum roles.
Yet Stritch also had a curious way of bobbing up again at her lowest moments. She caught Noel Coward's eye as she trudged her way through an ill-conceived 1959 musical called Goldilocks ("any leading lady who doesn't do a double-take when a nine-foot bear asks her to dance is my kind of actress," he consoled her on a backstage visit), and he created a part for her in one of his last productions, 1961's Sail Away. A jobless stretch in the late '60s didn't stop Lee Israel, a respected writer still decades away from attempting the desperate con chronicled in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from writing a sympathetic Times profile that led to her casting in Company.
And shortly after a dismal and forgettable 1998 regional theater production in the Hamptons in which she became, in her director's words, "emotionally abusive and exhausting for everyone involved," a single, 10-minute-long Carnegie Hall benefit performance fueled her last and most important career renaissance. An apparently goosebumps-inducing mashup of Coward's "If Love Were All" and Gershwin's "But Not For Me" convinced an influential producer to propose an autobiographical one-woman show. This, the author suggests, finally gave Stritch the chance to reveal her greatest and least utilized talent. "She was supremely skilled at the kind of theatrical conversation that takes place not between actors, but a player and the audience," Jacobs writes. "In a drawing room or from a stage, Stritch could command the entire space."
That kind of alchemy with a live audience isn't easily captured for posterity. But as the age of YouTube dawned and coincided with Stritch's most memorable TV role, that of Jack Donaghy's acid-tongued mother in 30 Rock, a new generation got to see glimpses of what made her so magnetic — moments such as the one in D.A. Pennebaker's 1970 documentary of Company's cast recording (later to be parodied in last February's Emmy-winning episode of IFC's Documentary Now!) when Stritch overcame frayed nerves and Sondheim's lacerating criticism to deliver a powerhouse performance. And when her uncensored, uninhibited remarks were caught on camera, they became endlessly GIFable.
Obviously, Elaine Stritch is not, despite the book's title, Still Here (the title of another Sondheim classic that she made her own). And Jacobs' text can't hope to entirely capture someone that distinctive and dependent upon an ephemeral connection with a crowd. "How do you hold a f---ing moonbeam in your hand?" Nathan Lane mused at her funeral, giving Rodgers and Hammerstein's lyrics a naughty, fittingly Stritchian twist.
You can't. But Still Here at least offers a glimpse of a long and eventful life — and a stage presence somehow powerful enough to outlast it.