CHICAGO — In Elaine Stritch’s self-revealing, one-woman show in 2002, penned in collaboration with the critic John Lahr and aptly titled “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” the sharp-tongued Stritch 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 in her 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.
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Stritch, whom I interviewed several times over the years, was a journalist’s dream, frank and fearless in response and completely unaffected by the usual caution of artists who fear the wrath of those who sign their paychecks. Stritch feared none but herself.
She was the most fun of all when she was on the road, when she would writhe and kvetch like a fish who had leaped (or been pushed) from its customary tank and had no clue how to return.
One weekend in 2003, I went up to Minneapolis to write about her and her solo show, which had been a big Broadway hit in 2002. Then 78 years old, Stritch was in fine form, having been stuck in Minneapolis for two weeks without any actual shows to do, or, more precisely, to get paid to do. She blamed the layoff on her producers. Her presence in nice Minnesota was, I wrote at the time, not unlike a viperous snake being forcibly relocated to a petting zoo.
Stritch, a diabetic, was dependent on insulin shots. On that day at the Grand Hotel, she expended a lot of energy looking for a refrigerator — she found one at the bar, not an uncomplicated locale for her, but the only viable solution. She was also weary of being interviewed, recounting a few of her stock answers, replete with impressions of the kind of voice that usually held the microphone or notebook. (“What’s your favorite show?” “The one I’m in.”)
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.”
And the years of all the booze? “Every time I went to the ladies’ room, I got better looking.”
It was all story-ready copy and into my story it went.
She was more reticent when it came to talking about Sondheim, not out of caution but adoration, it seemed. Something he had said recently had upset her and she did not know what to say. Their relationship was complex.
I didn’t use her comment about how any actor who says she doesn’t read reviews is a liar, but I enjoyed it and, every time someone has told me they don’t read reviews, I’ve trotted it out, replete with a my lousy impression of Stritch’s cackle.
But I did use her description of how hard she found it to stay sober. As it had gotten closer to happy hour, the day had suddenly taken on a very different tone. “This is a very hard time for me,” Stritch had said. “I’ve been sober for 16 years in September. I’m going through a very tough period of my life. I get tempted to stop all these rules.”
Rules? It depends on one’s definition, I suppose, and even Stritch, in so many ways one of the strongest women the American theater ever had seen, had to bow to human frailty.
Two years later, Stritch showed up at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
The late John Callaway was her interlocutor. There were a few scary moments that night, most notably when a questioner in the audience insisted on calling her “Elaine Stretch” (she countered with a helpful rhyme for future use). But she was on rare form thereafter. It was 90 minutes of candor between friends, all on whatever record might exist. Stritch lived her life in public.
Callaway, a superb interviewer, pushed Stritch a bit on the question of the booze. She spoke of her problem and its impact on her life, and she praised the state of sobriety. But she also called the effects of imbibing as “extraordinary.”
“So you have to give it its due,” she told Callaway, who nodded and smiled, immediately grasping that this was a remarkable woman, a true survivor, speaking of complexity and of the challenges of life.