Elaine Stritch, vivid stage and screen personality, dies at 89

Broadway legend Elaine Stritch died at her home on Thursday. Stritch was 89. (Reuters)
July 17

Elaine Stritch, an actress and singer whose brassy, whiskey-soaked voice, acerbic wit and hard-won understanding of human frailty made her an indomitable show-business force on stage and screen, died July 17 at her home in Birmingham, Mich. She was 89.

A funeral director at A.J. Desmond & Sons funeral home in Troy, Mich., confirmed the death.

Ms. Stritch moved to Birmingham last year to be near family as she became increasingly frail from diabetes and a broken hip and memory loss. Her departure from New York, where she lived much of her career, was cause for dramatic fanfare among the city’s theater elite.

During a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Ms. Stritch was primarily a stage star, but she became one of the most easily identifiable and unforgettable personalities across many media.

She portrayed Jackie Gleason’s upstairs neighbor Trixie Norton in an early “Honeymooners” TV sketch in the 1950s — she claimed the hard-living Gleason quickly replaced her with Joyce Randolph “because he said I was too much like him, just in drag.” Ms. Stritch remained a presence on television shows for more than two generations, and she won Emmys for her guest appearances as a feisty defense lawyer on “Law & Order” and in a recurring role as Alec Baldwin’s paranoid, ranting mother on the popular NBC sitcom “30 Rock.”

On Broadway, Ms. Stritch drew ecstatic reviews in world premieres of musicals such as Noel Coward’s gossamer comedy “Sail Away” in 1961 and Stephen Sondheim’s moody ode to selfishness, “Company,” in 1970. The Sondheim production, regarded as a benchmark of sophisticated theater, provided Ms. Stritch with what became her lacerating signature song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

The number was a mordant toast to middle-aged New York women who have abandoned whatever promise they might have had to pickle themselves in expensive restaurants. For Ms. Stritch, who was publicly associated with the pains and pleasures of alcohol, few songs had such a feral connection to its interpreter.

“When it comes to Elaine Stritch and a wickedly caustic song called ‘The Ladies Who Lunch,’ you just know that she has swallowed the cocktail glasses along with the martinis,” Time magazine wrote in its review of the musical.

Indeed, Ms. Stritch spoke openly about her personal struggles, particularly her long period of alcoholism, which cost her some of her peak years. For a time in the mid-1960s, she supported herself as a bartender at a celebrity watering hole called — of all things — “Elaine’s.” (The name came from its late proprietor, Elaine Kaufman.)

“It’s therapeutic,” she told an interviewer in 1964. “I’m safer on this side of the bar than the other.”

After 25 years of sobriety, she surprised her friends by starting to drink again late in life. She called herself a “recovered alcoholic who has one drink a day” and kept a small bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin in the same pack with the medicine she used to control her diabetes.

Following her Tony-nominated role in “Company,” Ms. Stritch had key supporting roles in avant-garde films such as Alain Resnais’s “Providence” (1977). She played an aging former model and debutante in Woody Allen’s “September” (1987) and a wealthy arts patron in Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” (2000).

Ms. Stritch was popular in cabaret performance and sang regularly at the Hotel Carlyle on the Upper East Side of Manhattan after 2005, during a time when she also lived in the posh hotel. Her acclaimed one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” which began at the Public Theater in 2001 and later moved to Broadway, combined smoky, inimitably phrased renditions of some favorite songs with autobiographical reminiscences.

In her stage show — which earned her a Tony for special theatrical event — she focused on her love affairs with pre-presidential John F. Kennedy and with actors Marlon Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, the last of whom she said she dropped when Rock Hudson seemed to take a romantic interest in her. “We all know what a bum decision that turned out to be,” she recalled wryly of the gay movie star.

Ms. Stritch was nominated four other times for Tonys for her theater roles and was overlooked, despite much talk of it, for an Oscar in “September.”

Asked if she was unhappy about such relative neglect by her peers, Ms. Stritch told the New York Times in 1993, “Nah, it wasn’t in the cards. But I’ll tell you what I wanted to say if I did win. I think it says everything about this business.”

She leaned toward her questioner. “Like the prostitute says: ‘It’s not the work. It’s the stairs.’ ”

Elaine Stritch was born in Detroit on Feb. 2, 1925, and grew up in the affluent suburb of Birmingham. Her father was an executive with B.F. Goodrich, the tire company, and sent Elaine — the youngest of three girls — to Catholic school and a finishing school.

She said she rebelled early against her privileged, somewhat secluded upbringing, first by drinking heavily starting at 13 and then leaving town at 17 to forge a career as an actress.

“All that crap about extending the pinkie finger while sipping tea is a myth,” she told People magazine. “Convent schools are breeding grounds for great broads and occasionally one-of-the-boys. Convent schools teach you to play against everything, which is what I’m still doing.”

Ms. Stritch took an overnight train to New York, studied with director and producer Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research and began to win roles in off-Broadway productions. In 1947, she won a supporting role in an acclaimed Broadway revue, “Angel in the Wings,” singing the nonsense song that went “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.”

In the early 1950s, she served as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the hit Irving Berlin musical “Call Me Madam,” based on the life of Washington hostess Perle Mesta, and then starred in the national touring production.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Ms. Stritch developed a reputation as a wise-cracking scene stealer. In a 1952 Broadway revival of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical “Pal Joey,” her rendition of the “intellectual striptease” number “Zip” often concluded with bravos and demands for an encore.

She earned her first Tony nomination for her more restrained portrait of the proprietor of a small-town eatery in William Inge’s drama “Bus Stop” (1955). It led to her first starring role, in the Walter and Jean Kerr musical “Goldilocks” (1958), which in turn led to her work in 1961 with the British polymath Noel Coward.

Ms. Stritch recalled how she met Coward during a miserable out-of-town tryout for “Goldilocks.” Imitating the mannered Coward, she said he cornered the Kerrs and “took them into my dressing room and said, ‘I’m veddy veddy sorry to tell you that you have no book, no score, and you have an absolutely brilliant young performer who is in tears, drinking in her dressing room.’ ”

“It was the opposite of being sent to your room for something you didn’t do,” she told the Times years later. “I had a champion. And the next thing I know: ‘Sail Away.’ ”

Ms. Stritch initially landed a supporting role in Coward’s musical comedy, but he became so smitten with her talent that he kept changing the script until it essentially became a star vehicle for her. She played a world-weary cruise director improbably named Mimi Paragon and who laments in one show-stopping number, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”

The show was again a critical triumph for Ms. Stritch — who received a Tony nomination — but it was considered a commercial failure. She went on to appear in a range of dramatic productions, notably replacing Uta Hagen in the early 1960s as the shrewish Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She was a stalwart interpreter of Albee’s work, earning a Tony nomination as an aggressive drunk in a 1996 Broadway revival of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Delicate Balance.”

After her long run in Sondheim’s “Company,” Ms. Stritch moved to London, where she married the actor John Bay, appeared in the popular British sitcom “Two’s Company” and in the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’s “Small Craft Warnings.” Bay died of brain cancer in 1982, after which Ms. Stritch returned to New York.

Ms. Stritch was a vital presence in two documentaries about New York theater life: “Broadway: The Golden Age” (2003) and “Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age” (2011). She wrote a memoir, “Am I Blue?: Living With Diabetes and, Dammit, Having Fun,” published in 1984.

Ms. Stritch kept working until she was in her late 80s — indomitable and often irritable, tended to by a coterie of people who loved her. But her diabetes continued to worsen, and she needed hip replacement in 2012.

Her physical frailty was, in many ways, revelatory for a woman who seemed to embody a fearless quality in her public life.

“I walk out on stage and they think I can run for president. Nobody realizes I have a facade that is eight inches thick,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “I have to survive. If I showed the fear I actually have deep inside of me, then I couldn’t get arrested. It would be selfish to show it because you upset everybody around you. In a way, having a facade is like you are encouraging other people not to be fearful by pretending you are okay.”

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