Before “At Liberty,” Stritch’s signature song had been “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a blast of alcohol-fueled bitterness she first nailed in the original production of “Company.” Later in life, she claimed another Sondheim song as her own: “Still Here,” the hard-bitten ode to overcoming dark days that gives New York Times writer Alexandra Jacobs the title for her slick, entertaining biography.
Stritch famously loved a good time and a good story, so she probably would have enjoyed Jacobs’s gossipy text, studded with juicy anecdotes. This once-over-lightly approach is perhaps appropriate, given that Stritch was not inclined to introspection.
Opening with a vivid account of the 2014 memorial service for Stritch in a Broadway theater, Jacobs characterizes her subject as “restless and routinized, selfish and generous, straightforward and elliptical,” a woman who “insisted on being seen and heard, felt and dealt with.” It’s all rather glib, as is the jab that Stritch was “a girl from a family who put the convent in conventional,” followed 12 pages later by the information that “the Stritches were committed but not strict Catholics.” Consistency doesn’t unduly concern Jacobs if it gets in the way of a good one-liner.
Stritch would probably be fine with that. “I was the girl who sang the songs and told the jokes,” she told a reporter in 1961. “I figured the only way to make people love me was to be a million laughs.” As that quote indicates, Stritch didn’t lack self-awareness; she simply preferred to focus on having fun, onstage and off, and making sure everyone knew about it. Shortly after she arrived in New York from suburban Detroit, in 1943, she was getting frequent mentions from gossip columnists like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen for her saloon-hopping and high-profile dates with producer Jed Harris. Jacobs follows the columnists’ example by giving plenty of space to Stritch’s drinking and her relationships with Gig Young, Ben Gazzara and quite a few others before her 1973 marriage to fellow actor (and fellow alcoholic) John Bay.
Meanwhile, Jacobs’s show-by-show narrative captures the professional life of a working actor in the commercial theater. Stritch made her first big splash with the mock-striptease number “Zip” in a 1952 revival of “Pal Joey” and received Tony nominations for her work in William Inge’s 1955 drama, “Bus Stop,” and Noel Coward’s 1961 musical, “Sail Away.” But she also gained a reputation as a lush, difficult with directors and a selfish performer who made sure the spotlight was always on her. By 1969, she had become “an obvious employment risk,” according to Jacobs, when Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim cast her in “Company.”
Stritch was such a smash in the iconic role of Joanne that she negotiated a 50 percent raise for the show’s run in London. She met Bay there and stayed for the rest of the 1970s, starring in a few plays and a TV sitcom. She even quit drinking for several years, but Bay’s death, after their return to New York in 1982, pushed her off the wagon, and she hit bottom after her parents died in 1987. Stritch went to AA and loudly proclaimed her sobriety, although her commitment was, in fact, intermittent. It’s all part of a jaundiced picture that Jacobs paints of the decade that followed, marked by unprofessional episodes fueled by a sense of entitlement that was, according to composer Larry Grossman, “not commensurate with who she was.” (Jacobs has a habit of using quotes from others to make points she seems unwilling to make directly.)
With “At Liberty,” Stritch went from being dismissed as a past-her-prime prima donna to being hailed as a theatrical legend and charming scamp. A surge of late-life activity included a regular guest-star stint on NBC’s “30 Rock,” cabaret performances at Cafe Carlyle, and, at age 85, her final Broadway appearance, as Madame Armfeldt in a 2010 revival of “A Little Night Music.” She did her last show at the Carlyle in 2013, shortly before moving back to Michigan to spend her last year among her surviving relatives.
Stritch’s tumultuous life and career make an absorbing story, which Jacobs tells briskly and readably. Readers looking for something deeper than the standard showbiz biography will wish that “Still Here” displayed greater empathy and insight when discussing Stritch’s frequently bad behavior, so obviously rooted in insecurities and anxieties whose origins Jacobs might have done more to explore. For those content with a capable recounting of a colorful life, “Still Here” will do just fine.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
352 pp. $27.00