Stritch in rehearsal at Manhattan's
Carlyle Hotel for her current act, "At Home at the Carlyle ...
Do you ever have stage fright?
Oh, my God. Are you crazy? I was so scared when I got to
the theater, but I never worried about it, because I knew exactly
what to do. You have the cure in your dressing room, so what am I
worried about? I never drank at rehearsals, because I wanted to
learn what the hell I was doing, you know. You don't drink when you
rehearse. But if Hal Prince yelled at you and it scared you, you
excused yourself and had a brandy. And came back and said, "Hal,
what were you saying?"
When you were emerging in New York, the wisecracking
female, à la Eve Arden, was pretty much second banana in a
show. You turned that around and emerged as the wisecracker and the
They didn't used to do that. That was a new thing in the
theater. And it started — I was in a musical in Westport,
Connecticut, a tryout of a new musical, Texas, Li'l Darlin'
I played the part of a funny girl who was the love interest. And
Johnny Mercer, or the power that be, said, no, we can't do this —
you've got to have a [separate] love interest. So I didn't go in
with the show. It went in without me. That's because I couldn't
sing soprano and fall in love.
They wanted Shirley Jones, as opposed to the
ON: Sail Away
is the one, really, that …
That's the one that Coward had the courage to do. He's not
going to follow any rules. If he thinks you can do something, you
But you're the wisecracker that got away. There was a whole
roster of them — they came on chewing gum and —
Well, that's what I nearly became in Hollywood. I went to
California and did a part in a movie, Perfect Furlough
Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. I played that part. I played the
wisecracker, the girlfriend who wore the rollers at night and
didn't have the date, and Janet Leigh went out with Tony Curtis.
But I got the laughs. So they wanted to get me out there [to
Hollywood], because Eve Arden was getting up in years, and I was
going to be the new Eve Arden. And I don't know what told me that I
shouldn't do that.
We have to think about life. We just can't think about what part
I'm going to play and what reviews I'm going to get and what
magazine I'm going to be in. We have to think about what the hell
is going to happen to us, you know.
I'm still delighted by what I'm blessed to do. I also think
about where I want to live down the line — in London, New York.
Things other than planning your next career move.
Well, in your case, the sooner you latch onto that, the
smarter you are. When you're talented, you're in trouble. There's
no two ways about it. That's the way it is.
I had a mentor in London, Lindsay Anderson, a great
director, who said to me once, "You'll always work, because you're
very good. But you're never going to find it easy, because you're
doomed to be the one thing that actors shouldn't be — intelligent."
I remember at the time thinking what a perverse comment, but I know
what he means now. Some of the great talents are as dumb
Yeah. And it's very difficult for you to sit around and see
mediocrity succeed. It's hard.
Darling, lest we forget, this is a magazine for opera
The opera critic of the Times
came to see my club
act, did you know that? The opera man came because of my association with James Levine, and that darling woman — what's-her-name, Renée Fleming? — she says to me, "I guess
we've got to have classes, Elaine," because he told all the opera
stars to take a lesson from me.
© Dario Acosta 2006
ON: Have you ever had a singing lesson in your life?
ES: Oh, yeah. From a coach. You have to exercise your vocal
cords correctly. When you're nervous, your voice tightens up, and
you push it, and you sing in the throat, and in a couple of nights
it's gone. I had a coach called Bert Knapp, who was a barker at
Ringling Brothers Circus. I went three times a week to him. His
advice to you when you went to audition — here was his psychology.
He would have you sing the lyrics from a song like "From this
Moment On," and while you were singing it, he would have you
balance a yardstick in the palm of your hand, so your thoughts
were, "I can't drop this yardstick." It wasn't on [your
[There is a short hiatus, at this point, as the dining-room
phone rings incessantly. There is not a waiter to be seen, so Miss
Stritch strides to the phone and, before you can say "The Ladies
Who Lunch," asks the person calling to hold while she demands a
writing implement from a couple of East-side matrons quietly
sipping tea at a corner table, then proceeds to take a reservation
for two for lunch the following day. "Thanks for calling, darling.
This is Elaine Stritch. I'm glad you'll be dining here at the
hotel." She hangs up and returns to continue the interview, as the
matrons stare at us incredulously.]
Your list of film credits is pretty eclectic — Who
Killed Teddy Bear
, Woody Allen's September
It's very eclectic. This morning I got a residual
For Who Killed Teddy Bear
No. That would be four cents. Here's why I did that movie.
Some agent said to me, they want you to play a dyke who runs a
discotheque and gets stabbed by Sal Mineo on East End Avenue.
But not before you've made a pass at Juliet Prowse.
Who could turn that down? It's a Bette Davis part! But I'm
the one who said to the writer, I have an angle about how to play a
homosexual who's not sure of herself, not quite sure of the other
person, is the other person gay, or is the other person straight?
So I said, if it doesn't work, this is the way I wanna play it. If
she says, Oh, no, my attitude is, how dare you think that I wanted
to — please, I tried to be nice to you, for Chrissake. I'm as
straight as they come. Wink, wink, nudge nudge.
Do you watch the dailies?
NO! You can tell how the dailies are when you go through
the gate in the morning! Are you kidding? "HI! 'MORNING, MISS
STRITCH!" You think, thank God, the scene worked. I have a Judy
Garland story for every moment of her life. She was so funny. When
she went back to MGM to get a job — because they had sacked her,
and she had been away in the crazy house and rehab and everything,
and she's back and she's clean — she puts on the navy blue suit,
single strand of pearls, Peck and Peck. That'll take you back.
Little gloves. It's 104 in California, and she's going to read —
Judy Fucking Garland
— is going to read for MGM for a part
in a movie. You ready? So she goes through the gate, and there's no
"Good morning, Miss Garland" look. You know what the guy says to
her at the gate? "Miss Garland, aren't you hot in that suit?" She
said she had four pairs of shields underneath — she was so
I'd like to see you do some dark, challenging work.
Maybe it'll happen. I think if Woody found something for me
he would give it to me. It's hard for me to get a film. Mike
Nichols I just beg to find something for me.
Your one-woman show, Stritch at Liberty
, was a
triumph! Does the thought of returning to the confines of a
naturalistic play or a book musical — is it anticlimactic for you,
or even possible?
It's a must for me. I have to do that. That's what I enjoy
most. At Liberty
I had to get off my chest.
So you would be happy returning to the constraints of a
Absolutely. Just because of the old-fashioned thing of
escape. We always understand ourselves in retrospect. You don't
understand yourself in your future plans, and it's hard as hell to
understand about today. Yesterday you can start to think
intelligently about. You've been there, done that. You've worn the
T-shirt. You can start to get a little smart about that. I had to
do Elaine Stritch at Liberty
. Everybody kept saying I should
do it, so I finally said, ALL RIGHT! I'LL DO IT!
Much has been said and written about the "death" of the
Broadway musical. Do you at your most realistic see a return to an
articulate, melodic book show?
I don't see anything. I want the theater to go on. Nothing
is ever going to be the same. Oscar Hammerstein lyrics are not
gonna be brought back. "Later in the second act, when she begins to
peel/ She proves that every single thing she's got is absolutely
real." Is there anything as sweet and funny and dear as that?
Are you excited to be working on a new club act?
It's so hard. It's harder than Virginia Woolf
harder than Small Craft Warnings
. Than Sail
But you do it with such ease.
You know, I said last year, I've never done a club act and
gotten paid for it. That's the whole story of my life. I have this thing that Coward died of, and it's a
-ease. But it's not cancer. It's the fact that he didn't
want to go out anymore, because the demands were too great. You
know exactly what I'm talking about. Coward couldn't take it
anymore. He just … couldn't … take it. [She hammers
the table to punctuate each word.
Who has been the most lasting influence on you as a
performer? Hasn't got to be a star.
Of course not, but it probably will be. [Long pause] Lemme
tell you something. I almost cry when I talk about this. The way
you help me, the way anybody helps me, is to make it easier for me.
Please help me. Please don't be fooled by me. Please know what I'm
all about. Please understand me, because I don't know how to tell
you how I really am, except when I go on the stage, and then I can.
But you gotta help me to get out there. And the people who have are
Harold Clurman, big time. Hal Prince, big time. Noël Coward.
And Gerry Gutierrez. Those four directors, and a few actors thrown
in there, too.
I went to an evening at the Stella Adler Theatre Studio, to sit at
a table with Zoe Caldwell and the like, about people who had worked
with Harold Clurman. I was so full of emotion, to know that there
once was a man who lived like that in the theater. I could hardly
talk about it. He did not put up for one minute with bullshit in
his life. I needed somebody like that. I needed somebody to be good
to me, so I can be good to the audience. That's what I've been
fighting all my life.
Remember that show Desert Island Discs
? You choose your
favorite albums. I'm doing a weekend in the desert with who makes
me laugh the most. I would take you and Maggie Smith. Who would you
That's quite a parlay. The three of us? I wonder if I would
take a comedian. A funny person. Jesus Christ, who would I take?
Maybe I'd get a dog!
That's a perfect way to end.
EDWARD HIBBERT is currently appearing on Broadway in
Drowsy Chaperone. He was Gil Chesterton on
eleven seasons and will soon be seen in the feature,
Prestige. He is also a literary agent at Donadio &
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