Date of Birth: 2 February 2 1925, Detroit, Michigan, US
Birth Name: Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch, the American actress, who has died aged 89, was the femme formidable of Broadway, famous for her foghorn voice and deadpan comic timing, and notorious for her filthy temper and “cut-the-crap” frankness; but like many who adopt an abrasive outer shell, underneath there beat a softer heart.
Brassy, skyscraper tall and with a voice once described as “like a corncrake wading through Bourbon on the rocks”, Elaine Stritch was a natural scene-stealer. Not strikingly beautiful, though with wondrously long and shapely legs, there was no one quite like her in showbusiness.
In Britain, where she scored an instant hit as Mimi Paragon, the cruise ship hostess in Noël Coward’s Sail Away, she became everyone’s favourite American actress. She will be best remembered for the long-running 1970s BBC sitcom, Two’s Company, in which she played a rich, demanding American in London, opposite Donald Sinden as Robert, her plummy-voiced butler.
But it was on the Broadway stage that she began her career and where she continued to perform on and off for six decades in comedies and musical drama. She understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam; and brought the house down in Pal Joey singing Zip in the famous 1946 revival. Stephen Sondheim gave her one of his greatest songs, Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch, in Company, in which she played beady-eyed lush Joanne in the original 1970 production. One reviewer noted that “she can race through the gears from a savage purr to an air-raid siren howl in five seconds without ever losing a note of the melody”.
Elaine Stritch partied with as much energy as she performed. She knocked it back with such dedicated topers as Judy Garland and Jackie Gleason. “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this, but goodnight!” said Judy Garland as she made an 8am exit from one marathon session. She dated John F Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and even Rock Hudson, for whom she ditched Ben Gazzara a “bum rap”, she confessed.
The diva of the put-down, Elaine Stritch never learned the art of turning the other cheek. She always had the last word. “I’m sorry about what I said to you earlier today,” an interviewer heard her tell an assistant. “I meant every word.”
Yet underneath this spiky carapace there lurked a more fragile personality, at once addicted to, yet terrified of, performing a woman who fought a long-running battle with the bottle which nearly destroyed her altogether.
The youngest of three daughters, Elaine Stritch was born on February 2 1925 into an upper-middle-class Roman Catholic family in suburban Detroit. Her uncle Samuel was Cardinal Stritch of Chicago; her father a senior executive in Ford Motors. She was educated at a convent where “you daren’t speak in the lavatory and you bathed in your nightgown”.
Her more conventional elder sisters left school and got married, but Elaine’s tastes tended towards the bohemian. As a teenager she accompanied the family’s black maid, Carrie, to “Black and Tan” clubs, where she became familiar with “down and dirty” blues such as I Want a Long Time Daddy, which she sang without understanding the lyrics. She tasted her first whisky sour aged 13 and wanted more.
Her father sent her, aged 17, to New York, where she lived in a convent and studied acting at the New School in Manhattan. A contemporary of Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando, she made her student stage debut as a tiger. She “dated” Brando nothing more. When, after a night on the town, he took her back to his place, went to the bathroom, and reappeared in his pyjamas, the teenage Elaine Stritch shot straight back to the convent. “I kissed like a crazy woman,” she recalled. “But I was a virgin until I was 30. Somebody’d touch my breast, and I’d think I was pregnant.”
She was immediately successful. In 1945 she played the parlourmaid in The Private Life of the Master Race and, in 1946, Pamela Brewster in Loco and Miss Crowder in Made in Heaven. After Three Indelicate Ladies and The Little Foxes, she appeared in the review Angel in the Wings singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo...”. In 1949 she played the part of Joan Farrell in Yes, M’Lord. Having kicked her heels as an understudy to Ethel Merman in the Broadway production of Call Me Madam, she left a show-stopping role in Pal Joey to do the Merman part on tour to enthusiastic reviews.
After that she starred in shows by Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Stephen Sondheim and Edward Albee, and was directed by such figures as Erwin Piscator, George Abbott, Harold Clurman and Hal Prince. Coward called her “Stritchie” and, after rescuing her from the flop musical Goldilocks (1958), gave her the lead in Sail Away, in which she sang Why Do the Wrong People Travel?
In his diaries, Coward saw her more vulnerable side: “Poor darling Stritch with all her talents is almost completely confused about everything. She is an ardent Catholic and never stops saying f*** and Jesus Christ. She is also kind, touching and loyal and, fortunately, devoted to me.” After “the Master’s” death, she attended his memorial service wearing a bright red blazer, and mistook Yehudi Menuhin for a busker friend of Coward’s.
Elaine Stritch began her film career inauspiciously with Scarlet Hour (1956). After attending a matinee, Richard Burton told her: “Halfway through your last number I almost had an orgasm.” “Almost?” she shrieked reprovingly. She contributed compelling performances to the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms, and Providence (1970). In 1971 she was offered a contract by 20th Century Fox but turned it down, not wishing to be typecast as the new Eve Arden the wisecracking girlfriend who never gets her man. Later she appeared in such films as September (1988) and Cocoon (1990),
On television, Elaine Stritch starred in the 1948 domestic comedy Growing Paynes, the short-lived 1960 sitcom My Sister Eileen, and co-starred as the star’s mother in The Ellen Burstyn Show (1986). She was a member of the supporting comedy troupe on the 1949 show Jack Carter and Company, a comic switchboard operator on the 1956 variety series Washington Square, and Peter Falk’s secretary in The Trials of O’Brien (1965).
Coward brought her to London in 1962 in Sail Away, and she returned in 1972 with Sondheim’s Company, winning more ecstatic reviews. She remained in London for several years, making her second home in the Savoy Hotel. Of her barnstorming performance in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings, one reviewer described her “bashing through the play like a truck driver in a garage full of Minis”. “I love asking the way in London,” she told an interviewer. “A man actually left his shop to show me where to go. I thought 'I’m not that attractive and I don’t look like a hooker, so what’s in it for him?’ I finally realised he was simply good-mannered.”
By now she had triumphantly shed the title of the “oldest virgin on Broadway”, having lost her virginity aged 30 to the Fifties film star Gig Young, to whom she was briefly engaged before ditching him for Ben Gazzara. This was fortunate, as Young went on to experiment with LSD and ended up shooting his fourth wife and himself. Less percipient was her decision to get rid of Gazzara when she unwisely fell in love with Rock Hudson well known in green room circles as a rampant homosexual.
Eventually, in 1973 and aged 47, she met and married John Bay, her co-star in Small Craft Warnings. When they got engaged, Elaine Stritch called home to ask her father whether she should bring her fiancé home to see if he approved of him. “No, just marry him,” came the reply. “Don’t let him get away.” The marriage lasted a happy 10 years, until Bay died of cancer.
Since her early years Elaine Stritch had suffered from stage fright and, when prayers did not do the trick, she quelled her nerves with alcohol. By the late 1970s her opening gambit at every watering hole was “I’d like four martinis and a floor plan”. Sacked from shows and thrown out of clubs, she failed to stop drinking even after she became diabetic. But after suffering a severe attack in the hallway of a New York hotel (from which she was saved only because a passing waiter happened to be carrying a Pepsi), she went on the wagon and never touched another drop.
In 2002 she made a triumphant return on Broadway in her one-woman retrospective of her career, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, co-written with John Lahr, which played to sell-out audiences at London’s Old Vic the following year. “There’s good news and bad news,” she told her audience. “The good: I have a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad: I’ve had it for 45 years.” In a typical Stritchian postscript, when she really did make the speech after being awarded a Tony for her performance, it was so long that the orchestra cut her off in mid-flow. Afterwards she gave an angry, tearful press conference. The show also won her the Drama Desk award for best solo performance and a nomination for the Olivier Award for her performance at the Old Vic.
In 2003 she was made a “Living Landmark” of New York City for her contributions to Broadway, and in 2010-11 she appeared in a Broadway revival of A Little Light Music. She was the subject of a documentary film, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, released earlier this year.