Scene Stealer

Detroit-born Broadway star Elaine Stritch still attracts — and charms — a crowd
Photographs by Jenny Risher

It’s the day after Elaine Stritch’s 89th birthday, but the party is far from over.

Her spacious Birmingham condo resembles a florist’s shop with sprays of flowers from family and friends adorning almost every room and “Happy Birthday” helium balloons dangling from the ceiling.

It’s a hive of activity. A niece, nephew, great-niece, great-nephew, and other well-wishers continue to stop by. This in addition to her caretakers; director-producer Chiemi Karasawa; a journalist; and a photographer and her assistant. Of course, the Detroit-born Broadway star has played to larger crowds, but this is an audience nonetheless, and Stritch is “on” this chilly February evening.

“God, I wish I had this crew here when I fall out of bed in the morning,” she cracks.

Stritch, who grew up comfortably in a Tudor-style home on Birchcrest Drive in Detroit’s University District, left her hometown in 1943 and made a splash on Broadway, in films, and on television. Stritch was the youngest of three daughters born to George (an executive at B.F. Goodrich) and Mildred Stritch.

Last year, the frail singer/actress moved from New York’s fabled Carlyle Hotel to Birmingham to be close to her relatives.

Despite her biting humor, Stritch has a vulnerable side. Yes, she’s brassy and bold, winning acclaim for such showstoppers as “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Zip,” and “I’m Still Here.” And she can hurl oneliners like a javelin, striking her targets with deadly accuracy, as evidenced by her role as Alec Baldwin’s crusty mother on 30 Rock.

But anyone who’s seen Elaine Stritch at Liberty, her 2002 one-woman show chronicling her long career in show business, knows that along with the wisecracking and F-bombs are moments of piercing sadness: loneliness, the death of her husband, a daunting battle against the bottle. Sure, Stritch can belt out a Broadway barnburner, but she can do equal justice to a ballad. Few other performers can balance such a biting wit with such a tender heart.

Besides, Stritch hasn’t had a lot to laugh about lately. She’s had some serious setbacks in the last couple of years, falling like a bowling pin both here and in New York, breaking her hip, fracturing her pelvis, and detaching her retina. That’s in addition to her struggle with diabetes and the general perils of growing old. Stritch uses a walker, and her memory is sometimes cloudy. There’s more pain, too: On Feb. 24, she was scheduled to have an operation to remove a non-cancerous stomach tumor. As she’s sung so many times: “Good times and bum times/I’ve seen ’em all, and my dear, I’m still here.”

Nowhere is that credo more evident than in director Karasawa’s behind-the-scenes look at Stritch’s life, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Released last spring, it’s already made the rounds at film festivals. The flick opened nationwide on Feb. 21 in New York and will screen in 38 cities, Karasawa says.

It will premiere at the Uptown Birmingham 8 on April 4, though its subject may still be recuperating. “I’ll crawl to the premiere if I have to,” Stritch vows.

It’s Karasawa’s directorial debut, but she has boatloads of experience, serving as a producer on several films and, before that, as a script supervisor in movies and TV. She’s worked with Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Stephen Frears. “I’ve clocked a lot of years working alongside directors, so I knew the ropes pretty well,” Karasawa says.

By turns funny, caustic, and sad, Shoot Me was filmed in New York and Detroit. It’s also sprinkled with vintage TV and film clips.

Stritch, the winner of three Emmys and one Tony (all displayed atop her Birmingham condo’s grand piano), sat down at her kitchen table to talk with Hour Detroit, clad in a Detroit Athletic Club T-shirt and her signature black stockings.

After the interview and a quick costume change, Stritch pulled out all the stops during her photo shoot, mugging and singing along to her old recordings, including “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and “Easy Street.”

Stritch’s frank blue eyes are at once suspiciously appraising and kind, as if she’s sizing you up. If she likes you, she’s a marshmallow. But if you cross her, look out.

HD: Miss Stritch…may I call you Elaine?

You sure can. I’ll kill you if you don’t.

HD: I just don’t want to be too familiar.

You don’t, eh? [Smiles slyly.] Well, I guess I’m scaring you.

HD: So, how did you spend your 89th birthday yesterday (Feb. 2)?

I spent it quietly, but my house was full of people. My caretakers were also here — I have three great human beings working for me.

HD: You lived at 18210 Birchcrest [in Detroit’s University District]…

Yes. I once said to my father, “How am I going to remember that long address on Birchcrest Drive?” He said, “A girl’s of age when she’s 18. A guy’s of age when he’s 21. And what does it amount to? Not a goddamn thing.” 18-21-0.

HD: That was, and is, a beautiful neighborhood.

It is, absolutely. And the Detroit Golf Club was close by, one of the loveliest country clubs in the world. Thank God we had enough change to join.

HD: Did you go shopping nearby on the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois?

No, but I used to go to Saks [at Second Avenue and Lothrop Road] — with my father’s charge card. That was the way to do it!

HD: I have to think that you, a budding actress, also went to the Cass and Shubert theaters on Lafayette.

Oh, yes! Most definitely. I saw so many wonderful things there. Bobby Clark was a famous comedian back then, and I saw him. He loved my mother and dad; they were best friends. Bobby and his wife stayed with us on Birchcrest when he played here. He wore phony glasses painted on his face and was one of the funniest men I’ve ever seen on the stage, very much like Groucho Marx. I remember he opened one snowy night at the Cass Theatre, and we all went to opening night. He was doing a skit where he was playing a doctor, and when a pretty nurse knocked on the door, he said, “If that’s Elaine Stritch, I’ll be right there.” He said that in the middle of the show! I just couldn’t believe he said my name right there during the performance.

HD: You went to the Academy of the Sacred Heart on Lawrence Avenue. Would you say those nuns instilled in you the discipline you needed in your career?

Oh, no question. I never knock my education there; it was a good school. There were some nuns I wouldn’t give you 2 cents for, but boy, when they were good, they were dynamite. They were so caring and intelligent. I had one of the best directors I ever had in children’s theater on Lawrence Avenue. I mean, one of the best directors, including Broadway.

HD: So in 1943 you graduated and went to Michigan Central Depot to board a train for New York.

I did. Hey, you know more about me than I know about myself.

HD: Were your parents supportive of your decision to move to New York?

Absolutely. One hundred percent. And Daddy even made suggestions for material because he loved music and the theater. When I went to drama school and did The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, Mother and Daddy flew to New York to see me. They couldn’t get there fast enough. And I was good.

HD: Your gams have become your trademark, always clad in black stockings. You could have been in the Rockettes.

Or Ziegfeld Follies. I wasn’t aware I had good legs until I went to New York and noticed the construction workers on Madison Avenue never looked up.

HD: I recently watched Elaine Stritch at Liberty. There were lots of laughs and your well-known songs, but the most affecting moment for me was when you sang Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All.” You squeezed every drop of emotion from that ballad.

[Clasps her interviewer’s hand.] Oh, I love you for saying that. And I love everything about that song.

HD: You also starred in Coward’s Sail Away in the early ’60s. You were friends with Noël, correct?

Yes, we became friends while working together in Sail Away, not only here, but in London. We had a big success with his music. “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” is one of the best comedy songs ever written.

HD: Your career has been so closely aligned with the work of Stephen Sondheim, but you’ve said you’re intimidated by him.
…I don’t know anyone who isn’t. But it’s a joy, an honor, and a thrill to be able to work with him and for him. My God, I’m glad I got to know him.

HD: Not that long ago you were in A Little Night Music playing Madame Armfeldt, and you have that marvelous song “Liaisons,” in which Sondheim rhymes “position” with “Titian.” No one else but Sondheim would think of that.

That’s right. Steve did it with tongue-in-cheek and a twinkle in his eye. He was covering all the comedy of it, the drama, and the sadness. I’ve always said that singing Steve’s songs is like doing a three-act play. Each song is a story all by itself.

HD: Speaking of Sondheim, I recall watching his 80th birthday tribute a few years ago, and you performed “I’m Still Here.” But what was so striking was your gracious reaction to Patti LuPone after she sang “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which you originated. There are some stars who would have reacted with jealousy, but you got up and gave her a bear hug.

Yeah, and she did a damn good job. There’s a funny story there. I sent for the costumers and got a red cap made to match my red silk slacks and top. All of us girls were sitting there on the stage. We had never seen each other because we had no rehearsals. I didn’t know she was going to sing “Ladies Who Lunch”; nobody told me that. She came out on the stage, looked back around and delivered the line, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” It was the first time she saw me, and she just screamed, she was so scared. She didn’t know I was there and had no idea I was wearing a hat. We just had a ball that night. I thought it was great, and so did Stephen Sondheim.

HD: You have had a few interesting romances, including Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, but you married just once, to actor John Bay, in the early ’70s. Was that a happy union?

It was magic, just magic. And he was one of the best-looking guys you ever saw. He looked like Jack Kennedy. People used to stop him on the street and ask him if he was related to the Kennedys. We lived the first eight years at The Savoy in London and came back to this country for the last two, until he died [in 1982, of brain cancer].

HD: I don’t think people realize how many great actors came out of Detroit — Ellen Burstyn, George C. Scott, Kim Hunter…

Tell me about it. And the woman who just died recently, Julie Harris. She was one of the best actresses ever. She was just brilliant. Intelligent and funny, too. Just a terrific dame. Julie and I were great friends. She was from Grosse Pointe.

HD: Yes, Grosse Pointe Park.

[Stritch pretends to spit in mock disdain.]

HD: Wait a minute; I live there!

Oh, I’m just kidding, darling; I love Grosse Pointe. My sister used to live there.

HD: You made a lot of songs justifiably famous, but is there a lesser-known song you performed that you wish had received more attention?

Oh, you must mean “I Never Know When to Say When,” from Goldilocks. That was a wonderful ballad, but that show was not a hit. It was a flop. But I got good notices, and it attracted a lot of attention to my career.

HD: You understudied for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam on Broadway, but she never missed a show.

She wouldn’t dare miss a performance. But when I went on the national tour of that show in her part, Ethel Merman came to my opening. … She scared me to death. She sat in the second row. I thought, that b-i-t-c-h [spelling it out for emphasis]. Can you believe the chutzpah of that woman? But she was nice and came to congratulate me after the show.

HD: You’ve starred on Broadway, on television, and in film, but you didn’t make all that many movies, comparatively speaking. Why was that? Were you just not crazy about movies?

I was crazy about them, but they weren’t crazy about me. I’m not a beautiful woman, but I am a good-looking broad. I have a great deal of style and chic, but especially in my day they demanded that everyone look like Loretta Young. That’s just not my style. I could be a comedian in the movies, but I didn’t want to be another Eve Arden. I didn’t want to be that kind of actress.

When I did a good movie, it was with John Gielgud [1977’s Providence]. I had good material. Once I saw Gielgud in the lobby of a hotel. He was reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I said, “My God, John, don’t you get enough Shakespeare? Are you learning a new part?” And he took the cover off the book and threw it in the air, and the book was actually by — who’s that woman who wrote those naughty books?

HD: Uh, Anaïs Nin?


HD: Jacqueline Susann?

Yes, that’s it! He took the cover off, and it was one of her naughty books.

HD: You’ve said that failure is harder than success. Is that because when the bar has been set so high you have to continue performing at that same level?

That’s a very good way of putting it. My bar is a lot higher than a lot of other people’s, and I work twice as hard to attain it. So, I’ve got to sustain it. It’s hard, but there are other things in life to attain besides stopping a show.

HD: I was listening to NPR yesterday and caught the tail end of Michael Feinstein’s show Song Travels. You were singing “Something Good” from The Sound of Music at the conclusion of your At Liberty show.

I’m so glad I found that song to close my show with. [Sings] “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood…” What a song. I didn’t want to close it with “The Ladies Who Lunch”; that’s not what my life is about. It’s about that I must have done something good.

HD: Shortly after you moved from New York to Birmingham, you told Vanity Fair that you were having a hard time transitioning. Are you more comfortable now in Birmingham?

Yes. I’ve adjusted to it, and I told myself that I’ll give myself this opportunity and not turn my back on my hometown. I was born in Michigan and I wish and wish again. I wish for a lot of things. I wish I had more time left, but listen, who knows? I may hang around ’til I run out of money.