Elaine Stritch’s 2001 Tony-winning, one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” ranged over the main contours of her bumpy, always-interesting life: the near-miss romances, the happy but tragically short marriage, the Broadway misadventures and (too few) triumphs, that long love affair with the bottle.
A 2013 documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” directed by Chiemi Karasawa, profiled Stritch as a cabaret performer in her poignant final years – in physical decline, plagued by memory problems, but still feisty and charismatic.
Now, Alexandra Jacobs’s engaging new biography, “Still Here,” fleshes out our picture of the raspy-voiced actress and singer, who died in 2014 at 89. Written with the cooperation of the estate, clear-eyed affection, and considerable stylistic flair, “Still Here,” offers an intimate, somewhat open-ended portrait of Stritch that leaves intact, perhaps inevitably, the mysteries of her personality, her sexuality, and her relationship to alcohol.
Born in Detroit to a prosperous family, Stritch was, as the subtitle promises, a singular character who “defied stereotypes of gender and age, projecting both feminine and masculine and refusing the slow fade accorded most in her profession.” “Still Here,” whose title refers to a song from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” that became a Stritch anthem, benefits from Jacobs’s access to Stritch’s family, close friends, ex-boyfriends and past collaborators. They describe a complex and colorful woman whose great successes were intertwined with a series of disappointments.
Stritch was alternately brash and insecure, religiously Catholic and profane, profligate and stingy, with a “vexed” relationship with money. Sometimes generous with friends, she also scrimped, exploited her professional expense accounts, and compulsively (and inexplicably) stole items such as Brie cheese and toilet paper.
As a performer, Stritch could be downright docile with directors she admired or feared, such as Woody Allen, but willful and obstreperous with others. To some co-stars, she was a mentor, but she transgressed on stage by adlibbing and scene stealing, making enemies in the process.
Stritch’s love life was something of a conundrum, Jacobs reports. She often reserved her affections for men whose marriages or homosexuality made them less than fully available. Was she afraid of losing independence, of being dragged into a supporting role? It’s not clear.
Convent-educated, Stritch claimed to have avoided sex until well into adulthood, possibly as late as age 30. Her first lover was the actor Gig Young. She had another serious romance with Ben Gazzara, five years her junior.
Did Stritch have lesbian or bisexual inclinations? Her androgynous personal style, her delay of marriage, her friendships with many gays and lesbians suggested as much, Jacobs writes. But the author is convinced she never acted on any same-sex attractions. “It was difficult enough for her to be sexual outside of marriage in a heterosexual relationship,” Jacobs writes.
Stritch did eventually marry, in her late 40s. Her husband, John Bay, was an actor, fellow Midwesterner, and the scion of an English-muffin company. He was also a big drinker and, Stritch said, “[a]n unbelievably talented guy without any jealousy.” Jacobs writes that their union, though loving, was not motivated primarily by erotic attraction – and that Bay might, in fact, have been gay. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died, in 1982, after nine years of marriage, of a pulmonary embolism.
Stritch made an early impression on Broadway in small roles, singing “Zip” in the 1952 revival of the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey” while understudying Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam.” At one point, she told a reporter: “I have a terrible desire to be the whole cheese.”
She headlined the 1962 Noël Coward musical “Sail Away” and anchored Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company” with her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But Jacobs suggests that Stritch may have lost out on many parts, including Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” the title role in “Mame,” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” because of her hard-drinking reputation.
Of Stritch’s alcoholism, there is little doubt. She drank with abandon, enjoying herself but also imperiling her health and career (more so, Jacobs says, than men with similar tendencies). At one point, perhaps to combat loneliness, she volunteered as a bartender at Elaine’s. “Drink was her only constant companion, her steady escort, her abusive husband,” Jacobs writes.
When Stritch joined Alcoholics Anonymous, she did so with considerable fanfare. In her final years, she admitted to resuming drinking – limiting herself, she said, to a single consoling drink a day. But some friends attest that Stritch was never truly sober; the sobriety was just another myth.
Stritch was difficult enough that she often alienated those closest to her. Even John Lahr, the New Yorker theater critic who co-wrote her triumphant one-woman show, ended up suing her for allegedly purloining profits by using bits from the show in her cabaret act. (They settled the legal case, but never spoke again.)
Then there was Sondheim, both a friend and collaborator, someone “whose approval she craved more than anyone else’s.” Why did he decline to attend a memorial service for Stritch? He pleaded illness, but also had refused an earlier invitation to speak at the memorial, claiming he didn’t know her well enough. Although Jacobs interviews Sondheim, he never explains, and their falling out – if there was one – remains just one more mystery.
STILL HERE: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Strtich
By Alexandra Jacobs
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 362 pages, $27
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing book critic for the Forward and reviews theater for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.