A Personal Farewell To Elaine Stritch

The actress and entertainer Elaine Stritch passed away on July 17, at home in Detroit, at the age of 89. I met her in London in 1981 and wrote this backpage feature on her in the International Herald Tribune. She was a hoot.

August 18, 1981

Elaine Stritch: The Discipline of Comedy

By Jeffrey Robinson
International Herald Tribune

LONDON — She came home to The Savoy Hotel, where she’s been living for the past 11 years, after having lunch with Prince Charles. It was the first time they’d met. “I love the way he walks. God, he moves so well. If he had a different face he could be a gangster.”

And while she came away from a meal with the future king of Britain talking about him, it’s not too outlandish to imagine that the prince came away from that meal talking about her. Elaine Stritch might be many Britons’ favorite American.

Detroit-born and Broadway trained, she’s been wooing British audiences since Noel Coward insisted that she come to the West End in the 1960s. “He really had to talk me into coming here. He bought me a red-leather, gold-tooled passport case, then took me to lunch and had three violinists play ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ in my ear until my mind blew. Now London is home.”

Since moving to Britain she has not only stayed on the boards but has also starred in a pair of BBC television comedies. “Two’s Company” ran for five years. “Nobody’s Perfect” is currently on the tube – the English version of the U.S. hit show “Maude.”

“Very frankly,” she said, in the voice that has been described as corncake wading through bourbon on the rocks, “I hate sit-coms. They’re so hard to make real. The clock is always against you. There are only 26 minutes and you have to spend them fighting for your life.”

She started in the theater, and despite roles in films such as “A
Farewell To Arms” and in television series, her reputation, primarily as a comedian, is based on stage performances in hits the likes of “The Little Foxes,” “Pal Joey,” “Bus Stop,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The King and I,” “Any Wednesday,” “Private Lives” and “Mame.”

‘Such Make-Believe’

“My first love is the theater. A live audience. It’s all such make-believe. You do a play eight times a week and when you get up in the morning you have that wonderful feeling, because you can play in it again that night. Really great actiong is effortless, but comedy is so hard because it requires a much more disciplined life. I love to make people laugh. Lots of people can stand on a stage and scream or holler. But I want to make the whole world laugh. That’s some goal, isn’t it?”

At 55, she knows how the theater can also take its toll. “When you’re doing a play, your whole life is geared to that evening’s curtain call. There’s no time or energy for anything else. When you’re young, that’s terribly exciting. When you get older it turns your life upside down. You sleep at the wrong times. You eat at the wrong times. It’s all ass-backwards. Yet I do it every chance I get.”

But she added: “I won’t let it control me. Sure, I love to stand up on a stage and think to myself, ‘Hah, I’m fooling ‘em.’ That’s what acting is. An actress should fool people. But if you take it too seriously and if you start fooling yourself, it’s a killer. Look what it’s done to Marlon Brando. What I love to see is an actress like Katy Hepburn who’s got it all figured out. She’s got a lifestyle apart from being an actress.”

After a convent school education, Stritch went to New York in the 1940s, wanting to be a star. “One nun at school once told my mother that I was a born leader, except that I was leading all the other girls in the wrong direction. I had my first whiskey sour when I was 14, and thought, ‘God, I’ve found a friend.’ It was only a few years ago, when I thought our friendship was getting too steady, that I gave it up.

“In spite of that, when I went to New York I was a very innocent girl. At drama school I fell in love with Marlon Brando. Who didn’t? He went through the class like a dose of salts and left me for last.”

She said Brando poured on his charm by taking her to a library, a church and a strip show, “in that order,” then to his room. “I was so naive that he eventually said, ‘Go home,’ and I did.”

‘Poetic Justice’

Married late in life (to the American actor John Bay, who has been doing a one-man revue based on Groucho Marx), Stritch said she is still something of a little girl from convent school. “I pray sometimes, and the thing I pray about most is faith. Sometimes I go to bed at night and think, maybe this is it. Maybe there is nothing else.

“So I pray because I really want to see poetic justice have its day. I don’t pray that I’ll win the pools or that my shows will be good. Nope, I pray that someday everybody will get there due. Everyone should get the reward. And the bastards of this world should get kicked in the ass.”

Stretch has just finished a book that will be published in Britain later this year by Granada. “Two Shots a Day” has to do with diabetes.

“I’ve been a diabetic for the past 3½ years and I feel that as long as I have a forum, I must try to explain some things about diabetes to a lot of people who might not otherwise understand.

“Things could be worse. A lot of people are afraid of diabetes. I look at it as a challenge. I want people to understand the diabetes is not the end of the world, that diabetes can be treated. I mention diabetes once in an interview and started getting so many letters, you’d think I was Liz Taylor. So now I written a book to answer all those questions.”

She added: “My insulin comes with me wherever I go and I don’t give a damn where I am or whom I’m with. When it comes time for my shot, nothing stops me. Like the night I was at a club and it was time for my shot, so I offed to the ladies room. My slacks were down, my needle was out and I was already to jab myself when a woman walked in and stop dead in her tracks.

“She stared at me. I stared at her. God only knows what she was thinking. I might have explained, except that she blurted out, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ Well, what the hell are you supposed to doing a case like that? I dropped the needle and right there, with my slacks still down, I signed my name.”