A vase of lilies sits amidst medical paraphernalia used to keep Elaine Stritch’s diabetes in check. Her caretaker has just arranged the flowers and set them in the middle of the kitchen table – flowers I brought her as a token of gratitude for inviting me into her Birmingham, Mich., home, and because it’s almost Valentine’s Day – and Stritch can see them just fine even without her oversized specs.
“Oh, they’re beautiful, Chris. I happen to love them,” she gushes. “They’re just the kind of flowers I dig. Small bouquet. White. Everything.” She stares longer, pondering and admiring, and then turns her eyes playfully toward me.
“I’ll bet you got a little help.”
She’s sharper than expected for an 89-year-old lady barely able to stand on her own two feet. As she sits next to me in a wheelchair, even something as mundane as removing a Chapstick cap is arduous. And today was especially hard. She fell again.
“Sore, sore,” she bemoans, her voice like sandpaper as she eases from a walker into the chair. “One of the worst days I’ve had that you’re here.”
When I thank her for still having me over despite the tumble, she zings me: “Well, you should.”
It’s just minutes into our chat, and after she’s called me out for asking her assistant the color flower she fancies most, what’s not lagging is evident: Stritch’s mouth. She’s still foul, she’s still demanding, she’s still brutally honest – she’s still brilliant. Focusing on a drink that her caretaker places in front of her, she gives it the stare-down before scoffing, “I don’t know why you put it in this cocktail glass. I don’t want it in this. What’s a matter with her?”
There’s no alcohol in the cup, by the way. Even though Stritch, a recovering alcoholic, is allowing herself one boozy drink a day, this is not it. So what is it?
Confused, she looks at her assistant from across the kitchen table, raising her finger to caution him. She knows he’s about to finish her thought, and – despite a spotty memory – she wants no help. “Don’t tell me! I’ll kill you if you tell me!”
He smiles and complies.
Stritch is a truth-teller, never sugarcoating, never concealing. While struggling to record her renowned part as Joanne, a role she originated in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company,” she got red-hot. Unable to nail a note during “The Ladies Who Lunch,” she erupted into a screaming, ranting diva tantrum, all the while puffing away at a cigarette. Her Emmy-winning “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” a live one-woman show performed on Broadway in 2002, was essentially a memoir: Here was someone cracking her steel shell and handing you her essence. But Stritch’s greatest role may be as herself in director Chiemi Karasawa’s hilarious and bittersweet documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a tribute to Stritch’s life and career as she faces the inevitable and imminent end of both.
Today she’s opening herself up again, maybe even more so than unusual. “Anything you wanna ask me,” she says, “feel free to do it.”
Revealing a life full of triumphs, failures, fears and sadness, the celebrity veneer comes off. Everything is exposed. At this point, what does she have to lose? Besides her pants, which are nowhere in sight.
But in a nearby room – let’s call it the dining room, though there’s no table – pieces of her are everywhere. The walls are lined with photographs of Stritch with Bernadette Peters, with James Gandolfini, with Bela Lugosi (Stritch starred as the ingenue in the late-’40s play of the black-and-white “Dracula”). One particularly striking photo showcases a young Judy Garland, a friend of Elaine’s.
The photos, the famous faces, the gleaming accolades atop her piano – they’re a surface glimpse into a legend’s history. In this room, Stritch’s life looks big and grand, remarkable and fruitful. Anyone would want this life – except maybe Elaine.
“I think my life has been very sad,” Stritch says candidly. That can’t be. Look at that room. “Rounding out, yeah, I do.”
A few downer moments, maybe? “The whole thing.”
When I look at her dumbfounded, she clarifies: “Oh, I had moments. I had moments that were knockouts, great, successful and ‘yay.’ Lots of those moments, absolutely. And accomplishments. God, I thought I accomplished a great deal. I’ve got a lot of wonderful memories, I really do.” She throws a smirk my way. “And I’ll tell you about them, if I can remember and think and get you out of here before 6.”
Looking for love
It’s not hard to understand Elaine Stritch’s sorrow, especially now. Her health is suffering, her memory is going, and having a team of people take care of her isn’t her idea of a blissful existence. “These gals are running around trying to stop me from falling and killing myself. They’re not here because I’m rich and looking after myself. Do you understand what I mean? That isn’t very happy.”
Stritch sometimes references an aphorism from her late husband, John Bay: “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks.” Having lugged rocks around since she was a kid, it seems full circle – now that she’s, in many ways, a kid again – to reveal, after all this time, how the theater took the place of a family she never had.
“I’ll give you a break. I’m gonna tell you something I’ve never told anybody, so that’s good,” Stritch says. “I don’t think anybody in my family had the capability of … what am I trying to say?”
From across the table, she looks to the same assistant, the one who suggested white for the flowers I wanted to bring her. “You know what I’m trying to say. I’ve told you this a million times.”
Silence suggests a heartbroken soul-baring. “There’s a background to my life story that is not happy.”
Her eyes wander, momentarily disappearing in the past. “I adored my mother and father. Adored them. And I look back on them, at them, with them, and I thought they were just darling. I loved them!”
The catch: “I don’t think anybody in my family – none of them were capable of standing up and declaring their love for anybody. I’m not saying they didn’t love me, but they sure as hell didn’t know how to show me. I think it’s one of the hardest things in the world to get over, or to never get over.”
As a kid, Stritch looked for a way to express herself, but found that to be near impossible – she just couldn’t do it. The problem was, she didn’t know how.
“Something was missing in my life,” she confesses. “But once I got on the stage, I felt totally at home.”
And she felt adored and appreciated and, most of all, loved by the sea of people she looked out on every night, including and perhaps especially, her gay audience.
A Broadway legend has to be aware the community thinks she’s an icon, but no, not Stritch. “I’m just becoming aware of it,” she admits, but why now? “By articles such as this one. I really have become very much aware, first of all, what great audiences they are. And it isn’t that I finally discovered that gay people understand me and straight people don’t – oh, no no no. Not a word of truth in that. I can’t tell you how many straight people I know that think I am the cat’s pajamas.”
But not knowing you have a gay following until now, 70 years into your career … a career in one of the gayest professions pursuable: the theater? Stritch is as surprised as you are.
“It sounds like I’ve lost my mind, but I feel like I’m becoming aware of it. The longer that people think of me as a big-time actress, and as long as, uh, what’s his name?”
After tossing out a few names, she confirms it’s Edward Albee, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Stritch worked with Albee on the 1996 revival of “A Delicate Balance” and – in 1962, as Martha – on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The respect she has for Albee is just immense, she says, but that fondness also extends to the other gay men in her life, near and far. It’s their sense of humor she savors.
“I gotta get in that line, because I think gay people have extraordinary humor. Extraordinary! I’m talking deep, deep, deep humor. Deep humor that goes way below the …”
Trailing off, she looks up almost to see if she can find the word. It’s not there, and she doesn’t warn her assistant this time. There’s no death threat. “The belt,” he adds. “The what?” she says.
Even if she didn’t know it, and many times she says she didn’t, Stritch nurtured many close relationships with gay men throughout her career. And when she wasn’t collaborating with Albee or singing Sondheim, she was out with Rock Hudson, wining and dining and doing the exact opposite of what some people assumed. Before Hudson died of complications from AIDS in 1985, the two were rumored to be romantically involved while working on the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s love story “A Farewell to Arms.”
“Did we have an affair? No,” she clarifies. “He was nuts about me, and I felt it, knew it. And I was madly in love with this gorgeous guy. But I couldn’t have reacted in any real way because I don’t think he was truly in love with me. I think he just loved me and loved that we had fun and loved to be with me.”
Hudson, she says, dedicated all his off-set time to her, never to anyone else working on the film.
“Anybody that dates you all the time, wants to be with you all the time, takes you out everywhere – he had a good time with me. You know what I’m talking about. And there’s nobody who says that gay guys don’t have fun with women, because they do!”
“Oh, absolutely. Some of them, yes.”
True, though now we’d call that bisexual or queer, or nothing at all – a label-less defiance of the times. But Stritch is only now realizing that gay people go nuts for her. This is a work in progress.
“I don’t even know if (Rock) was aware of anybody being gay,” she says, noting she found out when it was announced that he had AIDS. “That all had to surround it because I wouldn’t have known, and then it was so crowded and overloaded with sadness. I mean, that’s really sad. I got off easy, I think.” She stops and backpedals: “Not by not being gay, but I just got off easy.”
Though Stritch didn’t know what “gay” meant then, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. “I don’t care who’s gay and who isn’t! I liked everybody! I had a ball in my life!” she says. “This all sounds contradictory. This is a contradictory interview. It will be.
“It’s true that your life can be, ugh, not good at all – sad – and yet hysterically funny. I don’t think sad is contradictory to funny.”
Speaking firmly and reiterating that point, this paradox is the part of her life – her whole life – she wants people to understand most. Layers of bullshit and heartbreak and hilarity and happiness – we all feel that, we all have that.
“Absolutely,” she agrees. “I think it took me forever – forever! – to admit that to myself, because I couldn’t believe I had everything I wanted, so what the fuck was I looking for? You know? I couldn’t explain it to myself, Chris.”
All she wanted was one word. Just four letters.
“Love,” she says.
Love – of course. We all want that. We all need that.
“I’m not saying it’s unusual. I’m saying that I’m part of the team.”
Showbiz: ‘A pain in the ass’
Stritch beams when she remembers 2004, the year she won her second Emmy, this time for “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” – the best moment of her career, she says. “It takes an awful lot to win an Emmy. People don’t realize, and you wait all your life practically. It’s a pain in the ass, show business!”
It was a momentous triumph, her face wonderstruck when they announced her name. And that boastful verbal middle finger she waved loud and proud during that acceptance speech – who could forget?
“It was the greatest relief I’ve ever felt in my life,” Stritch recalls. “I won! You didn’t win; I won! I went nuts.”
But isn’t it enough to be nominated? She pooh-poohs. “Nice to be nominated – it’s about the un-nicest thing that could ever happen to you.”
That’s saying a lot considering her experience with “un-nice,” though she might choose even harsher words for Anges de Mille, who collaborated with Stritch on the 1958 musical “Goldilocks.” The famed choreographer was not a fan of the then-aspiring Broadway star. Stritch says the two clashed when de Mille criticized the unbefitting way Stritch pointed her toes during a dance sequence, souring Stritch’s first experience in a starring role on Broadway.
“I’m no fool,” Stritch assures. “I know when someone likes me and when they don’t.”
Agnes blasted Elaine; Elaine, of course, held her own. “I remember once when I was cursing her. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.”
Stritch recalls de Mille’s verbal lashing for the toe-pointing that did not meet de Mille’s standards: “What are you trying to prove, Elaine?” Stritch gave it right back to her. “You know, I’m not trying to prove anything, Ms. de Mille. I’m trying to find out how to make this damn dance just like you’re trying to make it amuuuuusing for the audience, because I think it’s kind of funny. I think it’s got a lot of humor to it. So thank you for that, Agnes.”
Stritch rolls her eyes. “I think I made Agnes de Mille uncomfortable because she didn’t think I liked her. She was missing the joke someplace. And she knew it. And she was.”
Who she got on with so well during that show might surprise you, only because you never really saw him. He was inside the bear suit. And he was gay.
“I think he was more or less the funniest guy I worked with – well, certainly in that show. I didn’t like any of the directors. I didn’t like – what else didn’t I like? The whole production.”
Stritch, however, knows she also has a reputation for being a pain, and before starring in Woody Allen’s 1987 “play on film” “September” the director sent her a letter (she reads it in the “Shoot Me” doc) requesting, in so many words, she come in, do her job and not be a bother. Is she really that difficult to work with? Not if you ask Stritch.
“No,” she says. “Not for a really talented person.”
And great talent doesn’t walk away after a letdown like “Goldilocks.” Stritch stayed on stage, where she’d go on to perform in the original production of William Inge’s 1955 play “Bus Stop,” Noel Coward’s 1961 musical “Sail Away” and Sondheim’s “Company,” the production that’s at least partly responsible for her gay following (Jinkx Monsoon of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” parodied her seminal showstopper with “Here’s the Ladies in Drag”).
“I don’t think Sondheim was aware of his own homosexuality at the time,” Stritch says. “That’s what I found so interesting about “Company.” Nobody knew what (the lead) Bobby was, who Bobby was, how Bobby was – I don’t think any of us knew. Maybe they knew, but I sure didn’t.” (Of the rumored revision in which Bobby would be an out gay man, she says, “I think Sondheim did that already!”)
Though off stage Stritch appeared on “The Goodyear Television Playhouse,” an NBC anthology series airing in the mid-’50s during the “Golden Age of Television” – and later on a couple episodes of “Law & Order” (her first Emmy win) – she wouldn’t be known as a bona fide TV star until more recently, when she played opposite Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock.” The stage was her home. Not some TV set. In fact, Stritch has long since moved past the initial pain of losing out on the role of Dorothy Zbornak to Bea Arthur when she auditioned for “Golden Girls.”
“My feelings were very hurt by that, but I’m awful glad I didn’t do it. I could’ve made a lot of money, but nothing’s worse than ending up like – there’s a lot of money out in Hollywood. It’s a killer. I could’ve made a lot of money if I played ball, but I didn’t wanna play ball. And I didn’t wanna play sitcoms for the rest of my life, and that’s what I would’ve done.”
Appearing together in the 1956 TV series “Washington Square,” Stritch and Arthur talked at length about the sitcom business, she recalls. Stritch praises Arthur for her acting and comedic talents. She even calls her a “great dame.” “But I wouldn’t wanna be her,” she says. And there’s almost no delay in the rest of that revelation: “Well, she’s dead, so I’d rather be me now.”
Don’t let the sun go down on me
Dishes clank from the kitchen as Stritch’s caretaker fields phone calls, one from the doctor, another from The Los Angeles Times, calling to confirm a fast-approaching chat. And despite her assistant’s warning that she has a tendency to cut interviews short because her attention span can’t endure them, Stritch actually hates to end this one.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more time, Chris,” she says, “but for some reason I’m just hotter than a pistol!”
I insist I’ll be on my way. “Don’t cut yourself short. You can read me out. It’s all right, I’ll just be late for everybody else.”
And just like her attitude toward life, Stritch doesn’t stop. She wants to keep going.
“I’ve never been unhealthy,” she laments. “I wanted to go to my hometown and get fixed up with whatever’s wrong with me and live for a few more years. Because I could use ’em. I just don’t want to lose the time. I’d be happy with two, three years. Just happy, happy.”
Even though she left New York last year and returned to her Michigan birthplace – both to escape the franticness of the city and to reconnect with family – she’s not ready to hang up her bowler hat just yet. Stritch still has to do a new play (“I don’t care who writes it as long as it’s good”), and she’s planning a reading of “Three Tall Women” close to home. She wants to get a feel for Albee’s drama locally, in Ann Arbor, before taking it to the Big Apple. “Can I, will I, could I, should I do the whole nine yards? I don’t know. That’s a play and a half. I mean, it’s a really tough go.”
Never stopped her before, I contend.
Once more, she grins like she’s onto me. “I knew you would say something similar to that.”
Also on the to-do list is a collaboration with Elton John, yet another gay man she’s pining for. Delighted over the prospect, which she mentions in “Shoot Me” – the closing credits fittingly play “The Bitch Is Back” as she heads home – Elaine’s not letting this one go.
“I know it really is on his mind, and I’m convinced he really cares about me. Nobody buys that many orchids who isn’t interested in you.” The grin – there it is again. “And that’s not including Rock Hudson, but I think I have to say that because it makes a good tagline on this interview.”
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” opens April 4 at the Birmingham 8.