The Lady from Detroit desires an audience — pronto, if possible. I caved, but I added a cautionary footnote to her publicist: "Be sure to tell her I have a cold."
My last interview with Elaine Stritch started out in the backseat of her "Stritchlimo," moving uptown — like her long-time-in-coming Tony-winning vehicle, 2002's Elaine Stritch at Liberty — from The Public Theater to Broadway. After two and a half minutes of chatter, her eyes narrowed to slits and she asked the question I had been dreading.
"Do you have a cold?"
"I'm getting over one," I lamely advanced. The screeching of brakes and the burning of rubber may have only occurred in my mind, but, with head-swimming swiftness, I suddenly found myself banished to the front seat, poking my tape recorder into the glass partition that separated the well from the unwell, picking up things like "Is it working or not? You keep looking at that damn machine, Harry. Are you getting this or not? I can't relax if I don't know it's taping or not."
Thus, even with hundreds of miles between us, I was taking no chances, but distance had made the heart grow fonder. Her voice was as warming as wood-rasping. "So nice to hear from you again at long last."
She sounds a little like a stranger in a strange land, which, in a sense, she is. After 70 years, Elaine Stritch surrendered all the bright lights and star power that generally accompany a theatrical icon and returned to her roots, swapping her posh corner pad at the swanky Carlyle Hotel for a condo in Birmingham, a smart suburb of Detroit. "It was furnished when I bought it, so I walked into a palace, but now it needs work," she assessed. "It needs my touch because, otherwise, I wouldn't feel like I live here."
She did this last year, following the advice and example of George C. Wolfe, her At Liberty director, who, departing as kingpin of The Public, said, "My mama told me, if they're riding you out of town on a rail, always grab a baton and make it a parade."
Stritch, who turns 89 this month, acted accordingly and made the difficult transition with an entire camera crew in tow, covering her momentous move back to Michigan.
The resulting film, Chiemi Karasawa's "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," in theatres Feb. 21, may be the first to document a great star's exit from the limelight, and, God knows, Stritch is not one to go gentle into that good night. She doesn't make it easy on herself. Then again, perhaps she does, gradually coming to the irreversible conclusion — while the cameras are turning — that her advancing diabetes (a medical bugaboo for decades) has made remembering lyrics she has done all her life too difficult. Rather than put herself and, maybe more importantly, her audience through any more of that, she elects to take the high road home. It must have been grating for her to go for the Graceful Exit, but there's something heroic in the gesture. Few performers have presented themselves to the public with more dry-eyed, straight-from-the-shoulder directness than Stritch.
Who can forget how D.A. Pennebaker's 1970 documentary, "Company: Original Cast Album," caught her in a recording-studio meltdown, screaming-as-opposed-to-singing what would become her signature song, "The Ladies Who Lunch." Eventually, she gives up, comes in the next morning and nails it to perfection. "Never mind what I did the night before," she mutters under her breath.
That frustrating, excruciating footage is included in the new documentary, and Stritch seems to have built from that level of exposure. "I just think the honesty of this new movie is very satisfying for me," she critiqued. "I don't feel that I told one thing that was for effect and not the truth.
"It's a big adjustment, making this move at this time in my life, but I'm getting used to it," she shrugged. "I'm very fond of a lot of people that I knew here. They're coming around, being very friendly and entertaining for me, interviewing me in the press.
"It has been nice. There's nothing to complain about. I'm getting up in years, and I have nothing to do now but reflect, think, be on my own — and I like that.
"I've got a lot to be thankful for. First of all, I can still talk and make sense. Everything else may be falling part, but my mind is in great shape. You are what you are. You're in the period of your life you want to be in. You have no choice. What are you going to do?"