DIVA TALK: A Chat with "Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa… and Me" Author Tony Cointreau, Plus Randy Graff Is Well-Made in Brooklyn

By Andrew Gans
07 Mar 2014

Cointreau with Mother Theresa

Question: Did you get to go to much theatre with her?
Tony Cointreau: We took her to Cats, and it was not her kind of show. And the thing that Ethel did to let you know how she felt about something — either to me or my partner Jimmy Russo, who was always on the other side of her — she would put her elbow in your rib, and we were both black and blue after that. [Laughs]. And I tell you, that was the worst. That was not her type of show. It’s funny because after that, we went to pick up Ann Miller, who was doing Sugar Babies. We were going out to supper, and we asked Ann Miller, “Have you seen Cats? Did you like it?” Ann Miller, and again it was so funny coming out of her mouth, she said, “Too much pussy!” [Laughs.]

When Raquel Welch took over for Lauren Bacall [in Woman of the Year], we went to see it with her, and Ethel absolutely adored Raquel and wrote her a fan letter. I’m sure Raquel was stunned. She was good. She was very good in it. And, Ethel just loved good theatre. We went down to Washington to see the preview of 42nd Street, a couple of friends of ours were in it, and Ethel was also really a good sport. And, coming back to New York, it was the middle of the summer, and it was hot as Hades, and the air conditioner went out in the car. It didn’t bother her at all. She just opened the window and went to sleep and woke up when we got to the Holland Tunnel. And, you know how noisy it is in the Holland Tunnel. Ethel decided that she would compete with the noise by singing “She’s Me Pal,” and I want you to know something, Andrew, she won.

Question: What was it like hearing her voice up close?
Tony Cointreau: I’ll tell you, she could sing very softly. We would go to restaurants, Jimmy, Ethel and I, and at the end of dinner in a crowded restaurant, I would say, “Ethel, very quietly so no one can hear, would you please sing your favorite song?” And she would sing, “The Lord's Prayer.” She was very spiritual, and she was wonderful with sick people. Every Wednesday she went to work at Roosevelt Hospital — she volunteered there. I just always told her to be very careful if she walked into the cardiac unit and said, “Hi I’m Ethel Merman!” A diehard fan is just going to keel over. [Laughs.]

Question: What shows did you get to see her in? What are your recollections of her as a performer?
Tony Cointreau: Well, the first time I ever saw her sing was on television in 1953, the Ford 50th Anniversary Television Show, and I fell in love. Then, of course, I saw her in Happy Hunting and thought she was fabulous. And then in Gypsy, and I saw it under the best of conditions. Her daughter and I went, and then afterward we went backstage. It’s funny, we went to Ethel Merman’s dressing room, and I was 18 years old, and I had forgotten [to use the bathroom], and I was walking in with my legs crossed, and I said, “Oh, Ms. Merman" — she was Ms. Merman to me then — "is there a toilet around here?” She said, “Oh yeah, honey, around the curtain there.” There was a curtain, and behind it was a sink and a toilet. I would rather have died at that age than have Ethel Merman hear me urinate! [Laughs.]

She was taking us to Sardi’s. We went to Sardi’s and met, of course, show-business heaven. She introduced me to everybody, and Billy Rose, the great producer, took us all and dropped us all off at our homes, our respective homes, in his gold Rolls-Royce, which wasn’t too shabby. But one night, though, when she was divorcing Bob Six and she was doing Gypsy, she was very sad. Little Ethel and I decided to go to the theatre, and we asked her if she wanted to go get a bite to kind of cheer her up. We arrived, and they were having curtain calls. And, everyone was there, the chorus and Jack Klugman and everything. I saw this little lady, she wasn’t very big, and she was looking down at the ground waiting for her turn to go onstage, and I saw the saddest woman you have ever seen in your life. She had this look on her face of complete devastation. But the moment it came time for her to step out on that stage and to take her bow, it was like every light from the show and on the Empire State Building lit up. It’s just that magic, that theatre magic that had enthralled audiences since 1930, was turned on like a switch.