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

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Question: She also kept journals as well…
Tony Cointreau: Yes, she did, with everything in it from recipes to her dental records with diagrams to what the dentist had told her, the diaries while she was doing Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun. She put everything in there. She had another one in which she would find spiritual sayings, and she would paste them in that book.

Question: Little Ethel also had children. Do you know what happened to them?
Tony Cointreau: There’s Barbara Jean, who is off, I think, in Santa Fe. I sent Barbara Jean any of the family scrapbooks that I had, and then I hear she put everything on eBay. I didn’t see it, but I was told. And Michael, the grandson, no one knows where he is. Bob doesn’t know, his sister doesn’t know. He’s just gone somewhere. Now, somebody must know because he gets part of the residuals for things that are going on.

Question: Was there ever any talk about publishing some of her journals?
Tony Cointreau: What I feel is that these things really belong to her son, to Bob Levitt. I don’t have the right to publish anything. I’ve been in talks with him about these things — everything, the working scripts, everything, all of these things that we have — being put at the Lincoln Center Library. I think that would be a wonderful thing. And, I’m trying to get Bob on the ball with all of this, and it’s not easy. [Laughs.] Bob is kind of a hippie. And, I have something that will not see the light of day, but it’s her diary of her marriage to Ernest Borgnine. It’s a blank page in her biography. She did write a diary of it. Not a pretty picture. He played the game very well up until the marriage. Fooled me completely. I thought this was a love match, the sweetest guy, that he was wonderful, but boy the minute the vows were to be said, sweetness and light was over.

Question: What do you think was his motivation?
Tony Cointreau: I think he needed money. He was making money, not the money they make today on a TV show. Whatever his needs were, I think that played a big part in it. She was good with her money. Irving Katz did wonderful things with her money.

Question: In the book you talk about your three other mothers. Was there one you were particularly closest to? 
Tony Cointreau: There is not. That’s the whole thing, and they all continued until their deaths. It wasn’t like one began and the other one started. It was a continuation. Ethel Merman and Lee Lehman knew each other, and they were friends. You know, when I went with [Lehman's] daughter [Pam] for six years, from 13 to 19, I was already a big fan [of Ethel Merman]. Bobby Lehman was on the board of directors for 20th Century Fox, and knowing that I was such a big fan, on our first date, for Pam and I, gave us their tickets to the formal world premiere of Irving Berlin’s "There’s No Business Like Show Business." I still have the tickets at the Roxy Theatre, and it was televised. At that time, to have a televised event, it was a big deal. I still have the tickets, in fact; they were never torn up.

Question: Do you have one favorite memory of Merman? What stands out in your mind most?
Tony Cointreau: You know, that’s so hard. There were so many over 25 years. I would say sitting there listening to her sing "The Lord’s Prayer." That was magical. It was so soft.