In his new memoir "Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta," which was recently published by Prospecta Press, Tony Cointreau discusses his relationships with three very different women, all of whom he considered "other mothers." Those women included Lee Lehman, wife of Robert Lehman, head of Lehman Brothers; Mother Teresa, who was beatified by the Vatican in October 2003; and Ethel Merman, the Broadway star synonymous with the American Musical Theatre. Cointreau, a scion of the French liqueur family who later enjoyed a successful international singing career, grew up with an emotionally remote mother, which led him on a lifelong quest for love and for a mother figure. He would eventually find three, and his experiences with those aforementioned women are charted in his engaging new book. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Cointreau, who spoke openly and lovingly about his relationship with the late Merman; that interview follows.
Question: How did the idea for this book come about?
Tony Cointreau: I had worked with Mother Teresa for 12 years with the dying. I started when the AIDS crisis started, and no one knew how it was transmitted or what to do about it, and everyone would be dead within a few months. It was a terrible period. Mother Teresa opened the first hospice for destitute men dying of AIDS in New York City. I had a singing career in Europe, and I came to New York and I saw a picture in Time Magazine of a man carrying a dying man in his arms in Calcutta, and I thought, “I have to do that.” So I called this place in New York, Gift of Love. Well, when Mother Teresa died, I started writing about my experiences there, because every day I had spoken into a tape recorder, and what happened was my agent said, “People want to know who you are.”
So I started, and I realized that I had these wonderful mothers who had healed the parts of me that had been so damaged as a child. And, of course, when I was 18 years old, I had met Ethel Merman. She was doing Gypsy. She was my second other mother and for 25 years of her life, we were joined at the hip. We spent every day on the phone — at least once to five times a day. And, I still, after she’s been gone now for 30 years, every morning at 10 o'clock, I still expect the phone to ring and hear, “Hi, it’s me!”
Question: When or how did the friendship change to being more with Ethel Merman than with her daughter, Little Ethel?
Tony Cointreau: Ethel Merman and I hit it off immediately. I was going to the Neighborhood Playhouse, where I was going for a class and where I met her daughter. And, I don’t know if you know the story or not, but we just hit it off — the two of us, the daughter and I. And, about a week later, she said to me, “Hey, do you want to go see Mom’s play?” And I said, “Yeah, what show is she doing?” And, she said, “Gypsy. ‘Mom’ is Ethel Merman.” So, I went to pick her up that Friday night to take her to see Gypsy, and we were going to go out to dinner first, and that’s where I met Ethel Merman, and we just hit it off so well that on Monday when I went to school, Little Ethel said to me, the first words out of her mouth, “If Mom can’t have you for me, she wants you for herself.”
And, Little Ethel went back to Colorado for college, and her mother and I never lost touch. And then, of course, Little Ethel died at the age of 25, in 1967, and then I became [Ethel Merman's] other son. She would call me that. And Bob [Levitt], her son, wrote a beautiful little blurb for my book, which explains a lot of what he saw between his mother and me. [He wrote], “Tony Cointreau’s friendship with my mother was one of her life’s true blessings. Naturally comfortable in the brightest light of her stardom and the softest light of her vulnerable heart, Tony shared an everyday intimacy with Ethel, like a second son… like my brother.”
She was not the loud, broad, brassy dame that she portrayed onstage. She was vulnerable, she was shy, and she was very generous. You could never pick up a tab with her. She was very generous. There are so many distortions about her because of the stage persona. She could be terribly, terribly funny, and she knew her way around a four-letter word, yes. You know, when she said something, it was very funny. She was a great comedienne. In all of her shows, she was very funny. But if you see it written out, and you don’t hear her say it, it can sound not very attractive, and that’s too bad.
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