Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear
In this July 1995 interview, an ever-candid Elaine Stritch shares her feelings on not being nominated for a Tony Award (for playing Parthy in the 1995 revival of Show Boat), and looks back at her screen career—and her relationship with Rock Hudson.
The “million dollar legs,” as she blithely bills them, have developed a swelling at the ankles. Too much gangplank in high heels, she figures as she hoists her leg up on a chair so her publicist can tape an ice pack to the ache.
It is Saturday, and Elaine Stritch is between Show Boat voyages, “convalescing” from her 22-month ride in a quaint little French restaurant a couple of blocks from the Cotton Blossom docking at the Gershwin Theatre. All the way along West 51st Street, she has done a big drum roll about the lovely garden at Tout La Bien, only to learn on arriving that the garden is now closed in, having acquired a ceiling seven years ago. No matter. Stritch can stretch her imagination back to the way it was—even ghosts from the golden days. “Used to see Maurice Chevalier over there, tipping a quarter. Big spender, Maurice.”
Stritch gives off a pretty golden-era glow herself—a still-surviving “Broadway Baby” currently reincarnated as Parthy Hawks, the woman behind the man behind the wheel of Edna Ferber’s 19th-century show boat. Henpecking Cap’n Andy Hawks is a thankless chore, and it grew even more thankless recently when Stritch’s work went by the boards unnoted by Tony nominators. That’s what comes of shoehorning a legend into a pinched part like Parthy.
The day after the nomination didn’t come out, when Stritch showed up for work at the theatre, her favorite kibitzer—Ralph Williams (a.k.a. “Windy,” the flame-haired pilot of the Cotton Blossom)—rushed up to buoy her spirits, but, characteristically, she beat him to the punch. “I’m just shocked!” she told him. “It’s unthinkable the Tonys would totally snub a performance like Windy.”
He, of course, crumbled into small pieces—and, a couple of days later, came up with some Tony-night strategy for Stritch: Get a nun’s habit, be flown across the stage on wires and say, “You don’t like me, you really don’t like me.”
It’s Stritch’s nature to apply healing humor to fresh wounds, but she insists she’s actually relieved she wasn’t nominated. “I don’t want to win a Tony for support at my age. I’m very vibrant and very active in this business—says she with her leg up on a chair with an ice pack on it—but I am, and, when I have billing on the same line with Cap’n Andy, I want to be nominated for leading lady. I don’t give a (bleep) how many lines I have or how many songs I have. I don’t want to be up for support. Not that I have anything against supporting players—the name itself is my idea of theatre—but, very much like Company, everybody in Show Boat is an ensemble player. There is no star in Show Boat.”
Inevitably, Company creeps into any Stritch chat. That show—and her solo in it, Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch”—represented the farthest stretch of Stritch, so naturally the Svengali who got her through it—Harold Prince—has but to crook his finger and she comes running. Never mind that Parthy is not a starring (or even singing) role, The Prince is to be pleased. Purists of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score were rattled when he swiped a love song from the honeymooning ingénues (“Why Do I Love You?”) and turned it into a lullaby for her to croak to the newborn granddaughter they give her, but when this granddaughter grows up into a Broadway star and sings it right back at her, it gives the show its unifying arc. “Talk about the appeal this show has for grandmothers! This is exactly what happens to so many grandparents. Their real personality comes out not in their children but in their grandchildren.”
You just get one quick glimpse at the real Parthy—surprisingly soft and sweet – alone in her room, reprising the number sitting in a window. “The only time Parthy can express herself is when she’s by herself, “ says Stritch, whose warm rasp cradles the ballad beautifully and round off the rough edges of this carping, one-note crone. “No woman is all Edna May Oliver, and no woman is all Dorothy McGuire. Both can be and are present in the same person.”
Stritch’s androgynous, martini-dry voice made her a perfect pitch person for La Cage aux Folles. “Guys’ voices were too low, and women’s voices were too high for that homosexual thing to come through, so they called me—thank you so much—so over I went. I made a few bucks on that commercial.” And beaucoup buddies in the gay community (hence her reverential status in Party).
“They asked me the other day to do a commercial for Love! Valour! Compassion! in front of the theatre, using celebrities instead of people off the street, but I declined. I said I’d only do it if I could imitate those people they’re trying to make us think have just seen the show. Aren’t they the worst? ‘I cried! I don’t cry in life, but I cried in this!’ Get. Off.”
Not unlike “Ol’ Man River,” Stritch just keeps rollin’ along—but never is a straight line. “There’s nothing straight about me,” she trumpets with some measure of primal pride, “except my heterosexuality.” New York or London, musical or drama, theatre or film—careers don’t come any more eclectic. Name another actress who would sail smoothly away with Noël Coward’s Sail Away and still give full sonic blast to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Age-wise, she’s all over the place, subscribing to Tallulah’s self-description: “I was born, and the next day I was 40.” The ageless factor helped her follow Ethel Merman, a star 20 years her senior, into Call Me Madam. And the “Zip” she did in the 1952 Pal Joey retained its, er, zip when she did it recently at a gala.
It may be indelicate to point out that Stritch’s last time as a Tony-nominated Featured (or Supporting) Actress came almost 40 years ago—as Bus Stop’s brassy proprietress—but that may be her favorite part, and it did kick off her kooky career in films. “Michael Curtiz directed my first movie. He had seen a performance in Kismet of a young chorus girl and thought she was dynamite—the next Barbara Stanwyck—so he got her for this movie, which was also my first, The Scarlet Hour. She was a star for 15 minutes. Someone asked what I played, and I said, ‘Well, actually, I look like I’m visiting the set.’ I mean, This Part Had Nothing To Do With Anything. I was her best friend. I never really felt that. I just didn’t feel there was that kind of connection.”
She was best friends, and a bit more, with Rock Hudson when she surfaced, billed eighth, in his remake of A Farewell to Arms. “Great guy. Funny. He loved women like me. I’m no threat. But what he didn’t bargain for is there’s another side to Elaine, like there’s another side to him. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t know enough not to. I’m in Rome, in a David Selznick film. I’m staying at the Grand Hotel, and he’s taking me to dinner every night. Gimme a greak. I’m buying all the Italian clothes, spending all my salary trying to look good for Rock Hudson. Unbelievable! Little did I know.”
Her screen career carneed from the ridiculous (The Perfect Furlough with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) to the sublime (Alain Resnais’s Providence with Ellen Burstyn, Dick Bogarde and John Gielgud as well as a nearly Oscar-nominated return in Woddy Allen’s September). More often than not, the emphasis was on the former.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a perverse favorite. “I played—now listen to this: who could turn this part down?—a lesbian who owned a disco and gets murdered on East End and 89th Street, strangled with a silk stocking by Sal Mineo. I didn’t even read the script. Juliet Prowse and I got bombed on brandy the day we shot the dyke scene. Everybody said, ‘Very believable.’ I said, ‘Thanks.’”
She took Company to London and stayed there for 13 years, getting off hit runs of Small Craft Warnings and The Gingerbread Lady and hit series (“Two’s Company” with Donald Sinden). She even married there, an actor named John Bay, and it was his work not hers that brought them to America. He died of a brain tumor a few years after their arrival here. Now, London looms again for her.
When Stritch finishes her stint in Show Boat, she’s hoping to have a nice restful stay in a wheelchair, playing the old woman in Emlyn William’s famous head-in-a-hatbox thriller, Night Must Fall, at the National. “You know why I’d love to play it? A thousand years ago, in Provincetown, I did Night Must Fall—my first job out of dramatic school. I was the ingénue, and the star was Dame May Whitty. I watched that broad every single night. That scene at the end when she’s alone in her house, in her wheelchair, and gets scared and calls after the killer she thinks is her friend. The script says, ‘Danny. Danny? DANNY? DANNY!’ On opening night she said it 27 times. Now, that’s an actress! Fear was thick in the air. We went through the roof. It was scary!”
That would, indeed bring the career full circle—and, as she herself likes to say, there’s only one thing straight about Elaine Stritch. Keep rollin’ on, girl.