Arts + Life
9:00 pm
Thu July 17, 2014

Actress Elaine Stritch, 'Her Own Greatest Character,' Dies At 89

Originally published on Tue July 22, 2014 3:19 pm

Elaine Stritch — one of Broadway's boldest and brassiest performers — has died. With that gravelly voice — and those long legs — and that utter command of the stage, Stritch was a bona fide Broadway star. Not as a classic leading lady, necessarily, but as the hardened-yet-vulnerable performer audiences couldn't forget. Stritch died of natural causes Thursday morning at her home in Birmingham, Mich. She was 89.

In an interview with Stritch in March 2014, NPR's Scott Simon observed that the stage and screen legend "may be her own greatest character."

In a career that stretched back to the 1940s, Stritch did it all: theater, TV, movies. She was nominated for several Tony Awards and won three Emmys. She starred in the 1961 Noel Coward musical Sail Away and the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company. (With her performance of "Ladies Who Lunch," Sondheim said, Stritch turned what he thought was "just a simple saloon song" into a "piece of theater.")

Stritch was born in Detroit, where her father was a rubber company executive. She was raised Roman Catholic and when she first moved to New York City, she went to a finishing school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Years later, Broadway producer Hal Prince said Stritch had "the guts of a jailbird" but "the convent girl is still there."

It's been said that Stritch could always play older than she really was. She was 20 when she sang Zip in Pal Joey, but Stritch herself said she looked 40. She had a terrific sense of humor about her looks — and her age. In 1988, Stritch told NPR's Susan Stamberg that she didn't mind the word "aging" at all.

"It applies to everyone," she said. "I saw a kid 16 on the street and he was aging. We're all aging but somehow the press loves to say it when you're over 40."

Stritch was candid about everything — her age, her alcoholism, her diabetes. In her book Am I Blue?: Living with Diabetes and, Dammit, Having Fun! she wrote about being diagnosed with the disease at the peak of her career.

"More than with any other condition I know of," she wrote, "the diabetic simply has to understand the nature of the illness and become intimately involved in treating it." But with her trademark wit she also said: "Diabetes is great because I can say, 'My blood sugar is off. I have to go.' "

In 2002, when she was in her late 70s, she launched a Tony Award-winning, one-woman show called Elaine Stritch at Liberty. She continued performing well into her 80s. In 2008 Stritch won an Emmy — her third — for her role as character Jack Donaghy's mother on NBC's 30 Rock.

Stritch once said, "I just pray that I can be at least amusing."

And was she ever.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of Broadway's boldness and brassiest performers has died. Elaine Stritch died this morning of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. She was 89. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With her gravelly voice and long legs and utter command of the stage, Elaine Stritch was a bona fide Broadway star. Not as a classic leading lady but as the hardened, yet vulnerable performer you don't forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

ELAINE STRITCH: (Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh.

BLAIR: Writer-composer Stephen Sondheim apparently told Elaine Stritch that she turned what he thought was just a simple saloon song from the 1970 Broadway hit "Company" into a piece of theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

STRITCH: (Singing) The ones who follow the rules and meet themselves at the schools, too busy to know that they're fools, aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them, let's all drink to them

BLAIR: in a career that stretched back to the 1940s, Elaine Stritch did it all, theater, TV, movies. She once understudied for Ethel Merman. Noel Coward wrote a play with her in mind. She was nominated for several Tony awards and won three Emmys. Stritch was born in Detroit, her father was a rubber company executive. She was raised Roman Catholic. When she first moved to New York City she went to finishing school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Years later Broadway producer Hal Prince said, Stritch had the guts of a jailbird but he went on, the content girl is still there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIP!")

STRITCH: (Singing) Zip. I consider Dali's painting passe. Zip. Can they make the Metropolitan pay?

BLAIR: It's been said that Elaine Stritch could always play older than she really was. She was only 20 when she sang Zip in "Pal Joey." But Stritch herself said she looked 40. Stritch had a terrific sense of humor about her looks and her age. In 1988 NPR's Susan Stamberg interviewed her when she starred in Woody Allen's movie "September."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The role you play in this movie is of - I hate to use this word but aging but it's true isn't it? Aging, I've read it two ways, aging...

STRITCH: Well, I don't mind that word at all. It applies to everybody. I mean I saw kids 16 on the street and he was aging.

STAMBERG: (Laughing) That's right.

STRITCH: I mean we're aging. But somehow the press loves to say it when you're over 40. It's almost like all the words are capital letters- she's plays an AGING Showgirl, socialite, whatever.

BLAIR: Elaine Stritch was also candid about personal struggles. Her alcoholism, her diabetes. She wrote about being diagnosed with the disease at the peak of her career. The diabetic she said, has to become intimately involved in treating it. But with her trademark wit she also said, diabetes is great because I can say my blood sugar is off, I have to go. When she was in her late 70s she launched a one-woman show called "Elaine Stritch At The Liberty."

(SOUNDBITE OF ELAINE STRITCH AT THE LIBERTY)

STRITCH: Not long ago I was talking to Stephen Sondheim about his song, "I'm Still Here." I told him I had heard women in their 60s singing I'm still here. 50's even and a couple of times in their 40s. I'm still her- where have they been? I mean it's ridiculous. And so I told him that, not that he asked me or anything, but I told him that I would never touch that song until I was what 80 years old. But you know, it is such a great song. I'm not going to wait 20 years to sing it.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Elaine Stritch once said, I just pray that I can be at least amusing. Was she ever. Elizabeth Blair NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.