July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Elaine Stritch, whose sandpaper voice and devil-may-care attitude made her an instrument of choice for composer-lyricists as disparate as Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim, has died. She was 89.
She died today at her home in Birmingham, Michigan, a Detroit suburb near where she grew up and where much of her family lives, according to the New York Times. No cause was given. She moved there last year from her long-time residence at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan.
Nominated for five Tony Awards in five decades, she finally won in 2002 for “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” her autobiographical one-woman show, which was voted best special theatrical event. In it, she interspersed some of her signature Broadway numbers with stories about her romances -- with the likes of Marlon Brando -- and her battles with alcoholism and, later, diabetes.
An HBO production of “At Liberty” won her an Emmy Award in 2004. She won two other Emmys, in 1993 for a guest role on NBC’s “Law and Order” and in 2007 for a recurring role on NBC’s “30 Rock” as the overbearing mother of the network executive played by Alec Baldwin.
She was perhaps best known for her performance in Sondheim’s “Company” of the song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a dipped-in-acid commentary on the dining habits of Park Avenue ladies of leisure. Reviewing the premiere in 1970, Walter Kerr of the Times took notice of the “left-field snarl” and “snide foot-tap” that Stritch brought to the number.
“Miss Stritch spends a good bit of the evening inhaling cigarette smoke; what smoke she exhales during the song I don’t know, but it is hers alone and it is scathing,” Kerr wrote. “A great number, perfectly done.”
In a 2006 interview, Stritch described her sense of ownership of that piece of the Sondheim repertory.
“I don’t want anybody to sing that song,” she said. “I feel a little bit crazy about it. Sondheim wrote me a note the opening night of ‘Company’: ‘You have turned a saloon song into a piece of theater.’ That’s pretty good.”
Bloomberg News theater critic John Simon, in a 2005 review of her cabaret act, “Elaine Stritch: At Home at the Carlyle,” wrote:
“Stritch is ageless, timelessly appropriate and appealing. An appealing woman of 80? Isn’t that what one says about a young girl? But that is what she is: appealing from the moment she fixes you with those innocent yet knowing eyes, flashing that smile laden with good times past and envisaging even better ones to come. And when she sings, or tells stories in between, you confront not only a performer but also a human being.”
Stritch was born in Detroit on Feb. 2, 1925, the youngest of three girls. She credited her parents, Mildred and George, a manager at B.F. Goodrich, with instilling in her a love of theater.
She attended Catholic school at Detroit’s Convent of the Sacred Heart. At 12 or 13, she said, she had a taste of her father’s whiskey sour and was instantly hooked.
“As soon as it hit me, I knew I found the best friend I had in the world,” she recalled. “Turned out to be an enemy, but it took years and years and years to recognize that.”
She moved to New York to study acting at the New School for Social Research. In 1946, she made her Broadway debut in the comedy “Loco.”
In 1950, she played Ethel Merman’s understudy in the Irving Berlin musical “Call Me Madam,” then assumed the role for the show’s U.S. tour.
She earned the first of her Tony nominations for her performance in the William Inge play “Bus Stop” (1955) as the owner of a diner at which four bus passengers are stranded. The show was “the buzz of Broadway” during its 478-performance run, the Times reported. Marilyn Monroe starred in a film version.
In 1957, Stritch appeared with Rock Hudson in the film “A Farewell to Arms” and, smitten, ended a relationship with Ben Gazzara to be with Hudson. “I just couldn’t help it,” she recalled. “Rock Hudson was not only this great big movie star, but so handsome you could hardly stand it. I was a young kid and didn’t know any better.”
As for the revelations years later about Hudson’s sexual orientation, Stritch said, “I think all great gays have their moments with women.”
Stritch won plaudits and her second Tony nomination for her performance as an exuberant cruise activities director in the Coward musical “Sail Away” (1961). She toured the U.S. in “Mame” and “The King and I.”
Her third Tony nomination came in 1971 for her role in “Company,” which she followed to London in 1972.
During more than a decade in the U.K., she appeared in plays and a popular television series, “Two’s Company,” with Donald Sinden. She also met and married actor John Bay, who died in 1982, 10 years into their marriage. Stritch returned to the U.S. to cope with what she later described as the darkest period of her life.
She was diagnosed with diabetes in 1978 and later wrote a book, “Am I Blue?” about dealing with the disease.
One of her best-received film performances was in the Woody Allen movie “September” (1987). Vincent Canby, in the Times, praised her “beautifully controlled performance” as an irrepressibly blunt mother and former movie star.
In 1995 she appeared in Hal Prince’s acclaimed revival of “Show Boat.” A year later she was again nominated for a Tony for her role in “A Delicate Balance” (1996), a revival of the Edward Albee play about a troubled, well-to-do family. The production won for best revival.
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