“I don’t think I’m gonna die tomorrow or even two weeks from now, or even ever. I just don’t know — who the hell knows what’s gonna happen to them? Nobody! Isn’t that comforting? Nobody has a clue. I like that we don’t know. And I like that it’s somebody else’s decision, not mine.”–Elaine Stritch in a March 2014 interview with NPR
She was synonymous with Broadway; the showstopping performer whose performance never really ended, though it was hard to tell whether it was because she was completely herself on stage or because she never quite turned off the acting. Elaine Stritch grew up in Detroit and made her Broadway debut at 21. She never stopped performing onstage, and although she ventured into film and television (you may know her mostly from her role as Jack’s overbearing mother on 30 Rock), the stage was her first and best love. Stritch may be best-known for originating the role of Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, for which she was nominated for a Tony. She performed in dozens of plays throughout her lifetime, and would go on to earn five Tony nominations, eight Emmy nods (three of which she one), and one Grammy nomination. Her career was remarkable, not only for its sheer exuberance but also for the frankness she embodied in her roles in a time when women were more often valued for being pretty faces than smart or observant or witty. When she started out, women were expected to be demure and ladylike, even if they didn’t feel like it. Stritch changed that for a lot of performers who came after her. If you haven’t, watch her perform “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company to see what I mean:
Stritch also spent eight years living and performing at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, an achievement that should automatically qualify her for a MacArthur Genius Grant. I was at a club one time in Sacramento (yes, Sacramento) and a gentleman asked me where I was from. “New York,” I replied, because I am wont to lie about these things when meeting strangers, because I find it oddly fun. The trouble was, this guy happened to really, truly be from New York.
“Where in New York are you?” he asked.
I thought quickly. “Upper East Side,” I told him. “Like, 76th and Madison?” He gave me a knowing smile. “Nice area.” I nodded, and danced back to my girlfriends.
I had given him the address for the Carlyle Hotel. My sister and I stayed there once on a trip with our dad–a special trip, not the kind of place we would usually stay–and I fell in love. And it was because it was the kind of place that represented old, monied New York so beautifully that I loved it, and that it was the perfect place for Elaine Stritch. The woman was New York. She was also raised in a Catholic family, and once told an interviewer “Catholics are famous for not forgiving themselves…Listen, Catholicism is one of the most humorous religions in the world, and that’s why I hang on to it. There’s more funny stories in Catholicism than you can shake a stick at.”
Last year, declining health made Stritch return to her native Detroit for full-time care. “It’s like a comedy,” she told the New York Times. “Only a not so funny one.” And the loss of fun was no small loss in Stritch’s life. The woman who battled alcoholism on and off her whole life long was known for her sharp sense of humor, her irreverence, her lack of any discernible filter. It was a role she loved to play, and she played it to the hilt.
Stritch died on Thursday at the age of 89.