Elaine Stritch On Sondheim’s Advice, Rock Hudson & Her One Female Crush

2.17.2014

By Michael Musto

Plus: k.d. lang on joining the cast of After Midnight

Photography by Amanda Friedman

For New Yorkers, the day the laughter died was the one last year when Broadway legend Elaine Stritch moved out of the Carlyle and transplanted herself to Birmingham, Michigan to semi-retire and be around family. Stritch, 89, is the sandpaper-voiced musical comedy legend who kept things afloat in Noel Coward’s Sail Away (1961), ripped “the ladies who lunch” a new one in Sondheim’s Company (1970), and reached a career zenith in the 2002 one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty, which summed up her experiences with all the requisite wit and candor.

And now she’s a movie star, forcing her back in the spotlight as we get another chance to absorb a Stritch in time. The Chiemi Karasawa-directed documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Meopening February 21—is a top-notch film that provides a candidly appealing look at the lady’s stamina, incorrigibility, and pizzazz. I got an up close taste of all this Stritchie stuff thanks to a frisky phone interview with the lady (who just swung back to NYC for a promo visit. In fact, I’ll be interviewing her tonight at the 92nd Street Y.)

Michael Musto: Hi, Ms. Stritch. Congrats on your documentary. We miss you.

Elaine Stritch: Thank you very much. Out—what a wonderful name for a magazine!

Thank you.

I just looked up at the screen and I saw…I can’t think of his name, goddammit. A wonderful actor, a darling guy, and I knew him well when I lived in California periodically. 

I need more clues.

He died at 47. The girls went crazy over him. He was kind of a smartass. He was the type that everybody’s mother didn’t like. My mother would have called him a sassbox. He was married to a darling brunette girl. Let’s see if my nephew knows. [She talks to her nephew for a bit, then comes back.] Steve McQueen! I loved him. 

Well, you had a better chance with him than with Rock Hudson [whom Stritch famously fell in love with, only to find out what most people knew.]

I walked into that innocently, and I walked out doubly innocently. And I felt none the worse for it. I adored Rock. He was one of my best friends ever. I had no idea what I was dealing with, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. These people who say, “Oh, he’s gay” when someone walks out the door. Who’s to say? I don’t understand that kind of reasoning. If I love somebody, I love them. I don’t give a shit.

I know you don’t.

I don’t what?

Give a shit. You march to your own drum.

This is the funniest interview I ever had. I have never changed—“Oh, I don’t like him because he’s gay”—and I knew nothing about being gay until I was how old! I didn’t understand that someone likes the same sex and what it means. I didn’t have all this wonderful information I have now. I didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Don’t tell me you didn’t realize Noel Coward was gay?

Not a bit.

Wow, you are innocent.

When I read a lot about Noel, I began to catch on to it, but it didn’t affect the way I felt. I’ve been in love with a lot of gay men in my life—crazy about them--because the person was so attractive to me. And don’t tell me there aren’t many attractive gay men. You just named two—Noel Coward and Rock Hudson. Rock would have been happy to be in Noel’s company. He would have been cheered up. I’ve got a nephew that’s gay, and I love him. I wouldn’t change my opinion of him for a million bucks. 

Have you ever had a crush on a woman?

No. Well, yes, one. I’ll tell you what. I was talking to my hairdresser the other day out here in rural Birmingham. One of his favorite people in the world whose hair he used to do was… 

Steve McQueen?

Very funny, Michael. You’re beginning to join my group of genuinely funny human beings. It’s a lair of people that very rarely reach me, and you’re on a path. 

I’m extremely honored. 

[Stritch’s riveting line of gab somehow moved on to fiery Greek actress/politician Melina Mercouri.] Melina was one of the most beautiful women. Did you ever meet her?

No, but in movies, she always seemed to me like a pretty drag queen.
Almost as good as looking as a drag queen. [laughs] You’re getting funny, Michael. We’d better change chairs. Anyway, I got to know her, meaning that my agent Gloria Safire long ago handled her—if you’ll pardon the pun. Melina used to make me laugh hysterically when I watched her on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson said to her, “So you work very hard for the Greeks, don’t you?” She said, “Oh Mr. Carson, I laff my Grick pipples.” I used to say, “She’s too funny. She’ll never sell tickets to any benefit because she can’t get through ‘Greek pipples’ without getting a laugh.”

So you’d say you had a crush on her?

Sure, but I wouldn’t go through with it.

She played Alexis Smith’s lover in Once Is Not Enough

I didn’t know that.

Moving on, your classic song from Company, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” is a gem and you’ve always done it brilliantly, but in the show, it seems to come out of nowhere.

Speaking of lesbian…? [laughs]

No, no segue there. Just a simple question.

You can go anyplace with me without getting in trouble, Michael. Mostly, I’m the one who gets in trouble. I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound.

I don’t understand that saying.

I don’t either, but I’ve been saying it for years. It means I’m going all the way with this. In other words, “I’ve said enough now, but keep going with it.”

OK. But I’m still not sure where the character’s rage comes from.

I don’t think I sang it with rage. First of all, she drank. I should have made you understand that. 

I was, like, 11. I didn’t understand alcoholism.

You know what you are?

A lesbian?

No, stop it. You’re in for a penny, in for a pound! I can ask you anything from that point. Anyway, when you drink, you can do anything you want, and it’s not always very attractive. I tried to say to the audience, “And here’s to the ones who just watch—and they’re not here anymore.” 

Speaking of moving—now that’s a segue—it was a difficult transition for you, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. Moving to my home town was a big move for me. I loved all the people I grew up with. For a kind of screwed up broad—I am a little screwed up, because I tried to get myself settled where I tried to feel happy, and the only place I did it in New York was on the stage. I was genuinely happy entertaining. I loved it. So to stop that was hard. But I discovered that I entertain every place I go. I can’t stop myself. I can’t end it. I love making people laugh or cry or do whatever they want to do. If you open your heart to somebody, it’s such a joyful feeling. But then, when I get off [stage], I forget what it was like. Where’s that feeling? And you can’t get it back. No one will ever know the joy of getting a laugh from an audience. It’s heaven. It beats that church where nobody says anything. There was a joke about a town where it was so quiet in the church that you could hear a pint drop. [Pause] You and my nephew should be loudly laughing right now. I’m going to send you both back.

I’m glad you can still laugh about drinking.

Nothing to cry about. But I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s a boring subject. I’ve been on this side of it, the other side, and I’ve come out of it. That’s the way I feel about drinking—I loved it and I still do, but I don’t have a weakness where it’s overcome me. I’ve overcome it.

Let’s get back to Broadway. Did you love doing A Little Night Music four years ago?

I adored it. “Liaisons” was the most difficult song I’ve ever done on the stage. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it. You know what Steve Sondheim said to me, which I found brilliant? I called him the night before I opened and said, “I can’t get ahold of this song. What should I do to give it a punch? To get me stopping the show. I only get one and a half songs.” His advice was, “At the end of the song, burp.” And I loved it. That’s it! Thank you, God—or Steve Sondheim, whichever you prefer.

At the end of the song, I burped and they went crazy. I gave it a shot and I did it from then on.

Will you now burp after singing “Everybody rise”?

You are funny, Michael. After “Everybody rise,” I didn’t have to do anything but get off the stage. I’ve never been quite so comfortable singing a song that I didn’t completely understand.

It’s a play within a play.

It’s a play within a play within a play. You can go on and on. They didn’t understand it either, but—I’m going to curse—by the time I was finished with that fucker, I knew what I was talking about and I didn’t have to think about it. It just poured out of me.

You’re in for a penny, Ms. Stritch. Cheers to your great documentary, and don’t be a stranger.

>>>MORE: Click for k.d. lang's lesbian dance number in After Midnight

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