What Elaine Stritch Taught Me
By Jerry Portwood
This past Saturday, I had a date with myself to see Elaine Stritch in an encore performance of Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim… Again. Why Not? I was almost certainly the best companion for myself because, at 23, no one worshipped Ms. Stritch among my peers as much as I did. Before the show, I was waiting in one of the Carlyle’s smaller lobbies, which happened to be right outside the back entrance of the Café where Elaine would perform in mere minutes.
I was busy daydreaming when a storm in a white, silk blouse and black pantyhose blew into the lobby shouting for the few unsuspecting hotel guests to “hit her for luck.” She came my way, and I felt like an idiot, glued to my chair like someone just waiting to be annihilated by a cyclone. In a matter of seconds she was right next to me, and she smacked my arm and told me to wish her luck, and I grabbed her hand and told her that I was her biggest fan.
“Oh, that’s good!” she said.
This was, obviously, the eye of hurricane Elaine. With that, Ms. Stritch blew up the few stairs and positioned herself behind that back entrance of the Cafe. When she started speaking aloud to herself, I couldn’t tell if she was reciting her lyrics or praying.
The performance is hard to explain without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. It was such a grand evening—of low jokes and unearthed psychoanalytical revelations—that if one was to describe it, not a single person would believe it unless they’d been in the audience, too. At 86 years old, Ms. Stritch has perfected the art of breathing new life into songs you thought you knew. And the whole forgetting-the-lyrics thing that you’ve undoubtedly heard about only adds another brilliant dimension to it all.
She tore “Rose’s Turn” apart like no human being has ever done so before; she filled the entire Carlyle with wet, happy tears in her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” (and ended it with a Groucho Marx impersonation); and she put “Broadway Baby” at the top of the list of songs you never knew could depress you so.
The banter in between, as always, was the stuff that dreams are made of. “Hi, I’m Elaine Stritch,” she proclaimed at one point in the evening. “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a diabetic. And I sing at the Carlyle.” Yet, given her battles with alcoholism, her tumultuous career, and any health problems along the way, most of us would be lucky to live even half the life she’s led thus far. The stories she told on Saturday night were like fractured fairytales that one could only wish to be apart of.
After the show, I was formally introduced to Ms. Stritch. My 15-year-old self stepped in for a moment, and I gushed about how I idolized her, and how there was a period in my admittedly very young life during which I played her 1955 studio album Stritch on a loop every day of the week. I couldn’t contain myself. After all, I was holding the hand of a woman who had highly influenced me, from a very young age, in the areas of life, love, and the theater.
She joked with me that all of the times she’d forgotten a line to a story or a lyric in a song were planned, and I wanted to tell her that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Instead, I just said, “Of course! It was all scripted.” She rolled her eyes, grabbed me by the collar of my jacket, and told me she liked the way I did myself up. And the angels sang.
The greatest lesson that I can take from Ms. Stritch in her latest cabaret at the Carlyle is this: A life that doesn’t leave you in shambles every now and then is not worth living. It’s the same message that I took from her eight years ago when I watched her performance in Elaine Stritch at Liberty from my living room as a freshman in high school in 2004. She told me that all of my problems were about to get bigger, but that it was going to be fabulous, and that my mind was going to grow from it, and my skin was going to toughen from it, and that I was going to be a hell of a lot more interesting at parties because of it. And since then, I’ve welcomed adversity into my life with open arms, in hopes of getting just a little bit closer to Stritch.