“Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, by Alexandra Jacobs
As the curtain rises in a new biography of Elaine Stritch, the scene is the actress’ New York memorial service, attended by some of the biggest names in the theater world, with eulogies by Tony-winning actor Nathan Lane and famed producer Hal Prince, both throwing out zingers for laughs and to honor the woman who made so many lines shine.
As “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch” suggests, the grande dame of Broadway brought life to scores of characters for decades, but she was a complicated, often dramatic character herself.
The book — written by New York Times feature editor Alexandra Jacobs — is a mini-history of the Great White Way from the 1970s through Stritch’s death in 2014, told through the icon’s professional and personal journey. Stritch auditioned for some of the most famous roles in Broadway history. She won some and lost many, and Jacobs tries to explain why despite solid talent and remarkable stage presence, Stritch seemed to get in her own way, sabotaging her chances at the success she coveted.
“To the end she was both restless and routinized, selfish and generous, straightforward and elliptical,” Jacobs writes. “She insisted on being seen and heard, felt and dealt with.”
The story follows Stritch’s life from the early days with her conservative well-to-do family in the Detroit suburbs to her move to New York with dreams of stardom. Manhattan was her playground, but Jacobs follows Stritch through jaunts in Los Angeles, London and on the road with various shows, meeting many famous people along the way.
Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg were teachers at her drama school, where Marlon Brando was a fellow student who once read her passages of “Wuthering Heights” on a date. Some of the best anecdotes are Stritch’s encounters with desirable men like the young Congressman John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson. Because of her “luminous personality, she tended to collect people who wanted to adore her,” Jacobs explains.
As she honed her craft, she worked with some of the greats including Harry Belafonte, Bea Arthur, Burt Lancaster, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Gleason, who fired her from “The Honeymooners” after a day because she had too big a personality to share scenes with him. But the life of an actress is full of rejection and heartache and Stritch endured plenty of both, struggling through periods of unemployment, taking small jobs to pay the rent and looking for love.
Jacobs says Stritch was “incapable of not telling the truth,” which was refreshing to some and too much for others. Her acerbic wit and lack of boundaries got her in trouble with both love interests and bosses. The author suggests alcoholism also kept Stritch from reaching her full star potential. She drank often and in large quantities for decades before she got sober in the late 1980s, but her relationship with booze continued — if sporadically and quietly — for many more years.
Stritch was labeled unreliable for being late and forgetting lines, and could be arrogant, self-centered and overbearing with colleagues. She liked the finer things: car services, posh hotels and designer clothing, but didn’t like to pay for them. She lost several jobs over greedy business negotiations for perks, and even had bouts of kleptomania.
The tone is respectful with spots of humor and compassion. With more than 25 pages of bibliographical notes, it’s clear Jacobs has done meticulous research. She includes quotes and stories from articles, interviews and even some from a memoir Stritch started but never finished. But some of the details and tangents about minor players feel unnecessary and disrupt the narrative.
One poignant revelation is when theater critic John Lahr — who helped Stritch develop and produce her famous one-woman show “At Liberty” — suggests the reason for much of Stritch’s bad behavior was fear and panic. “The truth of Elaine was her real great acting was convincing the world she was loosey goosey — that was a complete act,” Lahr told Jacobs.
“Still Here” is an insider’s story, with behind the scenes show tales and name-dropping as titillating as a good table for eavesdropping at Sardi’s. As the lyric goes, “good times or bum times,” Stritch saw it all and always found a way to get the next gig and bring a crowd to its feet. This book is sure to send nostalgic Broadway fans to YouTube to replay all her oldies, wishing she was still here.