Stritch At Liberty, as she always was and will be
By JERRY TALLMER
If you havent heard Elaine Stritch being Ethel Merman bellowing: Oh, Elaine, will ya for Chrissake go to New Haven and sing the fuckin song! you havent begun to live.
Actually, quite a lot of people heard Stritch do that in her 2002 one-woman Obie- and Tony-winning show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, and a lot more will now get to hear it, and see it, in the blockbuster Pennebaker-Hegedus-Doob documentary of the same title that premieres on HBO 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29, with a scattering of replays soon thereafter.
The Merman bellow is the punch line of Stritchs hysterical retelling of the fortnight five decades ago when, during the blizzard of 52, she daily (and twice on matinee days) shuttled via an ex-boyfriend and his MG back and forth between her assignment as standby for Merman in Call Me Madam at the Imperial Theater on Broadway and rendering the piss-elegant Gypsy Rose Lee-type Zip! striptease number in Pal Joey at the Shubert Theater in New Haven.
And you wonder why I drank, says the woman who fought the bottle, and generally lost, throughout the first three-quarters of her long and sometimes dazzling career. Now being one of those sometimes.
The entire one hour and 45 minutes of the Pennebaker film (seems like half that) is a lay-it-on-the-line examination of the life and times, breakthroughs and blunders, and most especially the hoarse-laughs, of one of the great natural resources of show business in this our day the good Catholic girl out of Detroit, Michigan, who at 18 had fled, undefiled, late one night from Marlon Brandos three-flight walkup in Greenwich Village. Elaine, Brando had coldly declared when next they met, I want two things from you: silence and distance only to subsequently apologize, in tears, as he crunched a wine glass in his hand.
This is also the actress whom Noel Coward adored, called Stritchie, and took with him for a weekend in the Berkshires at Alfred and Lynnes (a.k.a Lunt and Fontaine).
The actress whose dressing room was invaded one night by Richard Burton, who informed her: Halfway through your last number I almost had an orgasm.
The actress who, one night during the Broadway run of William Inges Bus Stop, answered a ringing backstage telephone. On the other end was Ben Gazzara. He wanted Kim Stanley. He got Elaine.
He took me to Downeys Steak House [1950s actors hangout, Eighth Avenue and 44th Street] and then took me to my apartment on 52nd Street, and stayed two years. Until, in Rome, with Gazzara proposing marriage, her eye fell on a beautifully tall, handsome male in a tuxedo coming down a flight of stairs in the Grand Hotel. His name was Rock Hudson.
Arrivederci, Ben . . . And we all know what a bum decision THAT turned out to be.
You will phone Elaine, this journalist was told, at midnight Friday, at the Carlyle Hotel. Shes just back from California that day, and tired.
The operator at the Carlyle put the call through, no questions asked.
Oh, hello, said Elaine Stritch. No, I dont get my calls announced. I take my chances. Also it seems to me to belittle people to ask who they are. [Secretarys voice] What is your name, please? . . . Just one moment . . . Im sorry, shes not in. Well, I dont do that, said Stritch in her own caustic-kindly warm-blooded baritone.
This is the lady who, on taking to the stage of Radio City Music Hall to accept, at age 76, her long-hungered-for first Tony Award, cut off the cannonading applause of her peers with a crisp, dry: Dont take up my time.
But now, at midnight, on the phone, she had plenty of time.
Ben, she said of another survivor, the gravel-voiced Gazzara who gave us such a winning recent Yogi Berra. Dear Ben. You know what he did? He came back to my dressing room and said: I didnt know you were that talented.
The Pennebaker film crafted by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob is partly the At Liberty stage show. It is partly some bits of a remarkable 1970 Pennebaker documentary of Stritch trial-and-erroring her difficult way into a matchless performance of Sondheims The Ladies Who Lunch for the cast album of Company. And it is partly new material of Stritch and others talking about, well, Stritch.
Stritch takes credit for the added balance.
Im glad I had something to do with it, she said on the phone. I was in on the editing. When I saw the rough cut, I thought Pennebaker had left in too much of my show and too much of that  recording performance. Enough already. But you cant cut out that stuff about Rock Hudson and Ben Gazara and my dad (who offered her a mean whiskey sour when I was 14 but would subsequently one day tell her: Lainie, you are not the same after two martinis).
You know . . . God, its so hard to explain because, you know, Ive never [before] seen myself on stage, never seen ME on stage, or seen ME in a musical, all of a sudden. I dont have a word for it yet. It doesnt frighten me, she said, but its not like a movie where youre sitting with other people.
No, she said, after a contemplative pause, its not like a movie, where you play someone else [i.e., not yourself.] I never talk about technique or anything. That bores the shit out of me, and I surf on. With a snort: Young actors talking about how they approach their role. I never talk about a role . . . .
But you know, Jerry, this ones close to the bone. Its VERY close to the bone. And you know, it IS my life, a good hunk of it anyway. And another thing: Here Im singing these songs, hoping each time Ill just get through it and its on fucking film.
Back there when Pennebaker shot that [Company] recording. I didnt know what was going on. Pennebaker worked the whole thing without any cameras that anyone could see. He sort of sat on the side. I didnt even know he was there.
Thats our Elaine, said D.A. Pennebaker when apprised of the above. She takes that stand, and its all right. The camera was definitely there and it was kind of big and noisy. The thing was, shed been in a couple of movies by then, and she was used to the camera being a huge edifice like a statue of Thucydides. If its a hand-held camera on somebodys shoulder, she doesnt see it as movie-making.
I think shes being a little coy. She knows shes entertaining, at a party.
Chris Hegedus, who is Mrs. D.A. Pennebaker, said: I think shes a little more aware of the camera now. Shed direct her whole life for you, if she could. Thats a whole film in itself editing with Elaine Stritch.
Pennebaker: Most of the time we dont invite people into the editing of what were filming [as, for instance, The War Room, an inside view of the 1992 Clinton campaign team].
But with Elaine, you couldnt bar the door. It was like youre getting the expert to undo the bomb before it goes off. Even though she drove us crazy, she was 80 percent right. We resisted, but we didnt begrudge her. She said: This isnt about me, its about comedy, and she was right.
Hegedus: She has impeccable timing. Shes an incredibly brave and funny and impossible person. Thats what shes about, and thats why people love her.
Stritch, midnight, the phone: Actors are sort of puppets. Except in my case. Dyou know in the show where I talk about telling the New York Times that I was looking for a director who knew more than I did [only to have Hal Prince call and say: Elaine, I know more than you do].
Well, I meant that. I just lately did a workshop with a certain director . . . Never again . . . This person knows less than I do, and I dont want to go to DINNER with someone who knows less than I do.
No, Ben Gazzara was not my first. I say in the show I was a virgin until I was 30, and when I met Ben I was 33. But I was very, very particular about that kind of thing. If I had any [romantic] connection, it was two years, not two weeks. I dont even call them affairs. An affair is Acapulco.
Ms. Stritch, did you know about Rock Hudson, back at the time?
How could I know? What people knew? I didnt know anything. Though I guess there were several guys in California who knew, if you know what I mean.
She was born, she said, in Detroit, Michigan, February 2, 1926. Ill be 79 next February. My father? Why do you want to know that? He was George Joseph Stritch, born 18-hundred something, and lived to be 96. Was manager of manufacture sales at B.F. Goodrich. Wait, I have his birthday on a prayer card in some book here.
Scrabbles around. Cant find it.
My mother was Mildred Jobe Stritch, and my father called her Midge. Im Irish on my dads side and Welsh on my mothers. I love the Welsh thing. No, I never drank with Dylan Thomas, but I drank with Hemingway, thats good enough, and with that great Irish playwright yes, him, Brendan Behan and with Tennessee, whom I loved with a passion.
She is, and for 17 years has been, a Friend of Bills, i.e. a recovering alcoholic. Also an insulin-dependent diabetic. It almost cost her her life in a hypoglycemia attack in 1987. A mini-bar waiter at the Hotel Carlyle saved her life.
Its damn tough, kiddo. Every time I had a problem, Jerry, I picked up a drink.
Now, having done everything else, shes thinking of doing cabaret. And Im hoping and praying I can do a new straight play. Id sure like another A Delicate Balance thrown my way.
Edward Albee, are you listening?
The clock was getting on to half-past midnight. Im always in late at night, said Elaine Stritch. Call me if you need to know anything. Stay safe. See you soon.
The future may hold whatever it will, including, one hopes, a delicate or an indelicate balance, but this is one human being who is always going to be At Liberty.