Magazine article The Spectator

Broadway's Last First Lady

Magazine article The Spectator

Broadway's Last First Lady

Article excerpt

In this country, such are the vagaries of showbusiness, Elaine Stritch is famous for two reasons: a long-running odd-couple television sitcom with Donald Sinden, and the fact that she convinced a genius at the Savoy Hotel to let her and her late husband live there rent-free for almost a decade. She explained that, first, she would attract a similarly stylish transatlantic clientele, and, second, as a card-carrying alcoholic, she would more than earn her keep via the till of the American Bar.

All of which is much like remembering Ethel Merman because she once for two whole days was married to Ernest Borgnine, or Mary Martin because she was Larry Hagman's mother.

The truth is that Stritch is now the last first lady of Broadway, or will be when her new solo show transfers there from Greenwich Village in March. It is the single most dazzling showbiz turn I have seen since Gielgud first played his rather more classical Ages of Man half a century ago, and if we are very, very lucky she'll be doing it over here this side of next Christmas. 'I think,' she told me after the performance and a ten-minute standing ovation, `I'd like to play the place where they have the pillars out front like in Ancient Rome', and if I were the manager of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, I think I'd be on Concorde tonight to sign the deal.

But, at an unbelievable 76, what does Stritch do exactly? Dressed in a plain white shirt and black rehearsal tights she sings, she dances after a fashion, and above all she acts out bittersweet, vodka-tinged memoirs which lesser talents would merely have committed to paper. She has a chair, a six-piece band in the pit and that's it. Nothing else but her talent, and for almost three hours she is mesmeric.

Her story is of affluent but distant parents, of leaving a prosperous white suburb for the black jazz bars of the wicked city with, at 16, the only advice her father ever gave her still ringing in her ears: `Elaine,' he said, as he left her at the station for the New York train, `do try to remember you are just not the same after two dry martinis.'

Hers is 42nd Street seen through the wrong end of a bottle of gin: she starts out understudying Merman, and soon comes back the star of Pal Joey; but who now recalls Zip as she does? Who now understands the lyric `Will Saroyan ever write a great play? …

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