Elaine Stritch – A tribute by Barb Jungr
I was fortunate to meet Broadway legend Elaine Stritch when I played the Cafe Carlyle a few years ago. At the time she had a room there, and performed annually in the hotel venue. She’d watched me sing and caught me as I emerged from the back stage door and grabbed me, saying some wonderful things including “come and visit me”. Obviously I wasn’t going to pass that offer up and so a couple of days later I went to her room and kncked – no reply – so I left flowers outside her door on the floor with a little note. Walking down the street the next day I received a call. “Are you the broad thats been leaving me flowers?” she said. And invited me to tea.
Elaine Stricth was old school. Tough as they come, she’d understudied Ethel Merman on Broadway. Uncompromising and talented, she perfomed Coward and Sondheim, did films and Broadway and indeed TV in the UK where she met her soul mate in her co-star John Bay, to whom she was married until his untimely death.
She had long struggled with alchohol addiction and in recent years become clear of that, but was plagued with ill health. In recent years her one woman show was a triumph both on Broadway and in London, and she was in the hit show 30 Rock as Alec Baldwin’s character, Jack Donaghy’s, mother.
In New York, everyone has an Elaine story. Her capacity to surprise and terrify, her sharp wit and smart mouth, and her immense presence and talent, made her one of a kind.
When we had tea, she told me what it was like to train with Stella Adler alongside feollow student Marlon Brando. Stella had set homework one day, the next morning everyone would be a chicken in the farmyard. All the students wanted Stella’s approval. Elaine practiced her chicken all night. That next morning she went into the studio, where Marlon’s chicken strutted and pecked. Other actors’ chickens laid eggs. Elaine’s chicken trembled in a corner. Stella clapped her hands to stop the class. “Everyone, come see Elaine’s chicken! Its brillient.” She roared with laughter recounting her trumping of Marlon’s chicken that morning. She made me laugh and two hours passed with old Broadway coming to life through her brilliantly raconteured experiences. I saw her perform her Sondheim at the Cafe Carlyle a couple of years ago. The voice might not have been what it was, but her undertsanding of what it means to stand on a stage and give a performance were unrivalled, still. There will not be another Elaine Stritch. And our world will be poorer for that.