Stritch woke us up, and brought down the house | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Stritch woke us up, and brought down the house

BY JERRY TALLMER   |  There was a time when the only thing I could tell you about Elaine Stritch was that she was a virgin perpetually on the verge. A professional virgin.

You know, good, tall, clever, skinny Catholic girl out of Birmingham, Michigan. Goes with everybody (Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzara, etc.); sleeps with nobody. Well, maybe with Gazzara, her apartment mate, once in a while.

Elaine Stritch in 1973.

Elaine Stritch in 1973.

Oh, and has a slight drinking problem.

Then one day in 1970 there’s a screening of the making of a cast recording of the Broadway show “Company,” with Sondheim and Prince and Furth and all the other big names sourly riding herd on Elaine Stritch attacking and re-attacking herself, and (the next day) bitterly re-re-attacking composer Sondheim’s ultra-cynical “The Ladies Who Lunch”; until she’d at last got it to suit not only Sondheim & Co. (& “Company”) but Stritch herself:

Another long exhausting day
Another thousand dollars
A matinee, a Pinter play,
Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s
I’ll drink to that,
And one for Mahler!

It of course also signified Stritch’s own battle cry of freedom from booze, or almost. In any event, she was now more and more the spokesperson for the walking wounded in everything she touched much less sang, at the Carlyle and everywhere else in the world. And she was always what Nora Ephron (and Nora’s screenwriting mother Phoebe Ephron) would have called “good copy.”

There came an opportunity to interview her “in depth.” By telephone. Just call her at the Carlyle at midnight. That’s right, midnight. The Carlyle is where she lives. And, on occasion, performs.

So I did that. Miss Elaine Stritch, please. And was put through.

We got talking.

“This Pennebaker thinks he knows more than he knows,” she said of the talented documentary filmmaker with whom she’d been working all day and most of the night. “But he’s learning.”

Everybody in show business is a little saltier than everyone else, but Elaine Stritch, who went home to Michigan to die a year ago, was saltier and smarter — and taller — than almost anyone else.

Now she is gone for good, out there in Michigan, last Thursday, at 89.

The Hotel Carlyle, Madison Avenue and 76th Street, is where she and Ben Gazzara had often crossed paths during the years, long after they’d shared beds. It was where she lived and often took the stage; where hard-working Gazzara hung out in a little lounge between bar and dining room, often only a few feet apart from one another, he and she reading and scribbling away on their separate concerns.

Occasionally they would address one another, but only occasionally and tersely. Stritch had long since made a wry joke out of having dropped the dynamic Ben Gazzara from her life in favor of a tall, handsome — and oh yes, stud — movie star named Rock Hudson…“and we all know how that turned out.”

She woke us up, and so did Ben Gazzara, now more than two years dead himself. All she had to do — he had to do — was walk out on stage — break into the goings on — bring down the house.

A Stritch in time…

Thank you, Elaine. Thank you, Ben… .