Actress Elaine Stritch, bold and brassy, dies at 89

Elaine Stritch performing her final engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York in 2013 with Rob Bowman at the piano.
Elaine Stritch performing her final engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York in 2013 with Rob Bowman at the piano. (WALTER McBRIDE / AP)
Posted: July 19, 2014

There were broads, and there was Elaine Stritch, the toughest, the smartest, and among the most talented of all. And she could sing.

Once called "the most dangerous actress on Broadway" - "Now that's a valentine!" she declared - Ms. Stritch died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Mich., at 89, after a seven-decade career in stage, screen, and television that wound down only last year.

Equally adept at musicals, plays, comedy, and drama, Ms. Stritch gave performances that were considered peaks in the American theater. She played outsiders (Inge's Bus Stop), truthtellers (Sondheim's Company), and women who had seen too much (Albee's A Delicate Balance). In 2002, she rolled all those personas into one in the Tony Award-winning autobiographical show Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Her solo presence easily filled the expanse of Philadelphia's Academy of Music in her 2003 post-Broadway tour. This year, she was the subject of the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

Her signature song - "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company, a sardonic social commentary on 1960s social morés - was delivered with a boozy drawl and sense of timing that was the envy of Broadway.

Though Ms. Stritch brought her trademark gravelly voice and cloud of blond hair to all her roles, she brought an individual psychological history to everything she played, whether on Broadway or regional theater. She was acclaimed for turning a classic song like "Ten Cents a Dance" into a three-dimensional character study, and she took on the enigmatic abstractions of Samuel Beckett's Endgame as recently as 2008. Today's general public probably knows her best for playing Alec Baldwin's mother on NBC's 30 Rock. Rehearsal was often an issue: She couldn't get enough.

Offstage, her life was even more entertaining. She recounted failed dates with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Her drinking buddies included Judy Garland. She could be a difficult colleague, yet her colleagues jumped at the prospect of working with her again.

"I question comedy. I have to know the reality of comedy before I can make it funny," she told the Guardian, explaining why she and 30 Rock writer Tina Fey weren't best friends.

Those who made it into her inner circle received large Christmas shipments of Bay's English Muffins in memory of her husband, John Bay, who was part of that family's business and died of brain cancer in 1982.

She never denied that her drinking habits extended into her working hours. When in Philadelphia for the 1961 out-of-town tryout of the cruise-ship musical Sail Away, chorus members were told to catch her if she faltered on the gangplank. She was just as public about stopping drinking, initially prompted by a diabetes-related near-death experience after shooting Woody Allen's 1987 film September.

Ms. Stritch maintained about two decades of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. She was quite public and uninhibited about such personal details, and was known to give herself insulin injections in public places.

In recent years, she wanted to put down roots, briefly living in Sag Harbor on Long Island but ultimately preferring hotel life at the Carlyle in Manhattan. She said she valued having people nearby due to the vagaries of her health.

But after suffering a broken hip, she said goodbye to show business in a cabaret evening at Cafe Carlyle in 2013, telling her fans, "Don't you dare feel sorry for me!" She also shocked admirers by admitting she had resumed drinking. Returning to her native Detroit, she was cared for by family in suburban Birmingham. Despite repeated falls and injuries, she never considered herself retired. "Semi!" she told one reporter.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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