The Broadway actress who brought sass to the stage

Elaine Stritch 1925–2014

Elaine Stritch, the tart-tongued stage and film actress, was never shy about her fondness for a cocktail or two. “I love to drink,” she once said, “and it’s part of my life.” Stephen Sondheim wrote her signature song, “Ladies Who Lunch,” a vodkasoaked anthem from his 1970 musical Company, after Stritch was overheard instructing a bartender to give her “a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.” But throughout her decades-long battle with alcoholism—she stopped drinking in her 60s, only to take it up again in her 80s—Stritch’s professionalism never slipped. A 1970 documentary captures the actress struggling to perform “Ladies Who Lunch” for an album recording and screaming, “Oh, shut up,” about her own voice. When she returns to the studio the next day, Stritch nails the number in a single triumphant take. “You pull through these things,” she explained, “because you cannot quit.”

Born in Detroit, Stritch knew from a young age “that she wanted a show business career,” said The New York Times. Chafing at her devout Catholic upbringing, she moved to New York City at 17 and made her Broadway debut in the 1946 flop Loco. Stritch soon found her calling in musical theater, which was surprising, said the Los Angeles Times, because her singing voice was “affectionately compared to a car shifting gears without the clutch.” She won rave reviews for her been-there, done-that sass in musicals by Sondheim and Noel Coward, and Emmys for her guest appearances in TV’s Law & Order and 30 Rock.

But the high point of her career came in 2001, with the debut of Elaine Stritch at Liberty in New York City, which “became, quite simply, the bar-none standard set for theatrical solo shows,” said Entertainment Weekly. The production wove together showstopping tunes with anecdotes from a life in showbiz—including how her acting school classmate Marlon Brando stopped talking to her after she declined his invitation to go to bed—delivered with her trademark acerbic wit. “There’s good news and bad news,” she told her audience. “The good: I have a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad: I’ve had it for 45 years.”

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