The Lady Who Lunched

07.17.14

Elaine Stritch Pinched My Butt and Changed My Life

The tart-tongued icon of stage and screen died Thursday, leaving behind a legacy marked by her candor, unpredictable nature, and refusal to be boring.

Elaine Stritch pinched my butt once. It’s why I have this job.

I was just a young 'un in college and was a reporting intern for Us Weekly magazine, which meant that I was sent to red carpet events the real (paid) reporters didn’t want to go to. At one Broadway premiere I was sent to cover, I interviewed Elaine Stritch, who called me adorable and then pinched my butt. And, though she’ll never know it—Stritch sadly passed away Thursday at the age of 89 and had to cancel a recent interview we had scheduled because she was ill—she changed my life.

The famously tart-tongued Broadway and screen actress was such a gas to talk to that our lively conversation became the benchmark I challenged myself to reach with every interview. I realized that not every famous person wore their personality on their sleeve quite as proudly and unself-consciously as Stritch, but if I was any good at my job, I should be able to coax them into showing it.

But beyond that, I tell that pinched-my-butt story a lot. Obviously. I’m a musical theater dork and the icon who first gave voice to “The Ladies Who Lunch” touched my rear end during an interview. It’s a wonder I didn’t have a T-shirt made announcing it. More practically, though, the anecdote led my cover letter for every future entertainment reporting job I applied for—including this one—and is so fun that I like to think it helped get me interviews.

Now, on the sad occasion of her passing, it’s hard not to reflect on that encounter—a monumental moment for me, and I’m sure a mere fleeting one for her—and see it as exemplary of why Stritch was such an icon and so beloved. She was the world’s most famous spitfire. At a time when stars either sanitized their personalities to the point of utter blandness or confused outspokenness for offensiveness, she proved that speaking your mind and being unpredictable not only wasn’t a character flaw, but could even be a career boon.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s delighted in Stritch’s loud personality that her career started as an understudy for Broadway’s queen of belting to the rafters, Ethel Merman, in 1950’s Call Me Madam. It should also come as no surprise that Stritch’s loud personality, at times, got her in trouble.

She was initially cast as Trixie in The Honeymooners, but was fired by Jackie Gleason before the series went to air. In her 2003 one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she recounted blowing her audition to play Dorothy in Golden Girls by accidentally dropping an expletive. Poetically, when she won an Emmy for HBO’s televised version of At Liberty, she was bleeped for cursing during her acceptance speech. It was one of the best acceptance speeches ever.

But if Hollywood, at first, was wary of Stritch’s, gregarious nature, Broadway embraced it.

She starred in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, Noel Coward’s Sail Away in 1961, and, perhaps most famously, Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970. “The Ladies Who Lunch,” an ode to jaded Manhattanites, stubbornness, and vodka stingers, became one of her two signature songs.

The other, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, became one of her standards later in life, and frames the surprisingly moving and refreshing blunt documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me about her life that was released this year. The song is supposed to mark an aging actress’s transition from desperation to defiance, but performed by Stritch it was as much matter-of-fact as it was a celebration. There was never any doubt that Stritch would still be around, still electrifying the stage and screen. And she was up until only last year, when she finally left her Carlyle Hotel residence and New York City to return to her home state of Michigan to attend to her failing health.

The famously tart-tongued Broadway and screen actress was such a gas to talk to that our lively conversation became the benchmark I challenged myself to reach with every interview.

In April 2013, she performed one last show at the Café Carlyle, Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out. In its review of the show, The New York Times said, “Like Carol Channing and Liza Minnelli, she epitomizes traditional show business brass and resilience: a ‘give it all you’ve got’ dedication to entertaining.”

That dedication is evident in the sheer longevity of her career—she was playing Alec Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock well into her 80s. But it’s also clear in her own self-scrutiny. After her passing Thursday, Buzzfeed rightfully singled out Stritch’s best performance as not one on stage or in a movie (though she was quite good in Woody Allen’s September), but in a scene in a documentary that chronicled her flustered attempts at nailing a good take of “Ladies Who Lunch” for the cast recording of Company.

It’s a remarkable glimpse into Stritch’s hot-headedness, work ethic, and standards. Fighting against a tired voice that was physically incapable of delivering the song, she rebuked everyone’s kind words and attempts at making things easier, burying her head in her hands after strained takes that didn’t live up to Sondheim’s material, which she treasured having the opportunity to sing. It’s fascinating to watch her struggle, which, of course, ends in brilliance.

The best part of Stritch’s towering career, though, is how unlikely it all seemed. The convent girl from Michigan with a voice, as People remembers, “that was once compared to a car shifting gears” isn’t an obvious choice for Broadway stardom. And actresses with “a presence likened to Godzilla in a stalled elevator” don’t always thrive in the entertainment industry—certainly not at the time Stritch’s career took off. But perhaps it’s the fact that Stritch never seemed to give a lick about either of those things, and actually flouted them instead, that is the very reason she became famous. It seemed refreshing.

In fact, it shouldn’t be a wonder why, today, we’re so enamored by starlets like Lena Dunham and Jennifer Lawrence, who seemed to have learned from Stritch that biting your tongue isn’t just painful—it’s boring—and people have more respect and fondness for celebrities who don’t forget that they’re people with personalities and flaws. Or that, if they bare those flaws to us, we might actually embrace them and like them more for it.

Right before she left New York for Michigan, Stritch reflected on her career, telling The New York Times, “I had a great time, and I’m very glad it’s over. Oh, my god, it’s hard. Entertaining is hard.”

I’ll drink to that.