Elaine Stritch, brash stage legend, dies at the age of 89

NEW YORK: Elaine Stritch, the brash theatre performer, whose gravely, gin-laced voice and impeccable comic timing made her a Broadway legend, has died. She was 89. Joseph Rosenthal, Stritch’s longtime attorney, said the actress died on Thursday of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. Although Stritch appeared in movies and on television, garnering three Emmys and finding new fans as Alec Baldwin’s unforgiving mother on “30 Rock”, she was best known for her stage work, particularly in her candid one-woman memoir, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” and in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company”.

A tart-tongued monument to New York show business endurance, Stritch worked well into her late 80s, most recently as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music”. She replaced Angela Lansbury in 2010 to critical acclaim. In 2013, Stritch — whose signature “no pants” style was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights — retired to Michigan after 71 years in New York City and made a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel: “Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out”. She said she suffered from diabetes, a broken hip and memory loss — all of which she nakedly and unapologetically documented in the film “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”, a documentary released in February.

“I like the courage of age,” Stritch said in the film, one she participated in grudgingly. One scene captured her in a hospital bed, reflecting: “It’s time for me, and I can feel it everywhere.” Stritch’s death immediately sent shockwaves through Broadway and entertainment. Lena Dunham said on Twitter, “Here’s to the lady who lunched: Elaine Stritch, we love you. May your heaven be a booze-soaked, no-pants solo show at the Carlyle.” Stritch was a striking woman, with a quick wit, a shock of blond hair and great legs. She showed them off most elegantly in “At Liberty”, wearing a loose fitting white shirt, high heels and black tights.

In the show, the actress told the story of her life — with all its ups, downs and in-betweens. She frankly discussed her stage fright, missed showbiz opportunities, alcoholism, battle with diabetes and love life, all interspersed with songs she often sang onstage. “What’s this all been about then — this existential problem in tights,” Stritch said of herself at the end of the solo show, which opened off-Broadway in November 2001, transferred to Broadway the following February and later toured. It earned her a Tony Award in 2002 and an Emmy when it was later televised on HBO. “I think I know what I have been doing up here tonight. I’ve been reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn’t honestly and truly there for,” she said.

“It almost all happened without me but I caught up.” In “Company” (1970), Stritch played the acerbic Joanne, delivering a lacerating version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” a classic Sondheim song dissecting the modern Manhattan matron. Stritch originated the role in New York and then appeared in the London production. Among her other notable Broadway appearances were as Grace, the owner of a small-town Kansas restaurant in William Inge’s “Bus Stop” (1955), and as a harried cruise-ship social director in the Noel Coward musical “Sail Away” (1961). She also appeared in revivals of “Show Boat” (1994), in which she played the cantankerous Parthy Ann Hawks, and Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1996), portraying a tart-tongued, upper-crust alcoholic.

Each generation found her relevant and hip. She was parodied in 2010 on an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Lisa Simpson attends a fancy performing arts camp. One class was on making wallets with Elaine Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stritch got a kick out of it. “That’s worth being in the business for 150 years,” she said with a laugh. Stritch’s films include “A Farewell to Arms” (1957), “Who Killed Teddy Bear?” (1965), Alain Resnais’ “Providence” (1977), “Out to Sea” (1997), and Woody Allen’s “September” (1987) and “Small Time Crooks” (2000). She also appeared in many American TV series, most notably a guest spot on “Law & Order” in 1990, which won Stritch her first Emmy. Back in 1950, she played Trixie, Ed Norton’s wife, in an early segment of “The Honeymooners,” then a recurring sketch on Jackie Gleason’s variety show “Cavalcade of Stars.” But she was replaced by Joyce Randolph after one appearance.

More than a half-century later, Stritch was back at the top of the sitcom pyramid with a recurring role in “30 Rock,” winning her another Emmy in 2007 as best guest actress in a comedy. She was also well known to TV audiences in England, where she starred with Donald Sinden in the sitcom “Two’s Company” (1975-79), playing an American mystery writer to Sinden’s unflappable British butler. Stritch also starred in “Nobody’s Perfect” (1980-1982), appearing with Richard Griffiths in this British version of the American hit “Maude.”

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