Brassy and Tart-Tongued, Elaine Stritch Dies at Birmingham Home

A star on both the big and small screens, the Detroit-born actress was most at home on the stage, where she was noted for her acrid delivery. “She takes a wicked stance, purses her mouth thoughtfully and waits long enough to devastate the landscape,”

Elaine Stritch died Thursday at her home in Birmingham at the age of 89. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty )
Elaine Stritch died Thursday at her home in Birmingham at the age of 89. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty )

Elaine Stritch, the brassy, whiskey-voiced and brassy Tony Award-winning Broadway actress and singer whose career spanned more than six decades, died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, She was 89.

Announcing her death, The New York Times said she was “a living emblem of show business durability.”

A native Detroiter, Stritch moved to Birmingham last year after living for many years among the glitterati at Manhattan’s famed Carlyle Hotel.

She had a litany of movie and television credits, including Emmy Award-winning roles on “30 Rock” and “Law & Order,” but her commanding presence was most felt on stages from New York’s Broadway to London’s West End, Reuters said.

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She won her only Tony Award in 2001 for a one-woman show “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” in which she combined some of her favorite songs with autobiographical reminiscences with love affairs with pre-presidential John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Gig Young, Ben Gazzara and Rock Hudson, The Washington Post reports.

She was nominated four other times for Tony Awards during a long career in which she worked with some of the industry’s best.

Noel Coward, who affectionately called her “Stritchie,” built the 1961 musical “Sail Away” around her Tony-nominatd role role as Mimi Paragon. Her admirers also included Stephen Sondheim,  whose “The Ladies Who Lunch,” part of the score for his 1970 musical, “Company,” Stritch adopted as her signature song. Stritch was earned a Tony nomination for that role, and for roles in William Inge’s “Bus Stop” and Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

Her departure from New York was a dramatic exit that shocked the theatrical circle in the city that named her a living landmark in 2003.

When she returned home to Detroit last fall, she was in ”spectacularly frail health” and still capable of a theaterical entrance, The New York Times said in a story last fall. Recovering from a broken hip suffered in one of a series of spills, she joked that she hadn’t given life out of the spotlight much thought because she had been “too busy falling down.”

“It’s like a comedy,” she said at the time, “only a not so funny one.”

She enjoyed her reputation as a good-time girl and once spoke of her zest for alcohol and cigarettes, which she gave up in her 60s then started agan, in the first person to a reporter for The Times in 1968.

“I’m not a bit opposed to your mentioning in this article that Frieda Fun here has had a reputation in the theater, for the past five or six years, for drinking,” she said. “I drink and I love to drink, and it’s part of my life.”

Her persona accompanied her onstage in a sweeping career that began in 1944. She made her Broadway debut with “Loco” in 1946, and her most notable credits included the 1952 revival of the Rodgers and Hart/John O’Hara musical “Pal Joey,” in which she played a tough-talking reporter who interviewed Gypsy Rose Lee in Song. She brought the house down with her striptease parody “Zip,” The Times said.

Her acrid delivery as a silent film star in the 1958 musical “Goldilocks” established a reputation that would define her career:

“Miss Stritch can destroy life throughout the country with the twist she gives to the dialogue,” The Times’s critic at the time, Brooks Atkinson , wrote. “She takes a wicked stance, purses her mouth thoughtfully and waits long enough to devastate the landscape.”

The youngest of three daughters of  an executive for B.F. Goodrich, Stritch was born in Detroit on Feb. 2, 1925, and grew up privileged among Birmingham’s elite. Her father sent her to a Catholic school and then to a finishing school before the aspiring actress skipped town at 17 to star her career.

“All that crap about extending the pinkie finger while sipping tea is a myth,” she told People magazine, according to the account in The Washington Post. “Convent schools are breeding grounds for great broads and occasionally one-of-the-boys. Convent schools teach you to play against everything, which is what I’m still doing.”

Sue Czarnecki July 18, 2014 at 02:21 PM
I saw Elaine last year at WSU's Drama School when she won an Apple Award. At 88, although her memory was failing her & in a wheelchair, she still had "stage presence" & spunk. She had a ton of stories & was feisty as could be during the Q & A. I will miss her ... as will Broadway.


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