Elaine Stritch cooks in the mid-day sun, long-necked and busy at her courtyard table at the Bel Air hotel. She eats chopped fruit from a large plastic Zip-lock bag. Stritch stretches back one hundred years, a true star of the American stage, and a hallowed prize on any of her rare television appearances. She is a cauldron of Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Coral Browne, Estelle Getty and Beatrice Arthur – her creaky tough-nut croak of a voice is loud enough to fill the hotel foyer. She is a blasé broad of yesteryear – so funny that people hope that she will soon stop talking. She has the rare distinction of ducking commercial speculations unless they please her own infallible critical guide.
'Y-y-y-yes ?' she looks up at me as I approach her table.
'My name is Morrissey,' I start off .
'That's a funny name sit down,' she orders – minus any commas.
Like the very best of them, the face of Elaine Stritch never twitches at her own lightning wit, and she remains stonefaced even whilst delivering the most rafter-quaking retort. All of her acting takes place around her mouth and eyes. The body doesn’t do much. We sit and talk for an hour, and I explain that I had seen her on stage in New York in a play called A Delicate Balance.
'Oh, yeh,' she says, midway between gruff and boredom (but probably very interested), and I remind her of her harrowingly funny contributions to BBC Radio’s Just a Minute with Kenneth Williams.
'Oh yeh,' she looks away,’I remember him,’ she coughs, suddenly a commendable wreck.
I can imagine Elaine in the heat of disagreements to be savage and pitiless – ‘calling ’em as she sees ’em’ – with useful enemies trampled to death. Elaine is here in Los Angeles to film an episode of the television comedy Third Rock fromthe Sun. ‘Come along and watch what time shall I pick you up andwhat’s your home address ?’
Elaine’s studio car pulls up at Sweetzer the following day and off we go to the television studio in Burbank. Elaine is given a mobile-home dressing room, but as I step in she tells me to step out. ‘No, you go and busy yourself leave me alonefor awhile,’ and she grabs another Zip-lock bag of fruit and slams the door. I am not offended. I understand the tubercular theatrical typhus of one such as Elaine Stritch, who acts as if she had fought under the Sultan of Turkey (and probably had). The crushing replies to silly questions were all part of the ungovernable control, and the overreaching frenzy of rage is high altar in the depth and sweep of theater. It isn’t friendly, it is a substitute for intimacy, and even if it seems overdone you will still accept it as a passionate experience of truth. The art of the put-down is in no hands more capable than those of Elaine Stritch.
'Did you ever know Richard Conte ?' I ask, like a bouncing cheerleader.
'Oh, STOP it,' she says, a square of watermelon jumping into her mouth, ‘how many thousands of years old do you thinkI am?’
On set, Elaine introduces me to a host of people whom I do not know and who do not want to know me – because Elaine is in the room and her gift occupies space with volcanic power. A constant interrupter, Elaine wants it known that she has been there first – as she has, irrespective of where ‘it’ might be. The monumental face is a wretchedness that is great, and, because she has never learned how to be timid, she points the way for all assembled technicians and actors. She knows herself and she knows her worth, and we all spend our entire lives in search of such prizes.
'Ah, the very best,' says the star of Third Rock from the Sun, John Lithgow, as he extends his hand to mine but has already raced past before I have time to return a single word. A herd of bison encircles Elaine, and I back away as she is led to her mark on the set. The episode is called ‘My Mother, My Dick’, which I assume to be a pun on Nancy Friday’s famous My Mother, Myself book. I watch the live taping from a secret spot side-stage, where French Stewart, who seems to act with his eyes closed, paces the room whilst running his lines through his head. Elaine is enviably brilliant, and gets a huge roar from the audience each time she belts out a contemptuous snap of dialogue. She is a great success. I slip away without saying goodbye because I feel like excess baggage. A week later a handwritten letter arrives from Elaine, and I reply, but she then doesn’t.