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'Still Here' review: Intoxicating bio of Elaine Stritch

For company in an early New York apartment,

For company in an early New York apartment, Elaine Stritch maintained a large collection of European dolls.  (1950-55)   Credit: New York Public Library

STILL HERE: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch by Alexandra Jacobs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pp., $27)

Broadway biographies bring with them a certain expectation of bright lights and booze, hard-edged glamour and gossip. When the subject in question is the legendary Elaine Stritch, amp those expectations up tenfold, and add in an armload of cussing. Luckily, under debut author Alexandra Jacobs’ serene and critical hand, "Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch" also offers vulnerability alongside vulgarity and authenticity alongside the expected avarice.

Stritch died in 2014 at 89, and spent seven decades under stage lights. Jacobs utilizes the massive cache of information the actress left in her wake, including copious interviews and her archives. This meticulous research allows for the conjuring of a surprising and complex realness that serves as a deep and resounding undercurrent to the public persona so widely known. There is nothing necessarily explosive or sensational here, though there are plenty of big names (Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Angela Lansbury among them); it is the way Jacobs tracks the quiet darknesses of Stritch’s private life that gives this book its teeth.

Lainey, as she was nicknamed, was born in Detroit in 1925, under the tight hand of Prohibition and the height of the American car craze, the third of three sisters and daughter to a B.F. Goodrich executive. ““When Elaine was born, the chandeliers shook, and they never stopped,” [her sister] Georgene became fond of saying.” The same can be said for this biography, which dashes and darts from scene to scene with dizzying speed at times. Names, places and details are carried forth on the forceful flow of Stritch’s energy. She seems always to be searching for the right boyfriend, acting studio, apartment, nightclub or gig, trading up as quickly as she was able, yet never attaining the recognition she craved.

Jacobs captures Stritch’s ambivalent relationship with stardom early on. “Once, shut out on the porch to play and at a loss for how to amuse herself, Elaine fatally swatted enough flies to spell out her name. It was her way of supposing her name in lights,” according to her friend Julie Keyes. “And that’s what billing is about,” Elaine told her. “Dead [expletive] flies.” Doomed to a seemingly endless string of understudy, matinee or summer stock versions of coveted roles, Stritch leaned on her humor and smarts instead of looks, and increasingly used champagne and vodka stingers to self-medicate a debilitating performance anxiety.

In the chapter “From Star Maid to Bar Maid," Jacobs charts what she calls Stritch’s “absolute nadir.” Her drinking — on stage and off — had made Stritch a bad bet on Broadway. She was 43, and though she’d had a string of boyfriends, there was no lasting love and no children; she was in debt, her dog died, and then, “on June 22, 1969, Judy Garland’s fifth husband had found Judy dead, at 47, sitting on the toilet in their London home.” The death shook her. Only after Stritch’s friend, Lee Israel, wrote a rousing profile of her (and her fabled alcoholism) in The New York Times, did Hal Prince, “Broadway hitmaker,” call Stritch and invite her to be part of his new musical. "Company," the masterful acidic exploration of New York marriages, brought Stritch together with Sondheim, and propelled her to the next, and most powerful, act of her storied career.

Stritch often joked with her close friend and confidant, gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, whether it was better for a woman to be beautiful or funny, as if those were their only options. (“Funny,” Stritch reported to Kilgallen during a 3 a.m. phone call.) The power of Jacobs’ biography is the way she sets Stritch’s story against the canvas of a shifting century, allowing us to watch as the world expands beyond these limiting boxes for female performers, and cheer as Stritch was able to expand herself. After "Company," Jacobs observes, Stritch was finally “free of being a romantic lead, she could be a heroine.” She was all along, of course. It just took the world seven decades to notice.

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