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Elaine Stritch dead: Broadway and cabaret star was 89

Elaine Stritch.

Elaine Stritch. Credit: Ari Mintz

Elaine Stritch, whose spiky persona and riveting artistry captivated Broadway for more than seven decades, died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. She was 89.

Although she was raised a strict Roman Catholic in Detroit, her sophistication, crankiness and wit were so inextricable from Manhattan that it was hard to imagine Stritch without New York and vice versa. Her performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" became the gold standard for this devastating song about rich, idle Manhattan wives.

She won an Emmy -- one of three -- for being more ornery than her son as Alec Baldwin's mother on NBC's "30 Rock."

She shocked the theater world when, in 2013, she announced she was leaving the posh Carlyle Hotel where she had lived for a decade and moving to a condo in suburban Michigan to be closer to her nieces and nephews.

At 88, a broken hip, worsening diabetes and reports of small strokes had taken a toll, as did years of drinking that were followed by years of not drinking.

"It's scary up there," she said in "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," the autobiographical solo that earned her only Tony Award, in 2002 (she was nominated five times). "You are scared. You drink. You aren't scared. What's the problem?"

That show, like her other performances, was marked by brutal honesty, impeccable delivery and the allure of a complicated but beguiling interior life.

In the show, as in her cabaret acts, she wore a trademark long white man-tailored shirt and black tights on the skinniest legs this side of a bird sanctuary. And she dangled them around like a woman who remembered what it meant to get a charge out of adolescence.The solo, which also won an Emmy as an HBO special, was playfully described as having been "constructed" by New Yorker critic John Lahr and "reconstructed" by Stritch. "This is a play about Elaine Stritch," she joked. "I was right for it and I got the part." With her comic mouth and serious eyes, the marvelous raconteur never flinched from the less delightful details of her fascinating life.

Her emotional timing was immortalized in DA Pennebaker's 1970 documentary on the making of the cast album of "Company." Although she always preferred theater to film, she appeared in a number of movies, including Woody Allen's "September."She was as disciplined and as outrageous in plays as in musicals, as anyone knows who saw her in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee's "Delicate Balance" and as the crone in a trash can in the 2008 revival of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame."

Both her personal and professional lives were filled with surprises. She told wonderful stories about surprisingly innocent but seductive diversions with JFK and Marlon Brando. She married John Bay, whose family owned the Bay's English muffin company. He died of brain cancer in 1982.

She made her final Broadway appearance in 2010, succeeding Angela Lansbury in "A Little Night Music." Stritch was amazing at 85, cast wildly against type as the aging high-class courtesan.

Chiemi Karasawa, who directed the 2013 documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," said the biggest surprise about the star was "her incredible vulnerability. . . . It is almost like every new opening is her first one. I think that's why she is so good. She's terrified to be bad or mediocre."

Memory glitches appeared more frequently in recent years and they clearly offended her daunting sense of professionalism. "There's something that really frightens me," she said to the celebrity-filled audience at her last cabaret at the Carlyle. "And that is fear."

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