Book Reviews


Ethel Merman: A Life
By Brian Kellow

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman
By Caryl Flinn

Book Reviews by Sarah Boslaugh

Ethel Merman: A Life

Brass Diva

If Ethel Merman had never existed, Gerard Alessandrini would have had to invent her. Her star shone brightly in her day, but may shine even brighter today as she has come to represent the golden age of the Broadway musical and the embodiment of everything that many critics see as lacking in today's derivative and technology-driven productions populated by well-trained but personality-free performers. Of course, that's not an entirely fair characterization of the current state of the musical stage, but the continuing references to Merman in successive versions of Forbidden Broadway does suggest that something is lacking in current performers and productions which would be more obvious targets for satire. Namely, they don't have sufficiently distinctive qualities to give a satirist anything to work with. That's a charge which could never be laid against Merman, who had sufficient sense of humor about her public persona to appear as a parody of herself long after her glory days were over: my first memory of her is in the 1980 film Airplane!, where she played a shell-shocked servicemen who suffers from the delusion that he's Ethel Merman.

As pointed out by Brian Kellow, author of one of the two new Merman biographies to hit the shelves in time for the Christmas season, Merman had the good grace to be born in an era when there was a market for her particular talents. She came of age in the days when Broadway musicals were star-driven productions dominated by larger-than-life personalities, when voices were big and characterizations bigger, and there were so many new shows opening each season that even a secretary from Astoria with no musical or dramatic training could get an audition with the Gershwins. And, if that secretary had enough stage presence to hold the audience's attention and a voice powerful enough to be heard in the upper balconies, she could become the biggest star of them all. Merman qualified on both counts and pursued her career with extraordinary drive and self-discipline. The rest, as they say, is history.

Surprisingly, Merman has not been well-served by biographers until this year (the centennial of her birth): previously there have been as-told-to memoirs, a 1985 bio by Bob Thomas and a 2005 bio by the self-described "walking encyclopedia of show business" Geoffrey Mark, none of which could be called either scholarly or thorough. However, the almost-simultaneous appearance of Brian Kellow's Ethel Merman: A Life and Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman by Caryl Flinn should satisfy just about anyone's needs for information, interpretation or anecdotes about Merman for years to come. Be warned, however, that neither book is a gossip fest: both are professional in tone and approach and debunk at least as many juicy Merman legends as they endorse.

The books are well-researched and clearly written, but sufficiently different in style and approach that hardcore Merman fans will want to read both. Kellow's book is a readable and straightforward biographical account of Merman and her career, with particular attention paid to her unique vocal qualities (he is a writer for Opera News) and to placing her into the context of the professional theatre and cinema of the time. His volume is more than 200 pages shorter than Flinn's and much breezier in style as well, and I mean that in the nicest way: once you start reading you'll find it difficult to put down.

Caryl Flinn has produced a weightier volume, both in terms of size and in literary style, and she places greater emphasis on interpreting Merman the phenomenon in sociological terms. There's a lot of valuable information in Flinn's volume, including an extensive summary of her early film work; the amount of historical detail is perhaps twice that of Kellow's book. Scholars will appreciate Flinn's attention to detail, and it makes this work a valuable reference tool. Besides, if she is telling you more than you ever wanted to know about uncertainties regarding the date of one of Merman's divorces (she was married four times) or the location of her childhood home, those passages are easily skipped over.

Flinn's book comes out ahead in the extras category. Kellow includes 16 pages of black-and-white photographs, while Flinn includes 32. Flinn's book is meticulously endnoted in academic style, while Kellow relies on more general notes which make tracing the sources for some of his statements tricky. Keller includes credits for Merman's Broadway appearances and a select list of her television appearances and major acting awards, while Flinn includes a discography and filmography as well as Merman's Broadway credits.

The real difference between the two books, however, is style. People vary in their tolerance of academic writing on popular subjects, and my particular tolerance level is pretty low (use of the term "gaze" in the context of men making judgments about women's appearance invariably triggers the alarm on my Academic Pretense Detector), so Flinn's persistence in interpreting Merman's career through the lens of modern feminism tends to grate on my nerves. I know she is a professor of Women's Studies and Media Arts at the University of Arizona, but does she have to keep proving it to us? However, some people like that sort of thing, and I'm a biostatistician by training so maybe I just don't understand. In the interests of fairness, I'll just present a sample passage and let you judge for yourself:

"To say that women's looks are under the microscope is not news, and the gaze on female entertainers is particularly intense. Young beauties are described in terms of otherworldly features or transcendent glamour, but as divas age, critics use new words to describe them, focusing on their suddenly fleshy, gravity-influenced bodies." (Flinn p. 210)

If this passage appeals to you (and bear in mind that it carries on for several more pages, noting changes in Merman's appearance and the various ways she was described by journalists as she aged), then Flinn's book should be right up your alley. If you find it tedious and would rather read more about Merman's professional life and form your own interpretations of the society in which she lived and worked, Kellow's book should be more your style. Either way, you are sure to learn a lot more about Ethel Merman than you know right now.



Ethel Merman: A Life
By Brian Kellow
New York: Viking Adult, November, 2007
Hardcover, 336 pages $25.95
ISBN-10: 0670018295
ISBN-13: 978-0670018291

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman
By Caryl Flinn
Berkeley: University of California Press, November 30, 2007
Hardcover, 540 pages $34.95
ISBN-10: 0520229428
ISBN-13: 978-0520229426