Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

Elaine Stritch: Still Here and The End of Pretend
Book Reviews by David Levy

Still Here: The Madcap,
Nervy, Singular Life of
Elaine Stritch

By Alexandra Jacobs
There are a lot of words that come to mind when thinking of Elaine Stritch. In the subtitle of Alexandra Jacobs's new biography of the late star, we get "madcap," "nervy," and "singular." But the words I keep returning to are "a lot." As in, Elaine Stritch was a lot. She had a lot of personality, she demanded a lot of energy from those in her orbit, and she had a lot of big stories about her life, some of which were even true. So, while it may seem like a lot to have two new books about Stritch on shelves this month, it makes a lot of sense that such a figure can't be contained within the pages of just one tome.

The two books—the aforementioned Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch by Jacobs, and Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend by John Bell—each offer the reader a different window into who Stritch was, and by doing so they help create a more complete portrait of a complex woman. From Jacobs, we get a fairly traditional biography, based on work with archives and interviews with those who knew her, that presents the outlines of Stritch's life and the accomplishments of her career presented by a journalist. From Bell, we get an intimate portrait of the last years of a diva who never quite reached the stratosphere of superstardom, told from the perspective of an acquaintance in the process of becoming a friend.

Each book is distinct, and each worth reading, although I don't know that I suggest anyone read them back to back, as I did. There is certainly overlap—Bell manages to include quite a bit of Stritch's biography in his account, although it's more often presented through the questionable lens of Stritch's own telling than through the researched lens of journalist Jacobs. Most of the biographical details Bell includes will be familiar to anyone who's seen Stritch's acclaimed one-woman show, At Liberty. But to come to Bell's book seeking facts and timelines is to miss the point—and the beauty—of his project.

Elaine Stritch:
The End of Pretend

By John Bell
Bell is a musical theatre academic (currently serving as the head of the division of performing arts at DeSales University). In the opening of his book, he details his first encounter with Stritch as a fan, and how he extended their relationship by interviewing her for The Sondheim Review and inviting her to give a master class at his campus. Despite what this necessary framing might imply, Bell knows that we aren't reading the book to learn about him, and he only makes himself visible enough for the reader to understand Stritch's reactions. He knows that no one shared her spotlight, not if she could help it, and he isn't about to attempt to do that himself now that she's not around to protest. If in a few moments it feels like he's bragging a tiny bit, it's forgivable. If Elaine Stritch asked you to sing the man's part in "You're Just in Love" so she could rehearse, you'd dine out on that story for years, too.

Bell also makes it clear that Stritch knew he was keeping notes for an eventual book, a project he says she endorsed. Jacobs relates that Stritch herself attempted to write her memoirs on more than one occasion (and used the remaining notes from those attempts to inform her own project), so it seems clear that Stritch had her legacy in mind. That said, neither book shies away from subjects Stritch herself might have been uncomfortable discussing or unable to document herself: both speculate on her sexual orientation (likely bisexual, although it's unclear if she ever acted on those feelings) and her disordered eating. Bell in particular offers a window into what Stritch's darkest moods looked like, and seeing the way she could mistreat those who were around to help her is every bit as sad and terrifying as you might imagine.

But a surprising tenderness surfaces in Bell's account as we see her take on a maternal mode to her young assistants, even defending them against some racist "ladies who lunch" in Birmingham, Michigan. These unguarded moments, observed first-hand in Stritch's final apartment, give Bell insights that Jacobs had no way of accessing. At times, his book feels a little repetitive, both because of the stories repeated from At Liberty and because of stories repeated within the book, but even this gives you a sense of sharing space with Stritch in her waning years. She knew her best material and was known to recycle it.

Where Jacobs's book has the advantage is, of course, in the research. A veteran New York Times writer, editor, and cultural critic, she is well-situated to not only tell the story of Elaine Stritch's life but to explicate why it's a story worth reading. Her resources included not only Stritch's papers (and her surviving family members and colleagues), but also the hours of interviews Stritch had recorded in preparing what would become At Liberty. Jacobs clearly had fun attempting to untangle Stritch's self-made myths from what really happened, to the extent one ever can. And if the full force of Stritch's personality isn't quite as visible, the remembrances of past colleagues who clearly both loved and feared her—and who also on more than one occasion had enough of her—present a picture of a woman who was complicated and often self-defeating from the very start of her career onward.

There are times when I found myself wishing Jacobs had shifted her focus. She's a little too interested in Stephen Sondheim (who appears to have had a collegial relationship with Stritch that wasn't much closer than any two people who worked together and at times ran in the same circles), and I found myself wishing instead for a deeper look at the longer and much more important friendship Stritch shared with Liz Smith. And while it's fun to learn that Stritch had a running complaint about Angela Lansbury having the career she wanted, it's hard to know if that was a deeply held jealousy or just a recurring bit Elaine would do. Regardless, I was mortified to read that Jacobs asked Lansbury about Stritch's envy. (Lansbury handled the conversation with grace, but it's cringy to read!)

Still, my quibbles with the book are slight, and by and large it does right by its subject. It would be easy to let Stritch's personality overshadow her professional accomplishment, but Jacobs makes it clear the ways in which Stritch excelled on stage. I think I might have enjoyed Still Here more had I read it first—I was so taken with The End of Pretend that it was hard to pick up another book about Stritch immediately following it. But, ultimately, the scope of Still Here and the emotion of The End of Pretend complement each other well, and fans of Elaine Stritch—or those who wonder why others seem so devoted to her—will surely enjoy both.

Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch By Alexandra Jacobs
352 Pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing date: October 22, 2019
ISBN: 9780374268091
Available in Hardcover Book/Kindle Edition/Audiobook on CD/Audible Audiobook

Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend By John Bell
241 Pages
Publishing date: October 22, 2019
Available in Paperback and Kindle Edition