What's New on the Rialto
Elaine Stritch: Still Here and The End of Pretend
Book Reviews by David Levy
The two booksthe aforementioned Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch by Jacobs, and Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend by John Belleach 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 overlapBell 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 pointand the beautyof his project.
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 herand who also on more than one occasion had enough of herpresent 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 firstI 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 Stritchor those who wonder why others seem so devoted to herwill surely enjoy both.
Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch By Alexandra Jacobs