Toastmistress to Ladies Who Lunch Everywhere Has Left the Building

Elaine Stritch. | MICHAEL SHIREY

Elaine Stritch. | MICHAEL SHIREY

Elaine Stritch, the legendary Broadway actress who won a 2002 Tony for her one-woman show but may be best known to young audiences as Alec Baldwin’s mother on NBC’s “30 Rock,” died on July 17. Having long contended with diabetes and more recently stomach cancer, the 89-year-old Stritch gave up her longtime home at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel last year in order to be closer to her extended family in Birmingham, Michigan.

In one of her final interviews, given in connection with the release early this year of Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” she talked to Gay City News about working with Stephen Sondheim, the song of his that became her anthem, drinking, her “sack of rocks,” and her hopes of returning to the New York stage.

Asked about the scene in “Shoot Me” where she struggled to perfect her recording of “Ladies Who Lunch,” from Sondheim’s 1970 “Company,” in which she starred on Broadway and in London, Stritch said, “It was like, goddammit, I’m gonna get this right if it’s the last fucking thing I do in this world. I don’t care who knows because I think it’s a triumph. It’s wonderful to feel that way about your work. That you’ll do anything to get it right. Besides murder.”

She added, “I finally got that right and it satisfied Steve [Sondheim], that son of a bitch… Oh my God, what a tough guy he was to work with. But I was pleased as punch that he’s a perfectionist.”

Given that Stritch became so identified with that song, it was natural to ask her about a comment she made to the New York Times Magazine that, despite struggles she acknowledged with alcohol, she drinks when lunching with rich ladies in Birmingham because you “can’t enjoy them sober.”

Her response was vintage Stritch: “I can’t really enjoy anybody sober. I don’t want the ladies in Birmingham to take all the blame. I love the ladies in Birmingham. I say things like that with love and understanding…. There are ladies who lunch absolutely everywhere, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They get bored in Birmingham. They get bored in Poughkeepsie. They get bored in Toledo. We’ve all got dreams. We want to go places and do things. And I’m one of ‘em. I found a way to get through those long lunches and a couple of drinks will do it every time.”

Karasawa’s film followed Stritch verité style through everyday routines she undertook during her last several years in New York. Explaining how she mustered the courage to expose herself to that kind of scrutiny, the actress said, “I learned a long time ago that secrets are dangerous. As soon as you’ve got a secret, something’s bound to go wrong. What are you afraid of, for Christ’s sake? I don’t care, I’m not afraid of anybody. I want to follow my truth. I’ve been there, done that, and got a million T-shirts.”

In “Shoot Me,” Stritch recalled her late husband, John Bay, saying, “Everyone’s got their own sack of rocks.” Her own, she told Gay City News, was “a serious operation ahead of me. That’s a sack of rocks I’d rather not play with. I’m going to say my prayers — whichever religion I have yet to hang onto — keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. I want to live as long it takes to do everything I have to do on this earth before I leave the building.”

Asked whether fans could hope to see her back on the New York stage, despite her “retirement” in Michigan, Stritch said, “Absolutely! I’m doing a couple of readings. I certainly intend to find a new play, God willing. If I’m in good shape healthwise, I’m yours.”

Unfortunately, this time the sack of rocks proved too much for an indomitable spirit. Several months after her surgery to treat the stomach cancer, Stritch died in her sleep in her Birmingham condo. At 7:45 p.m. on July 18, Broadway marquees were dimmed in her memory.