Actress Elaine Stritch, ‘Her own Greatest Character,’ Dies at 89

Elaine Stritch in her final engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York in 2013. Stritch bade farewell to New York with a series of concerts last spring; she died Thursday in Michigan.

Elaine Stritch in her final engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York in 2013. Stritch bade farewell to New York with a series of concerts last spring; she died Thursday in Michigan.

Walter McBride/The O M Co./AP

Elaine Stritch — one of Broadway’s boldest and brassiest performers — has died. With that gravelly voice — and those long legs — and that utter command of the stage, Stritch was a bona fide Broadway star. Not as a classic leading lady, necessarily, but as the hardened-yet-vulnerable performer audiences couldn’t forget. Stritch died of natural causes Thursday morning at her home in Birmingham, Mich. She was 89.

In an interview with Stritch in March 2014, NPR’s Scott Simon observed that the stage and screen legend “may be her own greatest character.”

Stritch first appeared on Broadway in 1944 -- and was still performing occasionally even at age 89. She is pictured above in 1955
Stritch first appeared on Broadway in 1944 — and was still performing occasionally even at age 89. She is pictured above in 1955

In a career that stretched back to the 1940s, Stritch did it all: theater, TV, movies. She was nominated for several Tony Awards and won three Emmys. She starred in the 1961 Noel Coward musical Sail Away and the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company. (With her performance of “Ladies Who Lunch,” Sondheim said Stritch turned what he thought was “just a simple saloon song” into a “piece of theater.”

Stritch was born in Detroit, where her father was a rubber company executive. She was raised Roman Catholic and when she first moved to New York City, she went to a finishing school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Years later, Broadway producer Hal Prince said Stritch had “the guts of a jailbird” but “the convent girl is still there.”

It’s been said that Stritch could always play older than she really was. She was 20 when she sang Zip in Pal Joey but Stritch herself said she looked 40. She had a terrific sense of humor about her looks — and her age. In 1988, Stritch told NPR’s Susan Stamberg that she didn’t mind the word “aging” at all.

“It applies to everyone,” she said. “I saw a kid 16 on the street and he was aging. We’re all aging but somehow the press loves to say it when you’re over 40.”

Stritch blows up balloons as a voice training exercise in November 1954.
Stritch blows up balloons as a voice training exercise in November 1954.

Stritch was candid about everything — her age, her alcoholism, her diabetes. In her book Am I Blue?: Living with Diabetes and, Dammit, Having Fun!, she wrote about being diagnosed with the disease at the peak of her career.

“More than with any other condition I know of,” she wrote, “the diabetic simply has to understand the nature of the illness and become intimately involved in treating it.” But with her trademark wit she also said: “Diabetes is great because I can say ‘My blood sugar is off. I have to go.'”

In 2002, when she was in her late 70s, she launched a Tony Award-winning, one-woman show called Elaine Stritch at the Liberty. She continued performing well into her 80s. In 2008 Stritch won an Emmy — her third — for her role as character Jack Donaghy’s mother on NBC’s 30 Rock.

Stritch once said, “I just pray that I can be at least amusing.”

And was she ever.

KQED’s own Mark Taylor first wrote about Stritch’s passing this morning. Read his article for more video and anecdotes.

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