Elaine Stritch: Notes From An Honest Education

"Listen and look," Elaine Stritch told me as we walked down Madison Avenue one day--the Sunday, in fact, when the death of Sylvia Syms had been announced--"all of these people, every last one of them, needs or wants something from someone else. You name it--love, attention, affirmation, help, aid. Something. And most of them aren't going to get it. You know, the poor bastards are starving and all that. They aren't going to get it because they don't ask, because they don't announce what it is they want--and deserve, I might add. Well, I get what I need and I usually get what I want. I ask; I tell; I demand."

She stopped outside of an apartment building and pulled out a plastic container of fruit. "I'm falling," she told me, "so bear with me." She ate a bit, closed the lid, shoved it in her bag, and paused. For a little too long. A good film director would have said she was lagging or milking the moment. She looked at me finally--as only Elaine Stritch could--and delivered the following:

"No one is going to say of you in years to come that you were so polite, so sweet. If they talk of you at all, it's going to be because you got the story, you did the job. So do the fucking job. If I didn't like you or think you had talent, I would have kicked you to the street days ago. Get the job done and don't give a shit what people think. You have a serious and beautiful assignment from Tennessee Williams, for Christ's sake, and that is what is important, not what other people think about you. Push the doors open and get in."

She hugged me and we walked to her apartment on East 72nd Street, where, at the door, and with the doorman as an audience, she turned to me and said, "You think I'm mad at you, and you're hurt. You'll get over it. Get over it by two tomorrow, because that's when we're meeting again. Sylvia Syms is dead, but we're not. We have things to do."


Elaine made lists of things to do, and she loved to eliminate each thing as it was done. One day we walked and talked together and she handed me her list because there was a beautiful dog that required her attention. I looked at the list, and here is what was on it:

 + Agnes B--scarf, hat

+ Oren's--mugs

+ Grace's Marketplace

And then the name of an actress, followed by three exclamation points.

I handed the list back to Elaine and asked about the actress. 

"Oh, her," Elaine sneered. "She has an idea about something, about me, that's all wrong, and I need to set her straight."

Okay, I said. I apologized for reading the list.

"A pro wouldn't have apologized," she told me. 

Later in the week I asked how the call to the actress had gone. "She'll be okay," Elaine told me. "She'll get over it. Honesty has to break into her pretty house every once in a while."


Telephone call, ten-thirty one night.

Halfway through my "Hello," Elaine barges in.

"John Gielgud loves you. Katharine Hepburn loves you. Marian Seldes wants a street named after you. Frances Sternhagen loves you. Lauren Bacall says you yelled at her, and she loves you. Alec Guinness loves you. Zoe Caldwell likes you and your work, and she doesn't like anything!"

"Your point, Elaine?" I asked.

Short pause.

"Let it be known," she replied, "that all of these people may love you--and they told me they did--but I get you. And that's a big deal."

And she did, even if she never got my name right.

Elaine introduced me several times, including when she read from my work in a Museum of the Moving Image event, as "Jim Garrison." 

This happened a lot.

"Elaine, you do know what my name is, right?" I asked.

"Of course I know what your name is," she wailed. "I know your name. It's right here in my  head. When I see it on your letters or your faxes, I know right away who you are, but God help me, when I'm on my feet and showing you to someone or thinking about you, I can't get the damned name right."

"That's okay," I told her.

"It is not okay," she retorted. "It is fucking humiliating, and I'm sorry."

When Follies of God was sold to Knopf, I called Elaine to give her the good news, and to thank her for helping me secure so many interviews.

"Oh, I am so fucking proud of you," she said. "You grew a pair and learned how to ask for and demand what you needed and you honored our friend. I am so fucking proud of you. Really."

Long pause.

"Whatever your name is."


"Did you see that horse shit?" Elaine asked me. 

She was referring to an actress--much honored and beloved--who had appeared on several talk shows recently.

"I mean, shut the fuck up with all of this accidental nonsense," she said. "You want me--or anyone--to believe that you were gardening or darning socks for your lovely children and the phone rang and there was Mike Nichols or some other great director who just happened to have a part for you? I mean....

"Look, we're all scared we're never going to work again, or that the work will fail us, embarrass us. The world is tough--it's why we drink or shoot up or pray or fuck around. We need escapes from the reality that's around us all the time. And the reality is that no one is good enough or pretty enough or important enough to just have things happen for them. You go out and you get them. You make them happen. I'm not afraid to say this, to remind people of the worry and the jostling and the begging and the pestering and the demanding. I may suck the oxygen out of a room, but I get the job, and I get it right. I've never disappointed an audience in my life, and I never will, because we're both out there together, getting what we need. And it didn't come to me while I was gardening or having my hair done or walking the dog along the fucking Thames. I went out and I got it. And so did that bitch, sitting there, all flawless and calm, with Charlie Rose. 

"I hate liars, and I hate people who lie about how hard things are, how hard life is. It's fucking hard, but it's also fucking glorious, and we make the world go round by doing what we must to get what we need. And then we share it. And the fucking world goes round."


My last face-to-face with Elaine was at The Carlyle, in January of 2010. Marian Seldes and I had been invited to one of her "friends and family" previews of her latest act. The show was, of course, a revelation, a scorched-earth confession of what her life was all about.

Marian and I went to speak to Elaine afterward. "Look at you!" Elaine boomed. "I mean, look at you! Book contract, out with Marian, hobnobbing with all of these swells, making bitches cry and spilling their guts. You did not disappoint me."

Big kiss.

"Oh, wait," Elaine said, as she grabbed my arm. "Do you know Ellen Adler? You must  know Ellen Adler. Ellen, this is Jim Garrison."

Thank you, Elaine. You helped me kick down the doors.

And I am not afraid.

© 2014 by James Grissom/Garrison


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