On November 17, 2014, a who’s who of theatre professionals trekked to the Al Hirschfield Theater to pay tribute to Elaine Stritch. After a career spanning nearly seventy years, the actress had “left the building”, as she preferred to frame it, the previous July. But while there were plenty of tears as performers ranging from Nathan Lane and Bernadette Peters to Laura Benanti and Betty Buckley honored Stritch, there were also plenty of laughs. Plenty of knowing smiles. Perhaps above all, there was plenty of wonder: what comes after Elaine? At one point, director Hal Prince quoted “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the 1970 musical Company—an acerbic number that became Stritch’s signature. “Everybody dies,” he said. “I’m not so sure about Elaine.”
That eulogization is a taste of the force that Elaine Stritch was in her community. A brassy actress with a unique singing voice, she commanded attention wherever she went. Always ready with a punchy zinger, Stritch anecdotes became miniature legends that seemed to grow as her career progressed. In one, Nathan Lane recounted her cornering him after a performance of The Addams Family on Broadway: “Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough.”
Author Alexandra Jacobs embraces these stories and has produced probably the most entertaining, complete biography of Stritch outside of her own words. Expertly researched—including interviews with many of the people closest to Stritch, her correspondences, and writings by and about her—Still Here charts her path from rambunctious Midwestern schoolgirl to Broadway grand dame. From her first Broadway credit in Angel in the Wings to her last in A Little Night Music, and every Cafe Carlyle and TV appearance in-between, they’re all here.
The trouble with a biography covering a person as big as Stritch is that often her comments come across as hardened, almost abusive—which they certainly could be. But the written word strips away her ability to cut something down with a twinkle in her eye, a sense of playfulness, and an almost childlike vulnerability. She was loud and gruff, yet she had an incredible ability to draw people to her. After all, she was a performer first and foremost—something almost antithetical to the page.
However, that’s no fault of Jacobs, who fully embraces her complicated subject. She even effectively combats some of this by tapping into areas of Stritch’s life that she often embellished or ignored. Like any solid performer, she knew a good line when she found one, and she had no problem perfecting and repeating it—never mind how closely it mirrored the truth. Jacobs attempts a bit of myth-busting, most interestingly when discussing her on-again, off-again sobriety. The result is a rounded portrait that tempers some of Stritch’s seemingly cruel lines.
Packed with anecdotes while remaining thoughtful, Still Here is as uproarious as the life it chronicles.
Title: Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Author: Alexandra Jacobs
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: October 22, 2019
Classification: Biography, Nonfiction