Elaine Stritch – a showbiz survivor who at last became a household name in her 80s when she played Colleen Donaghy, the harridan mother of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, on TV’s 30 Rock – died on Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Michigan, reports The New York Times. She was 89.
Only last year, in failing health, she left New York to return to her home state of Michigan to be near relatives, though in the days leading up to her departure from her luxury Carlyle Hotel residence, The Times chronicled her nearly every hiccup – she was such a fixture of the city. As it was, the newspaper noted, in 2003 the New York Landmarks Conservancy had declared her a Living Landmark.
And, just like the city, she was every bit as iconoclastic and unforgiving, to say nothing of boisterous. She was also nearly as famous for the roles she didn’t keep as for the ones she did.
Stritch was the first Trixie when Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners was about to launch (he fired her before airtime), and, years later, she claimed in her 2003 one-woman Broadway show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she blew her audition for a new NBC sitcom by dropping an expletive.
The role, that of Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls, instead went to Beatrice Arthur.
With a voice that was once compared to a car shifting gears without the clutch – and a presence likened to Godzilla in a stalled elevator – Stritch may have been an unlikely Broadway musical star, yet early in her career she understudied for the inimitable Ethel Merman in 1950’s Call Me Madam.
In her own right – admittedly, there were dry periods – she went on to star in a 1952 revival of Pal Joey, Noël Coward’s 1961 Sail Away, and the landmark 1970 Company, for which she copped a Tony and delivered her own signature song, Stephen Sondheim’s paean to Manhattan’s jaded upper crust, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
A strict Catholic, as well as the youngest of three girls and the only one to enter show business, Stritch spent 12 years at the Sacred Heart Catholic Girls School, and when she first came to New York, in 1944, she lived in a convent while taking drama classes.
“Let me tell you about those convents,” she told PEOPLE in 1988, when she was kicking up dust playing a movie-star mother in Woody Allen’s September. “Convent schools teach you to play against everything, which is what I’m still doing.”
Married and Widowed
While studying acting at the New School in New York, she dated fellow student Marlon Brando, who “walked into a room and it was knockout time.”
While in London in 1973, Stritch – then 47 – married American-born actor John Bay, then 45. It was his first marriage, too. “The word that applies to John is sweet,” said Stritch, who, in 1982, the same year the couple returned to live in the U.S., lost him to a brain tumor.
There also was another love in her life: the bottle, despite finally having to go dry because of her diabetes. “Sure, I’ve gone on with a few drinks under my belt,” she also told PEOPLE, “but I’ve always gone on.”
No doubt, the same will hold true for her in the afterlife.