As Broadway prepares to dim its marquees on Friday night in tribute to Elaine Stritch, who died at her Michigan home on Thursday after a recent battle with stomach cancer, the highly individual actress-singer is being remembered by those who had the memorable experience of working with her, including 30 Rock creator and star Tina Fey.
“Elaine was a ‘tough old bird,’ but I suspect she may have been a ‘tough old bird’ since birth,” Fey tells PEOPLE. “I loved her voice, her timing, her stories and her natural elegance.
“One day she was wearing a beautiful butterfly cocktail ring, and when I admired it, she gave it to me on the spot – like an Arab sheik in black pantyhose. I feel very lucky to have worked with her as much as I did.”
Stritch’s most recent agent, Joel Dean, who was also her friend for 15 years, tells PEOPLE he remembers her as “a great lady” who also managed to challenge and reward him in equal doses.
“I was always trying to cheer her up. ‘How are you doing Elaine?’ ” he recalls his asking her. And her response? “Well, you can get me out of here, that’s what you can do!”
Adds Dean, “That’s how she was. She always had a quip for something or a sarcastic remark. I just adored that lady. She’s very tough to get to know. It took me a long time until she trusted me and let me into her world.”
Complications of Diabetes
Dean says that Stritch’s stomach cancer was complicated by her diabetes.
“They took out a good part of her stomach, that was maybe two months ago. She said, ‘They got it all, they got it all.’ But it came back quite aggressively.”
The longtime performer, whose contemporaries ranged from Marlon Brando (whom Stritch dated in acting school) to Ethel Merman (whom she understudied), as well as, of course, Alec Baldwin (who played her much-harangued son on 30 Rock), had so many stories – both in her and about her – that it was hard to keep them straight.
“One time I was taking her back to the Sunset Marquis, and she said, ‘What’s the name of that guy I worked with?’ she was very vague,” Dean recalls. “I said, ‘What’s the name of that guy you worked with?’ ‘Don’t interrupt me!’ she’d bark back. [She said], ‘God damn it, you know who I’m talking about!’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’ Then at 4 a.m., the phone rang, and she said, ‘It was Elis Rabb, god damn it!’ and hung up the phone. I learned not to answer the phone at 4 am. She had no limits.”
Baldwin, meanwhile, took to Twitter Thursday to remember Stritch – and hinted that things in heaven are about to get a whole lot more interesting.
“I’m sure that even God is a bit nervous right now,” he wrote. “I love you, Elaine.”
• Reporting by MARY GREEN and JULIE JORDAN