January 11, 1988 12:00 PM

There’s the voice, like a car shifting gears without the clutch. There’s the energy—pow! She sits in her antique-filled, Upper East Side apartment serving tea. Tea? Elaine Stritch, whose name is synonymous with vodka stingers? Believe it, kids. “I quit drinking 103 days ago,” she says. “I had to. I couldn’t stand the frustration of having to stop after two drinks. I find it easier to abstain than do a little bit of anything. I’m not a ‘little bit’ kind of dame. I want it all, whatever I do. I drank a lot and had a ball. Let me tell you how much I loved booze….”

WE INTERRUPT THIS CONFESSION FOR A NEWS BULLETIN: Elaine Stritch, the eternal Broadway baby—the one who set the theater ablaze when she belted out “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s Company’s 1970—may finally achieve the mass recognition that’s eluded her for more than 40 years. Thanks to Woody Allen, this earthy cult favorite is expected to cop an Oscar nomination for her acclaimed acting as an over-the-hill showgirl in his new drama, September. (“She delivers the film’s best lines with a rich irony,” raved the New York Times.) Though the movie has received mixed reviews, Stritch’s roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator, can’t be ignored.

Even if the rest of the country doesn’t consider Stritch a superstar, Manhattan does. “New Yorkers stop me on the street ail the time to say, ‘You’re terrific! You’re the nuts!’ ” says Stritch, who starred in such Broadway hits as Pal Joey, Bus Stop and Noel Coward’s Sail Away. “She’s a landmark, like the Public Library and Rockefeller Center,” says her former fiancé, restaurateur Joe Allen.

Testaments to Stritch’s hometown adoration don’t come just from showbiz aficionados. “I hear she may win an Oscar. Couldn’t happen to a greater gal,” says her doorman. “We just love to kid with her. There’s nobody better,” says her elevator man on the ride up.

She delivers on the advance notices. Forget introductions. Stritch, who lives alone, having been widowed five years ago, jumps into a conversation. She’s incapable of just telling a story—she performs it. Her voice bellows, crescendos and cracks. Be it belting “Broadway Baby” in the 1985 Lincoln Center concert revival of Follies or serving a visitor refreshments, she gives an audience her undivided attention. At 61, she looks great, with long thin legs (“Men love ’em,” she says) and a face that looks no worse for the wear. And no surgical help, thank you. “Why, I could no more have a facelift than fly to the moon,” she says. “I looked fully mature when I was 21, not too differently from how I look now. I skipped youth altogether, but now I’m going the other way.”

Even though she talks like a forklift operator, Stritch is a strict Catholic (her cousin was the late Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago). She spent 12 years at the Sacred Heart Catholic girl’s school, and when she first came to New York in 1944 lived in a convent while taking drama classes. “Let me tell you about those convents,” she says. “All that crap about extending the pinkie finger while sipping tea is a myth. Convent schools are breeding grounds for great broads and occasionally one-of-the-boys. Convent schools teach you to play against everything, which is what I’m still doing.”

Right now she’s playing against her hard-living image. Not only did Stritch quit drinking, she recently gave up smoking too. Her abstinences have a lot to do with her being a diabetic for the last nine years. “What a drag. I have to give myself three insulin shots a day. It’s a whole production for me to go anywhere anymore,” she says, “but I’m lucky. It’s manageable.”

Despite Stritch’s former fondness for the bottle, she has a reputation as a quintessential professional. “Sure I’ve gone on with a few drinks under my belt, but I’ve always gone on,” she says. “She’s the invariable showstopper,” says columnist and longtime pal Liz Smith. “Elaine’s better onstage drunk than most people are sober.”

Unlike most performers, Stritch loathes talking about her acting method. “I find it impossible,” she says. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing up there half the time. These performers that go on about their technique and craft—oh, puleeze! How boring! I don’t know what technique means. But I do know what experience is. I know in my gut when I’ve done a scene right.”

In September, about a gathering of mismatched lovers in a Vermont country house, Stritch plays Diane, Mia Farrow’s lush-ous mom. Stritch and Farrow’s adverse relationship is based on a long-ago tragedy, reminiscent of the Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato scandal. After completing September last year, a dissatisfied Allen decided to reshoot the drama, recasting many of the roles. When Maureen O’Sullivan, Farrow’s real-life mom, bowed out, the role—and a new career lease—was given to Stritch. “I was in London, recuperating from having polyps removed from my vocal chords when Woody called me,” says Stritch. “I could barely talk at the time. When he identified himself I dropped the receiver, poured myself the largest glass of Beaujolais-Villages known to man, chugalugged it, got back on the line and sounded fine.”

Allen is known to be a didactic taskmaster who isn’t exactly generous with compliments or tolerant of prima donna egos. “He won’t put up with the Marilyn Monroe syndrome,” says Stritch, who nicknamed the set Auschwitz because no one was allowed to leave it freely during filming. Although Stritch says she absolutely adores the Woodman, there was obviously a love-hate relationship at work.

When discussing Woody, Stritch chooses her words very carefully. “He treated me with tender loving care and unbelievable sarcasm,” she says. “When he’d see me in the halls in the morning before my hair was combed out, he’d do a W.C. Fields double take, like I was scaring people. He did it a couple of times after my hair was combed out too. But I took it as part of his humor, his way of setting a mood.”

Stritch credits her ability to get along with people—even difficult directors—to her late father, George, an executive with BFGoodrich in Detroit, where she was born. “My father taught me to treat everyone equally,” she says. “Any other behavior is boring.” Both her father and her mother, Mildred, a housewife, died last July, “within 38 hours of each other,” says Elaine. “After Mom’s death, Dad died of a broken heart. It was the most dramatic thing that’s happened in my life, and that’s saying a lot.” The youngest of three girls, Elaine was the only one to go into show business. While studying acting at the New School in New York, she dated fellow student Marlon Brando. “He walked into a room and it was knockout time,” she recalls. Stritch nearly married two other actors, Ben Gazzara and Gig Young. “Religion always tripped me up,” she says. “I couldn’t bring myself to marry outside the Catholic church or tie the knot with a divorced man.”

Although Stritch worked steadily on and off Broadway over the years, there were dry spells. After a disastrous out-of-town tour in The Time of the Barracudas with Laurence Harvey in 1963, she tended bar for five months. Seven years later, she was nominated for a Tony for Company. “I’d just as soon not be nominated for awards,” she says. “I want to win. If you can’t let me win, don’t nominate me.”

Her attempts at a TV career left her with a hangover worse than booze. Jackie Gleason, who in 1955 cast her to play Trixie in The Honeymooners, fired her before the series aired. “He explained to me that while he was playing Jackie Gleason downstairs, I was doing him in drag upstairs,” she says. What should have been her vehicle to stardom, a sitcom adaptation of My Sister Eileen, bombed in 1961. Last season Stritch played Ellen Burstyn’s mom in the Oscar winner’s short-lived eponymous series. Stritch’s attempts at a movie career were even more jinxed. “The first film I did [The Scarlet Hour] was shown in a Greenwich Village art house as a laughable exercise in how not to make a movie.”

In 1972 Stritch left New York to live in London. “Noel Coward told me I’d be appreciated there,” she says. “He said America wasn’t ready for me yet. I was due for a change anyway, what with all the muggings and crimes going on here. What really convinced me to go was when I met Chita Rivera for lunch. She picked me up in a cab at the theater where I was rehearsing Company. When she said to the driver, ‘Across the street, and step on it!’ I knew it was time to get out.”

While in London in 1973, Stritch—then 47—married American-born actor John Bay, then 45. They met when they were rehearsing Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings. It was his first marriage too. “The word that applies to John is sweet,” says Stritch, picking up a framed sketch of him off an end table. “He was a sweet, gentle, wonderful man—and funny like you can’t stand it!”

They spent nine years living in the Savoy Hotel. In 1982 they returned to New York, buying a Victorian house on the Hudson River in Nyack that they restored together. “It was John’s decision to come back. He felt it was time,” she says, adding, “I turned my back on a very successful career there. Noel was right. They really loved me.” Later that year, Bay died of a brain tumor. “I really miss him,” says Stritch, “but I was lucky to have those years.”

She wants to get married again and is looking. “I wouldn’t say I’m lonely, because that’s not the right word,” she says. “I just feel a side of me isn’t expressed because no one’s here. I miss the sound of someone laughing at me. I don’t have those wonderful moments anymore of coming home and telling someone that I bought a dress or a vase or that my director is full of s—-.”

In 1986 Stritch sold the house in Nyack and moved back to Manhattan, where she rightfully belongs. She credits the job offer from Woody Allen with helping her get on with life after Bay’s death. “He gave me new skin. He made me want to perform, to make believe again,” she says.

Perhaps the most haunting scene in September occurs when Stritch’s character contemplates her aging face. “You look in the mirror,” she says, “and realize something is missing. Your future.” The end is not what Stritch sees when she looks in her looking glass. Next up may be a Broadway musical from the creators of Annie called Madame La Gimp, based on a story by Damon Runyon. “You know what I am again?” she asks, standing up and breaking into song: “I’m just a Broadway baby.”

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