By Fred Bernstein
September 24, 1979 12:00 PM

‘People who retire fall apart,’ says La Merman, who hasn’t

As long as you still have it, use it” is the credo of Ethel Merman. But what she still has—the greatest 70-year-old Broadway belting voice extant—is not exactly what pops about these days. Or is it? An A&M executive talked her into cutting, of all things, The Ethel Merman Disco Album. The LP includes works she helped turn into stage standards: Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm,. Porter’s I Get a Kick out of You, and Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business. And then there is his Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which Irving, now 91, calls “the best version of it that I have ever heard.”

Sure, a lot of young rockers said mean, ageist things. But Donna Summer put them in their place. She caught the recording session in person and told Ethel, “If I’m the Queen of Disco, you’re the Disco Diva.” Merman took her coronation modestly—and wanted none of the credit. “They asked me to do it. All I did was say, ‘Yes.’ ” Of the disco craze, she added, “I love the beat, but I certainly don’t understand the lyrics.” In any case, Ethel’s voice is undiminished in its brassy volume and control.

Merman’s amazing vocal talents—which prompted George Gershwin’s advice (which she heeded) never to take lessons—were-discovered when she was a $35-a-week secretary living with her parents in Queens. After singing in a jungle short subject for Warner Bros., she landed a role in Girl Crazy and stole the show from leading lady Ginger Rogers in 1930. That led to a string of 13 more Broadway hits that had the greatest composers of four decades writing shows tailored to her style. Among them: Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and Jule Styne’s Gypsy.

She married four times. With her second husband, publicist Bob Levitt, she had two children. Their son, Bob Jr., runs a floating theater in Hawaii, but Ethel Jr. died of an overdose of tranquilizers and alcohol in 1967, after giving Merman two grandchildren. Her third marriage, to Continental Airlines prexy Robert Six, was a disaster that sent Merman home to New York and her parents (who died only a few years ago, both in their 90s). The final, to Ernest Borgnine, lasted 38 days (“If you blinked, you missed it”).

In 1970 she ended her Broadway career with Hello, Dolly! Though it was originally planned for her, she was the seventh Dolly. Now on the symphony concert circuit, Merman is booked through 1980. She also hits the TV talk shows and has just finished a cameo in a Paramount Airport spoof—she plays a traumatized Viet vet who thinks he’s Ethel Merman.

She shuns offers to return to Broadway—or get married—with the same “I won’t tie myself down.” She dates (“God knows I’m not a prude”) but comes home early to her Upper East Side flat. Already full with her most prized possessions, it’s too small for many other showbiz mementos (which she’s given to a museum) or even for a real kitchen. So friends come up for drinks, then “we go out for dinner.” The ex-secretary fills her free days doing needlepoint, watching TV, shopping (in dark glasses), working at Roosevelt Hospital’s gift shop and personally typing answers to her mail. She describes it as “a normal, quiet life.” She doesn’t even play records, she says, because “I don’t like to listen to myself, so what would I listen to?”

Ethel’s been to Studio 54 but wouldn’t dance, “because I don’t do it that well.” A conservative who campaigned for Richard Nixon, she says she’s stopped reading papers because “the news is so depressing. Who can condone 12-and 13-year-olds smoking pot and sniffing cocaine?” Still, she’s not so cut off from the kids that she isn’t contemplating another disco album. Figures Ethel Merman: “There are lots of show tunes left to do.”