In 2014 when I arrived at The Dakota in Detroit for my second-to-last visit with Elaine Stritch, she was sitting up in her bed. Her arms and legs were noticeably thin. Those endless gams of hers had begun to look twig-like. For the first time, she looked frail and vulnerable.
As I entered, her hair was disheveled and she was searching for vision, moving her head around to get her subject in her increasingly diminished sightline. “Oh my god, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said when she saw me. I took her hand and squeezed it tight and looked into her eyes.
“Well, you look a little thinner, but not too much worse for the wear,” I said.
“Not too much, eh?” she said. “You sure know how to flatter a girl.”
Just then, bounding into the bedroom came a brown, longhaired dachshund followed by a young woman named Jody. The dachshund jumped up on the bed and was warmly greeted by Elaine.
“My god, who’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, this is the newest member of the family: Marshall Bay. And this is Jody. She’s my dog walker, and she’s training the little bastard to stop peeing all over the fucking place.”
“He did well today, Elaine. We’re close to having him under control,” Jody said.
“Oh, yeah, that’s what you think. He crapped on the dining room rug yesterday. So I’d say we still have work to do. Isn’t that right?” she said, rubbing Marshall’s head. “You little twit.”
• • •
As we continued to talk, with Elaine updating me on her most recent trials, I noticed a clear deterioration in her cognitive function. She would occasionally slip into momentary confusion, inserting words that made no sense in the context of the thought she was trying to communicate. These lapses didn’t last long. What was particularly interesting was that she didn’t respond the way Elaine would typically respond, that is, fighting to get through the memory lapse. Now she just lingered in the confusion, consigned to defeat. The absence of the fight was most telling.
• • •
That afternoon around the kitchen table, I read a bit from the Times. A notice about Kristin Chenoweth starring in an upcoming revival of On the Twentieth Century elicited a “Who’s that?” from Elaine. I told her she was the petite blond who starred as the good witch in Wicked. “She’s got a fabulous voice,” I said. “She can belt, she can sing legit opera, you name it.”
“Well, I have no idea who she is,” Elaine said. “And why she’d want to star in On the Twentieth Century is beyond me.”
I showed Elaine a YouTube clip from The Rosie O’Donnell Show where she sang “Something Very Strange” from Sail Away. The song lyric refers to a woman surprised that finally something good was coming to her in life. “I think this is a real fine performance, Elaine.”
“Yeah” she said, “not too bad.”
“When I watch this I see an actress who knows how to work against the obvious meaning of the lyric,” I suggested. “If the lyric suggests sadness or regret, she knows to keep it light until just the right moment. And then, for only an instant, she allows the character’s vulnerability to break through, almost as if by denying it for most of the song, the pressure builds up before it comes crashing out. And then you rein it in with a sense of ‘Oh well, life is tough for us all. No crying about it.’”
“Well, I think that’s a good observation,” Elaine said. “Crying is never very interesting to me. When I see someone cry onstage, that rarely affects me. But watching someone try not to cry, and lose control, and then pull it back in … well, that’s a hell of a lot more interesting, don’t you think? That’s what we do in real life.”
“One of my greatest gifts – if talent is a gift, and I think it is,” she continued, “is that I have always known exactly what an audience needs. I can’t explain it. I just feel it while I’m doing it, and I know how to make sure they get what they need.”
I enjoyed talking about acting with Elaine. It’s a hard thing to talk about, to put words to, but when we did, it was always interesting. I think Elaine enjoyed it because, inevitably, it was flattering to her. She knew she was with someone who observed her work with great care.
• • •
Later that evening, after dinner, we worked our way through a stack of cards and letters from fans. Liz Smith continued to report on Elaine’s health in her column, which spurred a resurgence in Elaine’s fan mail. One card included a photo of Elaine at the age of 18, sitting in New York’s Central Park reading a letter. Her bicycle was behind her. She was wearing a halter-top and short shorts. The sender included the newspaper clipping which stated that Elaine had been cited by the NYPD for appearing in the park in such revealing attire — with the Judge quipping that her appearance was enough to “incite a riot.”
“Oh my god, look at that. Isn’t that great?” Then after a deep pause, “Jesus, John, it all goes so fast.”
As she had done before, Elaine asked for a back rub. Her shoulders were very bony, her weight loss painfully evident. But I could tell she enjoyed the touch. After just a few minutes, Elaine started to get sleepy. After she was settled back in her bedroom, I said goodbye, telling her I’d call again soon for another visit.
I felt compelled not to wait; time was beginning to feel urgent.
NOTE: The second part of “The Final Chapter” will be posted on Nov. 10, 2017.
JOHN BELL is the head of the division of performing arts at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.