It's not that Elaine Stritch forgot about our interview, it's that she was so busy entertaining a roomful of people at her new home in Birmingham, Michigan, that she lost track of time. After moving out of New York City last year, the one and only, who recently celebrated her 89th birthday, has become a social butterfly back in her home state. Present at that afternoon gathering were, among others, her lawyer and the Oscar-winning documentarian Sue Marx (with whom Stritch put me on the phone upon mention of one of Marx's films).
The subject of Stritch's and my chat was Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a new documentary by Chiemi Karasawa that paints a portrait of the actress/singer/beloved curmudgeon as both an icon (to the likes of Tina Fey, Cherry Jones, and James Gandolfini) and a human with health issues that come with being in your late 80s. And don't expect sugarcoating. The film is one of the most truthful documentaries you'll ever see about life beyond the footlights. For Stritch, it was that honesty that made her want to take part in Karasawa's vision.
Happy belated birthday. I hope it was a good one.
It was sensational. I had all my caregivers and their relatives over for cocktails and hot hors d'oeuvres in my new co-op. How about that?
That sounds perfect. How's life out in Michigan?
There's too much going on in the country. It's much quieter in New York. To have more to do here than there? This is ridiculous. But I'm the new girl in town here, so they don't take no from me. They say, "Get your ass over here." I have more room here than at the Carlyle, so they take advantage of that and I have something going on in every room. (pause) I think it's because I talk naughty sometimes.
Let's talk about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. I think it's a great addition to the documentary genre.
So do I, as a matter of fact. There's always something new to learn in documentaries — an emotion that you've never tested before in yourself. That's the way I look at them.
Tell me how this project was pitched to you.
I was at the hairdresser's. Famous last words. I saw a friend of a friend of mine, and it was [director] Chiemi [Karasawa]. The guy cutting her hair said, "There's the woman you should do a documentary on. She's really fascinating." [Karasawa] came over and said, "Would you have any interest in doing a documentary?" She got the money and hooray and hallelujah, you have it comin' to ya. Boy, it's hard work. Oh my god.
It looked like hard work.
Oh my god. It took us three years to do it. It's one of the hardest pieces of work I've ever done. Because it takes [sigh] it takes effort to be honest. Big time effort. I said to myself, there is no reason to do a documentary unless it's honest. Because what else have you got to tell? There's nothing else to tell. I'm glad I got the guts to do it. I've had more comments on the honesty than anything else. This once-upon-a-time bullsh*t? Forget about that. (pause) I think that should be the title of my book. [laughs]
I was really affected by how candid you were about your health troubles and struggle with diabetes.
Why not? It may help somebody. I'm all for that. Oddly enough, my lawyer is waiting in the living room. Through your interview, I'm letting Mary Tyler Moore know that I'm gonna leave a million bucks to the American Diabetes Association. I feel very noble about that and I want to take all the credit in the world for it. What a job she's done, and what a job they've done for her. So anyway…
So anyway…I have to ask you to go more into detail about your date with JFK as you mention in the film. What were your first impressions of him?
Just drop-dead [gorgeous] and I got to go to dinner with him. I invited myself [to dinner] at a cocktail party. I went over and I said, "Are you going anyplace for dinner?" And he said, "No, I'm going to dinner but I don't know where." And I said, "I want to go with you," and he said, "Okay." And we went. That's my kind of guy.
That's the tenacity that gets you places.
I'm gonna remember that saying. That's the tenacity that gets you places. [laughs] Absolutely true. I got to meet the whole Kennedy family. I loved 'em all. Everybody drank martinis. I thought, Boy, home at last.
Do you miss anything about New York?
I miss the Carlyle. Even in a snazzy condo, I miss New York. I missed New York anyplace I went. But…I'm just as happy as I can be wherever I wake up feeling good in the morning. That's about it, folks. I don't care where I am. 'Cause I was 89 the day before yesterday.
I know you were.
Oh, you do? Are you checking up on me?
Well, all right. [laughs]
Do you miss performing?
I always will. Not so it's oh godddddddddd. I'm not Mrs. Norman Maine [from A Star Is Born], believe me. I'm not Judy Garland. I made sure that I sidetracked darling Judy, who was the most talented girl who ever lived. I sidetracked 'em all and I'm alive, I'm well, and living in Birmingham, Michigan, where my mother and father went to bed one night. [laughs]
Knock on wood.
Knock on wood is right.
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