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"Some People Ain't Me!"

Any biography of Ethel Merman merits attention, but Geoffrey Mark's effort is an unfortunate botch. logo
Though she's been gone for more than two decades, Ethel Merman has never really left us. She's all over popular culture: vocal impersonators need only turn a note with a Mermanesque mordente to evoke her immediately; Gerard Alessandrini has snuck a Merman tribute into almost every edition of Forbidden Broadway; Steve Schalchlin's vest-pocket musical The Big Voice: God or Merman?, all about the author's Ethel worship and the practical application of Ethel as Life Force, keeps turning up and made it into the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival; and even non-musical-theater-loving kids who rent the Airplane! DVD can see that Merman, in a cameo as a shell-shocked soldier who thinks he's Ethel Merman, must have been something special.

So it should be good news that a new Merman biography, Geoffrey Mark's Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway (Barricade, $24.95), has just been published. Merman's two as-told-to memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (Pete Martin, 1955) and Merman: An Autobiography (George Eells, 1978), are known to be whitewashes. Bob Thomas's I Got Rhythm: The Ethel Merman Story (1984) delves into some of Ethel's less pleasant personality traits but is incomplete and unanalytical. It would be a pleasure to report that Mark, an obvious Mermophile who has also written biographies of Ella Fitzgerald and Lucille Ball, has captured the whole, unadulterated Merman. Unfortunately, his book is a botch.

It's always risky when a biographer worships his subject -- and riskier when said subject is a camp diva, subject to rumors, speculation, and delectable but apocryphal anecdotes. The camp icon status of the subject mars even such an excellent work as Joel Lobenthal's Tallulah: The Life and Times of a Leading Lady. That book is superbly researched, amply annotated, and Lobenthal is a graceful, fluid writer; but the camp thing sullies the waters, necessitating the inclusion of bon mots that Bankhead may or may not have uttered, dwelling on her supposedly bizarre sex life, and so idolizing the diva that the reader must constantly question the author's objectivity.

In writing about Merman, Mark doesn't fall into all of those traps. While he plainly adores the Merm, he doesn't shy from quoting the dirtier epithets ascribed to her. (If anything, it might have been better if he had omitted a few). Nor does he overindulge in psychoanalysis: His main insight on the Merm is that her frequent self-centeredness in romantic relationships (four husbands, four divorces) and general unwillingness to play the obliging wife at a time when that was the standard woman's role may have sabotaged her marriages. He offers one real eye-opener of a honeymoon anecdote on Merman's final, famously brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine, which I won't spoil by repeating here. Suffice it to say that Borgnine -- whom Mark seems to have made no effort to contact, as he also apparently failed to do with several other still-living Merman acquaintances and co-workers -- isn't going to like it.

This is all well and good. But a subject as potentially rich as Merman -- possessor of Broadway's greatest set of pipes ever, a musical star who never had a real flop, a singing actress who discovered only belatedly, in Gypsy, that she could really act -- demands more than Mark has given her. While some four dozen interviewees are cited in the preface, there's no formal bibliography; this leaves one frustrated as to who said what when, why so many potential interviewees are missing, what book, article, or piece of stock footage yielded which factoid. Though the large-print tome weighs in at 312 pages, Merman dies on page 207; the next 100-odd pages are given to comprehensive but bite-size and opinionated accounts of her stage work, films, recordings, radio shows, and TV appearances. (Some of the latter sound fascinating: Who wouldn't want to see the long-lost NBC color telecast of Annie Get Your Gun from 1967, the Merm's 1966 duet with Fred Astaire on The Hollywood Palace, or even Ethel opposite Ron Ely in two episodes of Tarzan?)

Mark does offer some good if sporadic info in the main body of the book. It's tantalizing to contemplate the musical of Lysistrata that Rodgers and Hart wanted to write for Merman. Her elusive early showbiz years get a fairly thorough going-over: Merman lying about her age, falling in with a shady pianist-manager named Al Siegel, and becoming a fixture of Manhattan café society long before her opening-night "discovery" in Girl Crazy. There are also some rare photos: Ethel given the Hollywood glam treatment, Ethel beaming at second husband Bob Levitt, Ethel endorsing Arrid deodorant, and so on. (Hey, the woman liked to make a buck! I'm probably not alone in remembering the TV commercial in which she sang "Hands feel soft / Hands feel swell / Hands come out just like roses 'cause of Vel!") Still, from the main text to the photo captions to "Part II, Appearances," there's a huge problem here : Mark's writing is downright amateurish.

This is a harsh judgment, yet the evidence is on pretty much every page. Merman was known for her salty vocabulary but she's no match for her chronicler, who announces on page five: "Romantically, she thought with her vagina." That brusque, ungainly, needlessly vulgar sentence has plenty of company: "Blessed with fascinating breasts...She gave great boss." (Whatever that means.) "It was a very fortuitous batch of blow jobs." "And Sherman Billingsley, who had been sending his gifts to Ethel long distance, happily greeted Ethel with open arms (and an open zipper)." On Merman's ditching of Bob Levitt for her next husband, Bob Six, Mark comments: "At least Ethel didn't have to learn a new first name to scream when she had an orgasm." He also brings up rumors about Merman's bisexuality (with Kay Thompson? Benay Venuta? Jacqueline Susann?) but neither supports nor discredits them.

With his focus on body parts and sexual activity, his indiscriminate exclamation points ("Hollywood was really calling!"), his mystifying analogies ("Ethel needed a chaperone like Michael Jackson needs another nose job"), and his highly debatable judgments (Something for the Boys was Porter's weakest score; Merman's work in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was Oscar-worthy), Mark often writes like a 17-year-old student -- and not an "A" student at that. The book is rife with misspellings and, in at least one instance, is inaccurate: Describing the genesis of Anything Goes, Mark recycles an old story about a shipwreck that Ethan Mordden proved to be untrue in last year's Sing for Your Supper.

The author has several other obsessions besides sex; for example, he gives us updates on Ethel's changing hairstyles every few pages. Yet he has little to offer in the way of analysis. It is touching to read of Merman's sad later years, during which she cared for her aged parents, dealt with personal tragedies, and slipped into a religious zealotry bordering on dementia. (She kept her loved ones' ashes in a closet and frequently talked to them.) But Mark reports rather than examines, and he writes in a fan-letter style that makes one mistrust him.

It may be that Merman wasn't that deep a character to begin with. She comes across here as not very introspective, a good-time gal similar to the dames she played in her earlier musicals. Some intriguing personality traits emerge -- her astute business sense, her easy rapport with gay men vs. her rock-solid Republicanism -- but they're cited rather than explained. Mark's book is so surfacey that, in the end, we can't tell whether Merman was a one-dimensional woman or a complex individual at the mercy of an inept biographer. But we may not have to wait long to find out: Brian Kellow, features editor of Opera News, has a Merman bio in the works. Let's hope it evinces the finesse and professionalism that Mark's work lacks.

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