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Happy Birthday, Ethel!

Filichia celebrates the Merm's birthday by reading her biographies and autobiographies. logo
Ethel Merman
The legendary Ethel Merman, whose birthday was January 16, initially turned down the chance to star in Hello, Dolly! -- which, as it turned out, opened on Broadway on January 16, 1964. Merman eventually did play Dolly for the last nine months of the show's run before it shuttered in December 1970, but she never did another musical after that.

How old would "The Merm" be today? Some sources say that she was born in 1912, some say 1906, but most agree that January 16, 1908 was the official date. Whether she'd be 94, 98, or an even 100 today, I say we should honor her by taking a look at the very first book about her -- her 1955 autobography, Who Could Ask for Anything More?, written with Pete Martin. She would later write another memoir; the second, Merman: An Autobiography (with George Eells), is the more famous because of Chapter XXVIII, entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine." The rest of the page is blank, for Ms. Merman didn't care to speak about her notorious 32-day stint as Mrs. Borgnine.

But Who Could Ask for Anything More? has arguably the best opening line of any autobiography: "I can't remember ever being afraid of an audience, so I can see no reason to be afraid of you." How do you like them egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone? Merman was then married (for the third time) to Continental Airlines owner Bob Six and living in Denver. "All my friends refuse to believe that I won't be back working in another Broadway show," she wrote. "I tell people I'm happy what I'm doing, which is being a wife and mother, a housekeeper and a part-time movie and TV performer, and if they don't believe it, just look at me." Yet, less than a year later, she was back on Broadway in Happy Hunting. Maybe that could have been predicted from her comment on summer homes: "What's the point of living in Far Harkaway or East Jeeterville and such popular haymows?", she wrote. "Those nests on a country lane at the end of a toll road are for the birds."

In 1959 -- a year before she divorced Six -- she triumphed as Rose in Gypsy. Stephen Sondheim called her "a trained dog," and he wasn't the first to make the observation that Merman freeze-dried her performances. In Who Could Ask for Anything More?, the star herself quoted Buddy DeSylva as saying, "She's like watching a movie after it's been filmed and edited. After that, no matter how many times you see it and hear it, it's always the same." Merman frankly addressed the issue: "You put the same effort into it. You belt the songs over with the same sock, but it becomes mechanical."

And yet, she abided by a strong work ethic. Many of today's performers would be shamed to read, "Suppose you stay home when you're sick, and they put all kinds of things in you and on you to make you perspire. Well, all you have to do is one performance of Call Me Madam and you're perspiring. That way, you get rid of a lot of poison in your system and you feel better." Others might do well to heed her criticism of singers who "make three syllables out of the word 'love' and turn it into 'lah-aav-uh.'"

Yes, she was frank, which you might expect from someone who said that she ate raw steak sandwiches "by the pound." She related others' opinions of her: Walter Winchell said, "She was born with a silver tune in her mouth," while Arturo Toscanini remarked that she sounded like a castrato. She was capable of bravado: "If a song is a hit, I'll do right by it. If it's just an average song, I'll give a little something extra to help make up for what it lacks." She was proud of being able to hold that famous "I Got Rhythm" note for 16-bars -- and she told how, on a bet, she once did so with a piece of peanut brittle in her mouth.

Her contention that "I never left a show in my life once it had opened," is technically correct; she did leave Sadie Thompson in 1944, but that was during rehearsals. In the book, she also gave her personal philosophies: "People make their own luck by putting out everything they've got, and the more they put out, the more luck they have." And: "I'm this kind of dame: When I'm finished with something, I write 'period' at the end of it. I never leave anything hanging in the air. The same goes for people, too." (Mr. Borgnine would undoubtedly agree.)

Merman's latest biographer is Geoffrey Mark, author of Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway. I've seen a ton of criticism leveled against this tome, whose author doesn't bother with footnotes but still gives opinions based on research he's done or oral histories he's heard. Yet I'm inclined to look fondly at the book, which could be called "a casual biography." You know how, from time to time, you meet a musical theater enthusiast and you chat away all night long about a particular subject of mutual interest, during which time each of you comes out with every rumor you've ever wheard? That's what Mark's book is like -- and it includes several sordid comments. (By now, you've undoubtedly heard the ones involving an orgasm and a vagina.)

I'll grant you that the Pulitzer Prize committee needn't consider this effort, but it's good for a dash of dish in the evening when it's too late to call a friend and you want something light to read. To paraphrase lines that Merman recited in her last Broadway engagement: On these cold winter nights, you can snuggle up with this book. It's a little lumpy, but it rings.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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