Elaine Stritch, the brassy, tart-tongued Broadway actress and singer who became a living emblem of show business durability and perhaps the leading interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s wryly acrid musings on aging, died on Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Mich. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, Julie Keyes. Before Ms. Stritch moved to Birmingham last year to be near her family, she lived for many years at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan.
Ms. Stritch’s career began in the 1940s and spanned almost 70 years. She made her fair share of appearances in movies, including Woody Allen’s “September” (1987) and “Small Time Crooks” (2000), and on television; well into her 80s, she had a recurring role on the NBC comedy “30 Rock” as the domineering mother of the television executive played by Alec Baldwin.
But the stage was her true professional home. Whether in musicals, nonmusical dramas or solo cabaret shows, she drew audiences to her with her whiskey voice, her seen-it-all manner and the blunt charisma of a star.
In April 2013, before she left the Carlyle, where she had often performed in its cabaret lounge, Café Carlyle, she gave one last show: “Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out.” A documentary film, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” was released this year.
Plain-spoken, egalitarian, impatient with fools and foolishness, and admittedly fond of cigarettes, alcohol and late nights — she finally gave up smoking and drinking in her 60s, after learning she had diabetes, though she returned to alcohol in her 80s — Ms. Stritch might be the only actor ever to work as a bartender after starring on Broadway, and she was completely unabashed about her good-time-girl attitude.
“I’m not a bit opposed to your mentioning in this article that Frieda Fun here has had a reputation in the theater, for the past five or six years, for drinking,” she said to a reporter for The New York Times in 1968. “I drink, and I love to drink, and it’s part of my life.”
In an interview this year in The New York Times Magazine, she said of her resumption of drinking: “I’m almost 89, I’m gonna have a drink a day or two. I know how to handle it, so there.”
Most of the time she was equally unabashed onstage, rarely if ever leaving the sensually astringent elements of her personality behind when she performed. A highlight of her early stage career was the 1952 revival of “Pal Joey,” the Rodgers and Hart-John O’Hara musical, in which she played a shrewd, ambitious reporter recalling, in song, an interview with Gypsy Rose Lee; she drew bravas for her rendition of the striptease parody “Zip.”
In a nonsinging role in William Inge’s 1955 drama, ”Bus Stop,” she received a Tony nomination as the lonely but tough-talking owner of a Kansas roadside diner where a group of travelers takes refuge during a snowstorm. Three years later, in her first starring role on Broadway, “Goldilocks,” a musical comedy by Jean and Walter Kerr and the composer Leroy Anderson, she played a silent film star alongside Don Ameche and impressed The Times’s critic Brooks Atkinson.
“Miss Stritch can destroy life throughout the country with the twist she gives to the dialogue,” he wrote. “She takes a wicked stance, purses her mouth thoughtfully and waits long enough to devastate the landscape.”
Noël Coward, one of Ms. Stritch’s fans, built the 1961 musical “Sail Away” around her role as Mimi Paragon, the effervescent hostess of a cruise ship, and she repaid his trust not only by giving what Howard Taubman of The Times said “must be the performance of her career” (including a delicious rendition of Coward’s hilariously snooty “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”) but also by successfully ad-libbing, on opening night, when a poodle in the cast betrayed its training onstage.
The show was not a hit, but Ms. Stritch came away with her third Tony nomination. Her next Broadway role was in the replacement cast of Edward Albee’s scabrous portrait of a marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” as Martha, the bitter, boozy wife.
One of her memorable appearances was in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company”(1970), in which, as a cynical society woman, she saluted her peers with the vodka-soaked anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The performance brought her another Tony nomination, and the tune became her signature — at least until, in her 70s, she became known for Sondheim’s paean to showbiz longevity and survival, “I’m Still Here.”
Ms. Stritch in the musical revue “Angel in the Wings,” in 1948, in which she sang “Civilization.”CreditAssociated Press
That song was the centerpiece of her 2001 one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and she sang it in 2010 at Mr. Sondheim’s 80th-birthday concert at Lincoln Center and at the White House for President Obama.
Essentially a spoken-and-sung theater memoir, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” created with the New Yorker critic John Lahr, began performances at the Public Theater in Manhattan when Ms. Stritch was 76 and then moved to Broadway, where it was a smash.
Alone onstage except for a chair, clad only in tights and a white silk shirt, Ms. Stritch wove together music (including “Zip,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “I’m Still Here” and two more Sondheim songs: “The Little Things You Do Together,” a mordant salute to marriage from “Company,” and the aging showgirl’s lament “Broadway Baby,” from “Follies”) and showbiz memories into a tour de force that won a Tony Award for best special theatrical event.
“I’m a do-it-yourself kind of broad,” Ms. Stritch told The Guardian in 2008, when she performed the show in London. It was an apt description of herself and the performance, which opened with her entering and declaring to the audience, “Well, as the prostitute once said, ‘It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.’ ”
Born in Detroit on Feb. 2, 1925, Ms. Stritch was the youngest of three daughters of George and Mildred Stritch. She went to a convent school but knew long before she graduated that she wanted a show business career.
Ms. Stritch backstage with Noël Coward in 1961 after the opening of his musical “Sail Away.”CreditJohn Lent/Associated Press
When she was 4, for example, her father, an executive at B. F. Goodrich, took her to see a touring production of “The Ziegfeld Follies.” They went backstage to meet the star, the comedian Bobby Clark, who was a friend of her father’s. “From that moment on,” she recalled, “I was hooked.”
She was popular and seemingly carefree at school but struggled, she said, to overcome a deep-seated lack of confidence. By high school she had discovered that liquor helped mask her fears.
After graduation she told her parents she wanted to go to New York to study acting. They said she could go only if she agreed to live in a Manhattan convent. In 1944, she took the train to New York, moved into her convent room on the East Side and enrolled at the New School for Social Research, where she studied acting with Erwin Piscator. According to a story she told in “At Liberty,” her classmate Marlon Brando stopped speaking to her after she declined his invitation to spend the night at his apartment.
(Ms. Stritch, a Roman Catholic who said she was a virgin until she was 30, was no prude. Before she married in 1972, she was romantically linked with the actors Gig Young and Ben Gazzara and the restaurateur Joe Allen.)
She made her New York stage debut in a children’s play, “Bobino.” In 1947, she opened on Broadway in a musical revue, “Angel in the Wings,” in which she sang “Civilization,” a satirical number expressing an African’s thoughts about frightful aspects of modern life, including the lament: “Bongo bongo bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.”
Ms. Stritch in 2010 in her role as the mother of Alec Baldwin’s character on “30 Rock.”CreditAli Goldstein/NBC
In a short time she established herself as a promising actress who could also hurl a song lyric to the far reaches of the balcony. In 1950 she won the job of understudy to Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam.” Merman stayed healthy, and Ms. Stritch never got to perform the role on Broadway, although she did star in the touring company. Then came “Pal Joey.”
She did some television work as well, live dramas as well as series like “My Sister Eileen” and “Wagon Train.” She almost landed the role of Trixie Norton on “The Honeymooners,” with Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, but the part finally went to Joyce Randolph. Gleason, she explained, thought she was too much like him.
Ms. Stritch made her London stage debut in “Sail Away” in 1962, and appeared there again in 1972 in “Company.” Remaining in London, she met the American actor John Bay during rehearsals for a production of Tennessee Williams’s “Small Craft Warnings” and married him. In Britain, she won a wide following in stagings of American plays and as co-star of the television comedy series “Two’s Company,” in which she played a prickly American writer working at an English estate.
Ms. Stritch and her husband moved back to the United States in 1982, and he shortly died of a brain tumor. They had no children. Ms. Stritch is to be buried near him in Chicago. She is survived by many nieces and nephews.
In the mid-1980s, Woody Allen, dissatisfied with his film “September,” decided to reshoot it. Ms. Stritch accepted the part originally played by Maureen O’Sullivan while recuperating from surgery to have polyps removed from her vocal cords. She played the hard-drinking survivor of a roller-coaster life, a former glamour girl whose daughter, played by Mia Farrow, is both angry and depressed. Her performance initiated a fecund period of movie work.
Her other films included “Cocoon: The Return” (1988), which reunited her with Ameche; “Cadillac Man” (1990), with Robin Williams; “Autumn in New York” (2000), a May-December romance starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder; and “Monster-in-Law” (2005), in which, as Jane Fonda’s mother-in-law, she delivers a blistering put-down: “You were a television weather woman from Dubuque, Mont. You drove around in a broken-down minivan, and you drank red wine — from a box!”
She also made guest appearances on television, on “The Cosby Show,” “Head of the Class,” “Law & Order,” “Oz” and “3rd Rock from the Sun.” Back on Broadway, she joined Harold Prince’s 1994 revival of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical “Show Boat.” Ms. Stritch played Parthy, the nagging wife of the showboat’s Cap’n Andy.
She went on to earn another Tony nomination in the Lincoln Center Theater’s 1996 revival of “A Delicate Balance,” Edward Albee’s ferocious dark comedy about an upper-class household in distress. She played the witty, bellicose houseguest of her sister (Rosemary Harris) and brother-in-law (George Grizzard).
When “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” was broadcast on HBO in 2004, Ms. Stritch added an Emmy to her collection of awards, but that was far from her final triumph. She also created a series of solo cabaret shows for Café Carlyle, including one that was a tribute to Sondheim.
“The blazingly here-and-now Ms. Stritch gives the word ‘trouper,’ a term of respect for stars who have trod the boards for decades, an almost mythological dimension,” Stephen Holden of The Times wrote in a review.
In May 2008, in a surprising change of pace, she appeared in a production of “Endgame,” Samuel Beckett’s grim comedy about mortality, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As inhabitants of a bleak netherworld, she and her onstage husband (Alvin Epstein) lived in oversize garbage cans.
Ms. Stritch performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., in June 2009 in a production of “The Full Monty,” based on the 1997 British film comedy about a group of unemployed steelworkers who decide to perform as male strippers. Ms. Stritch, who played the group’s rehearsal pianist, said in an interview that she was “happy to be doing something that wasn’t all about me.”
She made her final Broadway appearance in 2010, replacing Angela Lansbury as the aging Madame Armfeldt in a Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.” It was a role that allowed her to sing once more of Mr. Sondheim’s rueful, mortality-defying musical meditations, “Liaisons,” an aching paean to love affairs past, and she brought to it an original and rather stinging bitterness about a life that is nearly over.
In “At Liberty,” Ms. Stritch earned one of her biggest laughs with a story about a long night of drinking with a friend. The story was ostensibly about the friend — Judy Garland — but it was self-reflective, too. Along about breakfast time, Ms. Stritch recalled, Garland turned to her.
“Elaine, I never thought I’d say this,” Garland said, “but good night.”