Elaine Stritch, an actress whose talent led to a substantial and long career on Broadway and in cabarets, died Thursday at age 89. She had been living in her native Birmingham, Mich., where she moved last year after spending decades in New York. Stritch’s publicist says she died of natural causes; her health had been failing in recent months.
Stritch’s career began in the 1940s, when she made her debut on Broadway. With a raspy voice and a knack for both musical and comedic timing, she made a career that culminated in 2002 with the one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, in which she discussed her struggles with alcoholism, and with regular cabaret shows at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, where she also lived, until last year.
In between those stage appearances, Stritch drew wide acclaim for her work in shows such as the 1961 Noel Coward musical Sail Away and the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company. As NPR’s Lynn Neary notes, Stritch “stopped the show in the Broadway production of Company with the song that became her anthem, ‘Ladies who Lunch.’ ”
“On stage, she could be counted on for solid performances,” Playbill writes, “but also a knowing, biting sarcasm, a wicked sense of comic timing, and a certain swagger. Off stage, she was known for giving any man a run for his money, whether at drinking, swearing, or speaking her mind.”
As NPR noted earlier this year, “Stritch may be her own greatest character.” A close friend once called her “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sincerity, and genius.”
Stritch spoke to Weekend Edition in March about a new film that documents her life, titled Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
In that interview, Stritch also discussed her own mortality, telling Scott Simon, “I don’t think I’m gonna die tomorrow or even two weeks from now, or even ever. I just don’t know — who the hell knows what’s gonna happen to them? Nobody! Isn’t that comforting? Nobody has a clue. I like that we don’t know. And I like that it’s somebody else’s decision, not mine.”
More recently, Stritch played the mother of Alec Baldwin’s character, Jack Donaghy, on NBC’s 30 Rock.
But in the past year, Stritch had been suffering from several ailments, including a broken hip and pelvis that were brought on by falls.
After she moved back to Michigan, she was visited by The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, who noted that when the actress chose to return to her childhood home, “to theater lovers for whom Ms. Stritch is an ornery goddess, it was as if the Chrysler Building itself had picked up its skirts and skipped off to Detroit, of all preposterous places.”