Contrary to what you’ve heard, not everyone dies.
Stritchie. I called her that, I suppose, because Noël Coward did—what better provenance!
I first saw her 67 years ago. She had stormed onto the stage in Paul and Grace Hartman’s revue Angel in the Wings, singing “Bongo Bongo Bongo, I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo.” A few years later, I was a stage manager of the Hartmans’ next revue, Tickets, Please! Stritchie, relating to them as family (we all did), hung around. I met her. She’d never remember that. After all, I was just a kid and she was an older woman. Well, three years older.
I don’t know how “originals” originate, but I expect she was born one. She was as quick, smart and articulate as anyone I’d ever known. And she was naïve—always a convent girl. She was just as clueless as she was sophisticated. And, though she was dubbed a musical comedy star, she was, in reality, a brilliant actress who often starred in musicals.
In Company, her friend George Furth wrote the role of Joanne for her, and Steve Sondheim did the same with “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I directed that musical and no one has ever come close to matching her performance.
That was 45 years ago. Seems like yesterday.
Thank God the Pennebakers captured her performance during the cast recording of that score. The essence of her enthusiasm, her “brights,” and her selfish obsession with getting her work right was documented for posterity.
We became good friends in 1970, and my family became her extended family. When she married for the first time, she picked John Bay, and he was a miraculous fellow. He had humanity in spades, he was talented and warm—the warmest.
In the summers, we lived in Majorca. Elaine and John visited us, and John mesmerized our children with Daffy Duck, his specialty, and, for an encore, Groucho Marx. But the point is, Elaine waited until John Bay came along. She passed up Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara. And she made a great wife.
For many years, the Bays lived at the Savoy in London. Swanky as hell. John, Elaine and Bridget, her dachshund. The Savoy had a strict “no dogs” policy, but Elaine carried Bridget around in a large tote—hairbrush, a little makeup, miscellaneous girl stuff, and Bridget, her head sticking out the bag to see and be seen. The Bays were guests of the Savoy. Very little money changed hands. Elaine was their mascot, as she seemed to be, years later, at the Carlyle.
Always ritzy, Elaine lived in style. But, though she was built for fashion, she preferred her signature silk blouse and black pantyhose, revealing the longest, slimmest legs, and a hat. (“Does anyone still wear a hat?!”)
Elaine was underestimated for most of her career.
Of course, she should have won Tony Awards for Bus Stop, Company and the revival of Albee’s A Delicate Balance. But she had to wait until she did her one-woman show to win her first Tony.
John Bay was the scion of a Middle West family who made Bay’s English Muffins. Every Christmas, we—all of her friends—received a year’s supply of them. No mention of who sent them. None necessary. And we expect to receive them next Christmas.
Here’s to the girls on the go—
Look into their eyes,
And you’ll see what they know:
But never Stritchie.
Harold Prince is a Broadway producer and director.
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