John Bell on his book Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend
Sondheim brought them together. Think of Elaine Stritch forever. When John Bell came along to talk about songs. Now stop as John and Stritch became friends, a friendship that didn’t end until the end of pretend. Admiration kept them together… and what a pleasure. Everybody rise as John Bell
shares his story as a “Sondhead” and how one interview led to a growing relationship of camaraderie, closeness and truth with the one and only Elaine Stritch in his book.
Bell, a Division Head of Performing Arts and Producing Artistic Director at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania shares some of his rich experience knowing Elaine Stritch. His book is due for publication in September of 2019.
Showbiss: After knowing Elaine for the last six years of her life, what do you think was her most marked characteristic in the time you spent together?
John Bell: For me, what I found most interesting was watching her vacillate between her brash, “always onstage” person and the more vulnerable and gentle person she could be but rarely allowed people to see. Both made Elaine whole. As she faced her mortality, it was fascinating watching how her bossy and demanding self-represented her fight to hold on the reality she had shaped but then when her physical vulnerabilities began to overwhelm her and the fight began to wane. It was so revealing about how she built her life and survived in the business.
Showbiss: Please describe what “the end of pretend” meant to her as this expression is mentioned twice in your book on Stritch.
JB: Well it’s a phrase Elaine used a couple of times and it stuck with me. She used it to talk about the art of acting, how the act of pretending to be another was a driving force for her – creating the illusion for a couple of hours and the escape it provided. She also used it to talk about moving into the phase of her life where her career was ending and she was forced into facing the vagaries of aging and eventually dying.
Showbiss: When admirers of her talent look at her career, the song “Ladies Who Lunch” is most often than not thought of. Yet, “I Never Know When to Say When” from Goldilocks in 1958 is one that I love the most because as well as being brassy, cynical and smart… she could sing a ballad so well. Your thoughts on this?
JB: As an interpreter of song, Elaine was masterful. As I watched and studied her work, what I realized was that she was expert at digging into a lyric and conjuring subtext that was deeply personal. Therefore, when she delivered the lyric, it possessed the clear and full force of her intended meaning. I always felt as if the clarity of her intention is what drew me – and any listener – into her performance, resulting in a deep connection between artist and audience. I think Barbara Cook also did this very well in her work.
Showbiss: Let’s go back to when she lived at The Carlyle Hotel. How long did Elaine live there and didn’t that suit her just fine at that time?
JB: Elaine lived at the Carlyle for a number of years. The actual date has been reported with inconsistency, so I can’t say for certain. But you are right that it suited her just fine. She loved living in a fine hotel. It started when she spent nearly a decade in London and lived with her husband John in the Savoy Hotel. Then she eventually made her way to the Carlyle. Hotel living meant she had daily maid service, a front desk to field phone calls and take messages, bellmen to deliver the newspaper, room service, etc. In essence, hotel living mean she was paying for the staffing she needed and enjoyed.
Showbiss: The video footage of Elaine Stritch singing “Ladies Who Lunch” for the Broadway soundtrack of Company is quite a trip. Late night first with no notes and looking tired. Next day she’s got her hair done and nails it out of the park with her delivery. She was simply remarkable. Share some memories of talking with her about this.
JB: Well, we had a very frank conversation about what she learned during that experience. She had requested that she record the song last because he didn’t want everyone standing around watching her record it. As a result, she had sung multiple takes of the group number in full voice all day. By the time they got to “The Ladies Who Lunch” her voice was shot. Of course, any singer knows that when the voice is not able to operate to its potential, it’s extremely distracting, fighting the actor’s attempt at the storytelling. And that’s what was captured in the documentary – sheer self-induced frustration. The next day, after some rest, she was able to deliver both the vocal and interpretive forces as she had developed them for the stage production. She said it was the first time she really experienced the limitations of her voice and learned that one actually had to take care of the instrument.
Showbiss: For those who haven’t read your book yet, will you tell them why you wrote it and how this friendship came to be because of your admiration for Stephen Sondheim?
JB: Well, I wrote the book because I had experienced what I think was a rare relationship with Elaine and felt that people who knew of her might find it interesting. As far as the Sondheim connection, I have been a big “Sondhead” since my college days. In fact, I really only learned who Elaine was because of her role in COMPANY and her singing of “Anyone Can Whistle” from his ANYONE CAN WHISTLE on the Dick Cavett Show. I used my appreciation for Sondheim and my frequent contributions to THE SONDHEIM REVIEW to land my first interview with her. That was really that starting point of our relationship.
Showbiss: My favorite is still Elaine’s STRITCH album on Dolphin Records. Do you have it? I just ordered it on CD as my LP skips now. If you have heard of this… isn’t this the first recording she made of her own and what do you think of it?
JB: I do know this recording. The selections are fun, unexpected even for the time. But what I really enjoy is hearing her young singing voice. People who only know of her work from COMPANY onward would be surprised by the tone quality and vocal overtone she was able to produce. And her interpretations hint at the quirky freedom that would blossom in her cabaret shows at the
Showbiss: For me, her voice comes across so well in your book. From the swear words to the flirtatious nature she had… she didn’t suffer fools wisely if that’s a way to put it. Your thoughts on that?
John Bell: For me, it’s the crowning achievement of the memoir. Everyone who has read it who had any sense of Elaine mention that they can hear Elaine’s voice jumping off the page. That pleases me. I tried so hard to capture her words, rhythms, and cadences. When I read it, I hear Elaine so it’s my way of memorializing her.