Elaine Stritch, a comb, and the white apple

I knew this day was coming fast. She was old. Old and getting older in every conceivable way. I imagine that Elaine Stritch had interesting relationships with everyone she came into contact with, mine was no exception. We knew each other for a total of probably 4 months, but in that time she made an impression on me that I will never be able to scrape off. I mean that for all the good and the bad implied. I’ve been around people who called her a spoiled cunt and people who called her a living legend. In truth she was probably a little of both though I can’t speak to the ratio of which to which. When I first met her I wanted to kill her and by the time we parted I admired her and could tell she admired me a little, maybe for putting up with her.

The first day I met Elaine was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where I worked in artist services, basically company management, and one of my last shows there was Endgame by Beckett. She was playing Nell, and I was only vaguely aware of who she was. You see I was not a follower of Elaine’s. I only knew of her as one of those names you hear from time to time. Someone who is famous in certain circles, but not mine, never mine. I had been assigned as the rep for that show, meaning I would be there from the time rehearsals started to the time the show ended, everyday, all the time. And though there were other members of the cast, I was really there for Elaine. You see she had a very specific schedule, unless she didn’t. I would meet her everyday before rehearsal and escort her up to the studio and then wait for he to finish and escort her back down. Some times I would sit in the rehearsal and watch the cast work. She was fiercely insecure, like I have rarely seen, and strong like an ox when she wanted to be.

The elevator door opened and she stepped off, walking past me in her white pants suit and giant sunglasses. She looked both ways like she didn’t know where she was going, grumbled something, and walked down the hall. I stood there knowing this could not be good. She was on the administrative floor of the building and there could be no good reason for that. I let the elevator door close and stood there for a second just watching, until finally I decided I needed to go. She was standing at the entrance of Joe Melillo’s office, the Executive Producer at BAM, asking the receptionist, in an angry voice, to see him. I made my way over and asked if I could help as the last thing I wanted was for her to make her way into Joe’s office. She proceeded to ask me if I was someone who could get things done. I said I thought so. Then she ranted for several minutes about what kind of a place BAM was, that we were real cheap and should be ashamed about the way she was being treated. Now, BAM treated her like royalty, but as I said, Elaine had a schedule, unless she didn’t. She was mad about her car. The car service that picked her up in the morning at her home, The Carlyle Hotel, brought her to BAM, and then took her back at the end of the day. She was angry that we were not paying for it. My job was to look at her contract, see what had been agreed to, and make that happen. Though I can’t remember now, I assume that we had not agreed to pay for the car unless it were under certain circumstances. As you can imagine that did not douse the fire, it only stoked it. At this point Joe could not ignore the noise outside his office and came out to see what was happening. I have always thought of Joe as the smartest, patient, and nicest of men. He seemed to have a calming effect on people. Not so much Elaine. He pulled her in his office and told me he would take care of things. Ten minutes later my boss, Mary Reilly, was in there too, hashing out something relative to her contract and what we would or would not cover. Mary was the only person I had ever seen go toe to toe with Elaine and still walk away with her dignity. That’s probably why Elaine disliked her so much, she could keep up her attitude as well as Elaine could. At the end of the day we ended up paying for the car. Elaine got her way. Elaine almost always got her way.

After a month or so, tech started and we moved from the rehearsal hall to the Harvey Theater. At this point I had become used to the very particular way Elaine had for calling my name. “Jaaaaaaash. Jaaash? Is that you?” It was like she had radar for the moment I walked in the door. She always knew.  Audrey Hoo, the production manager at the theater would be hard at work in her office and I would come rounding the door to hide or just take a breath before I dealt with her. Audrey would look at me and laugh, and say “Jaaash” mocking the dame just to make me feel better. Audrey and I bonded over Elaine then, and even though we haven’t seen each other in a while, I don’t think we ever stopped. I rounded the corner into her dressing room, the smallest in the building. In reality it was not even a dressing room, it was a handicapped bathroom. She had requested it deciding she could not make the journey up the stairs from the basement dressing rooms to the stage every night. It was perfectly reasonable given her age, and that even then she was very frail. Also, it would have been my job to carry her up and down the stairs every night. When I saw her I averted my eyes. I had been told, but had seem no signs of this up until now. I mean why would I? We had never been in a dressing room together, there had never been a reason for her to take her clothes off, but there she was, standing in a white button down shirt unbuttoned to her naval. That was all. She started talking to me, could see I was uncomfortable, and immediately started giving me shit. “What, you’ve never seen this stuff? Gimmie a fuckin break. Guy your age” Then she burst into laughter, which, made me smile and forget she was not wearing pants. From that moment on when I was with her in the theater, I never saw her in a pair of pants.

Opening night before the show she was standing in her dressing room with a small box in her hand. I saw it and knew it was from Mary, her opening night gift to Elaine. She had showed it to me earlier that day and asked if I thought she would like it. Truth be told I had no idea. As far as I could tell Elaine didn’t like anything but pantsuits, floppy hats, theater, and tights. She opened the box and pulled out the white ceramic apple. For a moment she was quiet, then she looked at me. “What the hell is this?” An apple I said. “Well I can see that. What’s it for?” It’s an opening night gift from Mary. “What’s it do?” I think you just look at it. “Why would I want this?” I have no answer for that. “Neither do I.” and she dropped the apple on her dressing room table.

One night I watched her make a 300 pound Russian man cry. Her driver, let’s call him Yuri. He was all muscle with a shiny bald head and I liked him a lot. He was a nice man, but you could tell that he held his own, nobody fucked with Yuri. Every night I would call for the car at a certain time during the show to make sure it was waiting for her when she walked out the door. The reason for this, so she said, was because she had to get home to take her insulin. I never understood why she didn’t keep it on her, but she didn’t, or said she didn’t. I called for the car at the usual time. When the show was over I did my usual wrangling of celebrity guests so they could say hello back stage and walk her out. This time, when I got outside the car was no place to be seen. “Hm”, I thought, he must be down the street. Elaine stood behind me near the door chatting with someone, but the whole time I could feel her anxiety level rising. “Jaaash, where is the car? Where is the fucking car Jash?” “Let me call.” I said. “Why don’t you wait inside Elaine?” “I don’t want to wait inside, if I want to wait inside I’ll fucking go inside. Where’s the goddamn car?!” It got worse and worse, until she was pacing the sidewalk at the stage door screaming at me. I never took it personally. At this point I was used to her abrupt change in mood or blood sugar, whichever it was, and it rolled off me like water. After what seemed like and hour, it was probably 20 minutes, the car rolled up. Yuri had not been driving since the show had started it’s run and was waiting for her near the other building, where we had rehearsals, about a block away. His dispatch had finally tracked him down and sent him to the correct spot. When he got out of the car to open the door a string of poisoned tipped profanity laced words, the like I have never heard, came soaring out of her mouth and stabbed poor Yuri right in the heart. Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He was totally unprepared. I helped him get her in the car and watched as he slipped into the drivers seat. As he drove away he turned and looked at me, tears pouring down his face.  I walked back inside the theater and standing inside the stage door was a group of about 10 people, silently staring at me. I was taken off guard by the group and smiled. Then, a woman who looked like she had been chosen to represent the group stepped forward and put her hand on my shoulder. “Are you ok?” She said. It took me a second to realize they were talking about Elaine’s tirade. “Oh I’m fine. Yeah. Totally used it”.

There are a many other stories. She made us take the door off her dressing room. Called me at 3am to tell me someone stole her wallet at the theater, only to discover it was in the freezer. Pulled me into her dressing room to talk about her car and ended up telling me the story of her life. Amazing stories about her husband, Marlon Brando, her childhood, and her fear of Beckett. It’s funny because a lot of what she told me are the same stories she told in her one woman show. As she told me these things I could see the tears in her eyes. They never flowed, but they were there, just on the edge of falling. She was one of the most emotionally volatile people I have ever met but this was the first time I realized how much she felt. Whether it was because of her blood sugar or her personality, she had an intense sense of everything around her, and being on stage was the only place she could direct that without hurting someone. Not that I could ever tell she cared if she did hurt someone, but on stage it was at least masked.

The night the show ended she again pulled me into her dressing room. “Jaash.” I walked in and she smiled, handing me an envelope with a check inside. I told her no, that it was not necessary, but she insisted. I can’t remember how much it was for, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t enough, not for what it had been. I mean it’s true, it was not necessary, I was getting paid, but I had never received a tip from anyone. Still, Elaine was living in a different era than the rest of us, and where she was from, that was just what you did. I took it and thanked her. Then she handed me a comb. “Jash, I want you to have this comb. I got it from the hotel.” She saw the look on my face. “What? This is a quality comb. If you don’t want it I’ll take it.” No, it was such a strange thing to be given that I felt like I had to take it. Then she got a funny look on her face and started to cackle a little. I liked it when she did this because it meant she was going to do something mischievous. She looked at me and asked me to get a sharpie, I went next door to Audrey’s office, borrowed one, and came back. When I came around the corner I saw Elaine with the white ceramic apple in her hand. “Say, remind me of your wife’s name again?” Nicole I said. She began to scribble on the apple and then handed it to me. It read, “To Josh and Nicole. Take care of the for me. Love, Elaine.” I couldn’t help it. I laughed. I laughed really hard.

That night everyone from the show went out to dinner at this little Italian place down the street. It was really nice, quiet, and warm. Even Elaine seemed relaxed, and she never seemed that way to me. Afterwards I walked Elaine to her car, which was on time, and she looked at me and smiled. “You’re one of the good ones.” she said as she patted my cheek. I gave her a hug and put her in the car. Then watching her drive away, headed toward Manhattan, I realized that might be the last time I saw her. I also thought, it’s not that big a city, people run into people all the time. Since then I’ve had friends who spotted her and texted me to say so, “Hey, I’m in line at the Shubert behind Elaine.” Or my Dad, a musical nerd, who liked to report when she was on 30 Rock, but I never saw her again. Elaine was one of the worst behaved actors I have ever worked with, but she was also more emotionally honest people I have ever met. It seems like those things together would make a great actor, but make life very difficult for a human being. In the end I found a peace with her and even liked her. I also now knew who Elaine Stritch was and would never forget it.  Goodbye Elaine.  Hope your car got there when you expected it.

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