A Stritch In Time

It's not for nothing that Liz Smith describes her friend Elaine Stritch as "divinely difficult." "If being difficult is part of being true to yourself, then she's got a point," says Stritch. "Other than that, f--k her." Oh, my. Now we see how "At Liberty," the amazing one-woman show Stritch is moving to Broadway from the Public Theater this week, acquired the credit "Constructed by John Lahr. Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch." "The reconstruction means I had the last say," she says. "Damn right I did."

That doesn't mean Stritch always shows her divine self off to its best advantage. One of the most hilarious stories in "At Liberty" involves an audition for a sitcom back in the 1980s. It seems that Stritch has a habit of inserting a certain four-letter word (see above) into her lines to spice things up. That may play fine in New York, but the folks at NBC were not amused. Which is how Bea Arthur came to star in "The Golden Girls" and Stritch did not. Is she bitter? Not on your life. "I could have made a lot of money doing 'Golden Girls,' and I would have been good," says Stritch over coffee at her corner table at New York's posh Regency Hotel. "But the image of it! And for me to work with Betty White every day would be like taking cyanide."

In case you didn't notice, Stritch is not the kind of woman who goes in for the sappy self-indulgence that pollutes most one-person shows. In fact, "At Liberty" is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch's career and life. Almost every nook and cranny of "At Liberty" holds a surprise. Turns out she dated Marlon Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, though she dropped Ben when Rock Hudson showed an interest in her. "And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be," she says. And then there were the shows. A British writer recently called Stritch "Broadway's last first lady," and when you see her performing her signature numbers from "Company" and "Pal Joey" and hear her tell tales of working with Merman, Coward, Gloria Swanson and the rest, it's hard to argue. Especially since she does it all dressed in a long white shirt and form-fitting black tights. It's both a metaphor for her soul-baring musical and a sartorial kiss-my-rear gesture to anyone who thinks there isn't some life left in the 76-year-old diva. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'Is this the last thing you're going to do?' " says Stritch. "In your dreams! I can't wait to get back into an Yves Saint Laurent costume that isn't mine--but will be when the show is over."

The irony in all this is that Stritch isn't really a tough gal at all. For all her barking, she never got far from being the nice Roman Catholic girl from the Detroit suburbs. Stritch was a virgin until she was 30, which explains how her romance with Brando ended after one date. She could be naive, too. These days she's plenty confident (naturally) about using her buzz-saw voice and drop-dead timing to turn just about any song into her own personal revelation. But she had no idea she was creating a masterpiece back in 1970 when she sank her teeth into Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch." "One of the greatest compliments I've ever had in my life was when Sondheim said to me, 'You've turned what I thought was just a simple saloon song into a piece of theater'," she says. "I just wanted to learn the f---ing lines and sing it."

Work came first for Stritch, and if there's a sadness in "At Liberty," it comes from a sense that she may have sacrificed too much for her fabulous career. Despite the string of glamorous boyfriends, Stritch had only one great love: actor John Bay, and he died after they were married just 10 years. Well, she did have another great love--booze. She makes no bones about her battles with the bottle. Many alcoholics have a favorite drink. Stritch had a favorite drink in every show: " 'Angel in the Wings'--Canadian Club. 'Pal Joey'--Beaujolais Villages. 'Call Me Madam'--white wine, champagne on matinee days. 'On Your Toes'--Dewar's." And the list goes on. There are times when "At Liberty" feels like a really, really good AA meeting. Stritch doesn't mind that. "It's so much a part of my life," says Stritch, now sober for 14 years. "Like with any addict, it's about finding out who you are." Besides, Stritch may have been an even more formidable drinker than she is a performer. She tells a great tale about toasting closing night at the Palace Theater with Judy Garland. Actually, it was 8 the next morning when Garland--no slouch in the liquor department herself--turned to Stritch and said, "Elaine, I never thought I'd say this, but good night."

If there's any justice in the world, Stritch will get a Tony for "At Liberty." Believe it or not, she's never won one. She doubts she ever will. "I know why I'm not the girl they're most likely to vote for," she says. "Talent is very dangerous. It alienates people." Anyway, Stritch is too busy to worry about silly stuff like awards. After its limited run on Broadway, she'd like to take "At Liberty" to London, where she lived with her husband. She's already booked a run in "Pal Joey" in California with Dixie Carter. Then she's off to do a TV movie starring--Betty White. "Betty White is probably a very nice woman," she says semi-sincerely. "Anyway, it's just a small part." Watch your back, Betty. The fact is, Elaine Stritch has never played a small part in her life.