Authors: Boze Hadleigh
thel Merman was probably the biggest star Broadway ever produced. Also the loudest, renowned for her bold, brassy voice more than for her looks or acting—she sometimes made a bargain with a costar that she wouldn’t react to his lines if he wouldn’t react to hers. A native New Yorker, she was born Ethel Zimmerman (1908–1984), an only child who enjoyed singing and as a young adult became an almost overnight success. Ethel went from a stenographer who sang at private parties and nightclubs to a Broadway star in the Gershwins’
in 1930 with maximum confidence.
She reportedly never had to audition, didn’t have to rise through the ranks, and was never “one of the kids” in the chorus, facts which ingrained in her a sense of predestined stardom and privilege. Seemingly nerveless, Merman once said, “Why should I worry? I’m good. If I wasn’t, I’d be an audience, not a star.”
Her low tolerance for “excessive” rehearsal, she explained, was on account of “whenever I open my mouth to sing, it comes out swell.” “The Merm,” as she was often called—sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively—definitely knew her own worth. In later years, when a TV talk show host commented that Broadway had been very good to her, she shot back, “Yeah, and I’ve been very good to Broadway!”
There were two frequent misconceptions about Merman. One, that she was Jewish. In fact, the lifelong Episcopalian Republican was at times vocally anti-Semitic—also homophobic, misogynistic, penny-pinchingly cheap, greedy
(she demanded extra tickets to her shows, which she then “scalped” for considerable profit), and cheerfully vulgar, even obscene.
Two, that she was lesbian. After all, she was nearly as butch as actor Ernest Borgnine, her fourth, final, and least-loved husband. “All men are cheatin’ bastards,” she concluded upon quickly divorcing him. In fact, the Merm was heterosexual, or at least predominantly so. She may have had an affair with obsessive admirer Jacqueline Susann, who after Ethel abruptly terminated their relationship took revenge by closely patterning Broadway villainess Helen Lawson after her in her number-one best-selling novel
The Valley of the Dolls
As early as
(1934), Merman had refused to sing Cole Porter’s “Kate the Great” because of its sapphic and clergical references. Due probably to his jittery homosexuality (which unlike, say, Noel Coward, Cole camouflaged with a wife), Porter readily dropped disputed songs. “Merman wasn’t just the star of almost everything she was in, outside of Hollywood,” said actor Keith Prentice, “she was a tyro and a tyrant used to getting her way.” Playwrights, producers, and writers knew that she would put up with only so many dialogue changes while rehearsing a new show; she thereafter became what she called “Miss Birdseye,” for as far as she was concerned, the show was “frozen.” Since she was most always a hit and a money-spinner, associates put up with her habits.
“What she didn’t have was tact,” explained Prentice, who appeared in
but became known as the handsomest of
The Boys in the Band
. “Merman could be humorous, she could even compromise, but diplomacy she did not have.… To be fair, she was a perfectionist. She worked damn hard and expected others to. But she did turn off so many people with that confrontational manner.… It didn’t scarcely matter. She didn’t have to refine herself or mend her ways, as it didn’t really hurt her career.”
Nonetheless, the lack of like from many of her peers and the theatre establishment meant that a theater was never named after her, as with Helen Hayes, Lunt and Fontanne, female impersonator Julian Eltinge (after whom an American battleship was also named), and even critic Brooks Atkinson. Elaine Stritch was quoted in the book
It Happened on Broadway
, “She made a lot of enemies because she wanted to get it right. She was a selfish old broad. Still, it’s a sin that they haven’t named a theater for her.”
ESPITE IT ALL
—and the fans didn’t know the half of it in those days,” believed record and revue producer Ben Bagley, “fans couldn’t help admiring and relishing Ethel Merman. Belting out a song or just owning the stage, no one could touch her.” Strangely, in one of her two memoirs she asserted that her voice was inimitable. On the contrary, hers became one of the most imitated—by women and men, then and now—of singing voices. “Merman was
so wrapped up in herself,” said Bagley, “she couldn’t be a good judge or objective about herself.… She knew she wasn’t overly cultured, very educated, but she thought she was a reasonable, regular person.”
Besides her at times scalding tongue, the Merm was very competitive, blunt, and childishly crude. After viewing the unique, not-yet-a-star Carol Channing in
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
(1949), Ethel mirthfully informed her, “You walked like you hadda pee.” Carol was dumbfounded: “That was her complete summary of my portrayal of Anita Loos’s monumental character Lorelei Lee.” In her memoirs, Channing repeatedly professed a fan’s adoration of Merman, who was apparently oblivious to her own impact on others, particularly her often unintentional humor. She would often ask Carol, “What the hell are ya laughin’ at?”
Long after, when Channing was a hit in
, she fell out of Merman’s good graces. At one public function, Carol said, “Hello, Ethel,” to no response. Columnist Radie Harris asked, “Don’t you answer Carol when she says hello?”
“Carol who?” said Merman, while Channing thought, “Maybe she doesn’t like hit shows that she isn’t in?”
“Did you see
, Ethel?” asked Radie.
“Yeah, I turned that show down,” which was the first Carol heard of it. (Jerry Herman had written it for Merman, who wasn’t interested in working anymore.)
Another time, Carol was invited to Sardi’s restaurant to help hang someone’s caricature in front of the press and photographers. She and Ethel were to do the joint honors. But the Merm declined. “Nope, no picture. Not wit’ Carol.”
Many years after that, the two would work together in Los Angeles on a
episode. They re-met in a limousine en route to the studio. Channing found that Merman now bore a striking resemblance to silent-movie star Harry Langdon. Silent, however, she was not. In the backseat, she yelled, “Hi, Carol!” then enthused, “I had the strangest airplane trip out here. A passenger was bleeding from the rectum.”
Carol pondered, “Now that’s the first thing she’s said to me since 1964,” and wondered why Ethel was suddenly so chatty after such a long estrangement. Explanation was ventured by Mary Martin: that Merman’s eventually fatal brain tumor had been growing for nobody knew how long. However, Channing thought Ethel’s behavior had never really changed at all.
In any case, Merman had taken it upon herself to diagnose the bloody passenger. “What the hell are ya laughin’ at? I’m a
nurse,” she informed Channing. “I volunteered to serve at Roosevelt Hospital for every Thursday.”
Carol would write, “Now I ask you, if you were strung up in Roosevelt
Hospital, wouldn’t you dread Thursdays? I mean, this woman walks into your room … and screams, ‘Ah’m your nurse! Roll over.’ Wouldn’t you? Dread Thursdays?”
While filming the
episode, Ethel’s jowls were alleviated by hidden rubber bands that pulled her lower face up and gave her a perpetual—until they were released—smile, which made her less intimidating to coworkers. One day, Merman was installed under a large, heavy hair dryer in order to give her extra curls. (Flouncy hairdos and dresses helped mitigate her innate manliness.) A few minutes later, Ethel barked, “Hey, I’m burnin’ up. Come here, you bitch. Get me outta here.” But since she was still smiling, attention wasn’t immediately paid. The upshot was that Merman’s ears got singed and were red and swollen for about a week.
Channing noticed that Ethel’s once “brilliant, electric mind” couldn’t comprehend script changes—for example, two additional lines. Nor could she remember that Channing’s character’s name was Sylvia. “ ‘Hey! Cybill! Sophie! Shirley! Come here, ya dumb cunt!’ And I would come … just like any of us would once we experienced her onstage.”
In 1983 Merman suffered a massive stroke. Tests revealed a malignant brain tumor, and ten months later she died. Friendly rival Mary Martin stated publicly, “I
to be glad that she was gone, because Merman without performing or without sound would never make Merman happy.” She’d deteriorated fast and terribly, cruelly frustrated by her immobility and a limited ability to communicate—also by the cortisone that swelled her face and the chemotherapy that cost her her hair. Carol Channing recalled,“ I went from Ethel’s [room] straight to my lawyer to make out a living will. No one should suffer like Ethel did.”
WAY FROM THE LIMELIGHT
, Merman’s life had often been anything but a bed of roses. Her only daughter died from a drug overdose that Merman insisted was not a suicide. Her only son’s wife, actress Barbara Colby—best remembered as the prostitute Mary meets in prison in
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
—was mysteriously shot to death. And Robert Levitt, Merman’s second husband, with whom she had two children, killed himself after eventually remarrying.
Merman asked friends if she wasn’t a terrible mother. While her children were growing up, she strongly favored Robert over Ethel Jr. (Yet how many mothers name their daughter Junior?) Toward the end of her life, when Merman had to fly to Rio de Janeiro, she telephoned Robert to ask if he’d like to fly down with her. Perhaps unwilling to endure a long flight together, he replied instead that he’d be glad to
her there. “How do you raise a son so he understands?,” she asked. Mother and son had many ups and downs, but were reconciled when Ethel’s terminal illness was discovered.
Career had long come first and had delayed her getting married, which she did for the first time (in 1940) after breaking off with a married family man. For thirty years Merman was the queen of Broadway, ending on a high note with the popular and critical success of
(1959). Her Broadway career, which she intermittently resumed, ended in 1970 when she took over the lead in
, to carry that production to its 2,844th performance, and the “longest-running Broadway musical” title (held for nine months, before
Fiddler on the Roof
surpassed it). Merman made her first film in 1930 and her last in 1980, yet she never made many and never became a movie star. She was too large, too
for that close-up medium.
“Ethel was never a beauty,” said Ben Bagley, “and had neither the vulnerability required of a lead actress nor the acting gift required for dramas and romances.”
Merman’s self-absorption and dedication to her work were legendary—to the point that her character’s line in
, “Sure, I know there’s a war on. I read
” was often attributed to her. Via her long string of musicals, the Merm introduced more musical standards, hits, and now-classics than probably any other American singer, starting with “I Got Rhythm” in 1930.
Unwavering belief in her performing style was another Merman trait. In 1956 she was rehearsing
with Argentine heartthrob Fernando Lamas, who shortly interrupted to ask, over her head, if the actress was going to be reading her lines to the audience while he read his lines to her? Offended, the star asserted, “Mr. Lamas, I want you to know that I have been playing scenes this way for twenty-five years on Broadway.”
The macho foreigner replied, “That doesn’t mean you’re right. That just means you’re old.” Another feud had begun. The hit musical included an inevitable kiss between its unsimpatico costars. Lamas eventually did the unthinkable and unprofessional when after The Kiss he walked to the footlights and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The incident became news, and Mike Wallace asked him about it on TV. Lamas described kissing Merman as “somewhere between kissing your uncle and a Sherman tank.”
The infuriated star filed a protest with Actors’ Equity, which reprimanded the Latin lover.
, Ethel’s male lead was the non-singing Jack Klugman, pre-TV stardom. During his audition he’d feared having to compete with the big Merman sound during their duet, “Small World.” Director Jerome Robbins begged Ethel to for once lower the volume, which she did. “She sang so softly, so un-Mermanly,” offered composer Jule Styne, “that her voice cracked.” She normally sang at full throttle, whether in rehearsal or in performance. Once, after rehearsing “Before the Parade Passes By” in the producer’s office for a TV special, she received applause from an office two doors away.
(Due to the fact that she could carry a show on her own and also because she made each show her own, male stars were generally unwilling to costar with her. Her male leads, who weren’t so much her costars as her characters’ love interests, were typically lesser-known, faded, or foreign actors, who also had to be macho enough not to be overpowered by her.)