Dec/Jan 2008

Call Her Madam

On the eve of her centennial, Ethel Merman stars in two new biographies.

Rachel Shteir


It is surprising to learn that until this season, when no less than two biographies of Ethel Merman are being published on her centennial, she has attracted little serious interest. Besides her two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1955) and Merman (1978), the single prior biography is by one Geoffrey Mark, a self-professed “walking encyclopedia of show biz history.” But Mr. Walking Encyclopedia writes with all the sympathy and insight of a twelve-year-old. Here he is, describing Merman’s tumultuous and painful divorce from Robert Six, then chairman of Continental Airlines: “Ethel once again flew to Mexico for a quickie divorce (strike two).” Besides moving up Six’s rank in the husband conga, Mark is too fond of schlocky puns. This is biography as Catskills act.

So as an act 1 closer, here come two biographers to deliver the showstoppers: Brian Kellow, an editor at Opera News, wrote Ethel Merman: A Life (Viking, $26) because of an accident. (A writer bagged on an assignment.) Caryl Flinn, an author of books on theater and cinema and a professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona, has, by her own account, been obsessed with Merman since childhood and has produced Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman (University of California Press, $35), a meticulously researched book aspiring to put the star in her social and cultural context. Flinn admires Merman, whom she sees—in the character of Annie Oakley—as personifying “American grit, determination, and vitality.” Her goal is nothing less than to “trace the different Mermans who lived, privately and publicly, for so many Americans across the twentieth century.”

So who do you think will be dancing with the stars?

• • •

Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman. She was a great Broadway entertainer whose life spanned seven decades––the Great Depression, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam––and the rise and fall of the American musical theater. You could say that she was Broadway in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is France. She was not so much a woman as a national monument.

Where legend mongering is concerned, the legend puts us all to shame. In her epony­mous memoir (cowritten with George Eels), Merman tackles the question of who the woman was behind the legend the way so many stars did, and do: She’s just a simple girl from Queens who loves Almadén, hamburgers, and costume jewelry. She never cooks, she hangs out with her parents and childhood friends, and she can still get hurt in love. Merman is most remembered for “Chapter XXVIII: My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine,” whom she divorced directly after their honeymoon. This was a blank page.

But the Ethel-as-simple-girl story is so popular that it has gotten passed around like s’mores at a campfire. Here is director and playwright Arthur Laurents in his memoir, Original Story By, describing the actress, in 1959, when he was proposing that she play Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother in the musical based on the stripper’s life: “not very bright but shrewd, common but charismatic, able to defeat you before you could get a swipe at her and, pure Rose, a walking, exuberant advertisement for Self-ignorance is bliss . . . not bright, no, but endearing and despite a life spent in saloons, childlike.”

A second side of this legend is the Merman known to aficionados of the Broadway musical: Born in New York in 1908 as Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, Merman, after working as a stenographer in Queens, became the proverbial overnight-success story at twenty-two, cast in George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and singing “I Got Rhythm.” The crowd went wild.

Over the course of her career, Merman starred in Anything Goes, Red, Hot, and Blue, Stage Door Canteen, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy, and she continued to perform until dropping dead in 1984 at seventy-six. Her performance in Gypsy deserves special mention. Tackling Rose let her step out of the gritty, sentimental heroines she had played in the 1930s and ’40s and also marked the degree to which the American musical theater had changed. The cold war had made Americans demand more cynical popular entertainment, which also spelled the end of the era.

And what about her private life? Like so many female success stories, the legend has it that happiness eluded Merman. But here I must protest. It is true that she married four times and that her husbands seemed to resent being Mr. Ethel Merman. She had a long affair with Sherman Billingsley, the owner of the Stork Club. Bob Levitt, the alcoholic husband she claimed to have loved the most, killed himself. Others abused her. She seems to have been haunted by the fear that men were using her for her money.

Yet so much of this davening to Merman’s inability to choose a romantic partner turns her into a case in a glossy article about “good women, bad choices.” No one thinks to say that she was in love with performing and so sought out men who could not interfere. It always has to be about the tragedy of domestic life. But we are not talking about a housewife. We are talking about one of the wealthiest women in showbiz.

And yet there is no avoiding the fact that Merman endured her share of tsuris, and not just in the man depart­­ment. Her daughter died of an overdose.

As for her performing, even in Merman’s heyday not everyone adored the simple-girl-from-Queens routine. Stephen Sondheim once described her as a “talking dog.” Actors complained that instead of delivering her lines, she played to the audience. But Merman knew that bravado posing as willed amateurishness connects better than suspension of disbelief. In America, we like to pretend that our actors found their talent in an alley, the way a dog finds something to eat in a pile of shit.

• • •

The jacket of each new biography tells you everything you need to know about its take on the Merman legend: Kellow goes for bygone glamour––the Hirschfeld drawing. Flinn goes for complexity—a photo of the Merm, maybe fifty-something, looking over her shoulder and grinning. If this is Come Hither, it is as the Dragon Lady. In both, Merman’s mouth is open in one of her signature “belts.”

But before I get to belting, let’s dispense with Kellow, among whose many annoying habits is to tell us what Merman is thinking, à la Edmund Morris. Here he is on why she married Borgnine in 1964: “She knew that for a woman in her mid-fifties, there weren’t going to be many more chances, and she decided that at last she had found the ideal man.” Kellow makes much of Merman’s using the word fing to describe the friends she had dropped, as if using a made-up word somehow transformed her into the Hit Woman of Forty-second Street.

In Brass Diva, Flinn wants to deconstruct Merman, but she also wants to write a serious history of the American musical theater. She aspires to compensate for the fact that history has erased certain Ethels and pushed others forward, namely, “old Broadway’s life force and queen or the boisterous camp icon.” She takes great pains to connect the “neglected” Mermans with the legendary ones. Sometimes this works, and other times it is like forcing the football players to dance with the wallflowers at the prom. They step on each other’s toes. But one of Flinn’s many successes is when she links Merman’s belting—a word that, she points out, came into usage only in the ’50s—to that of other ethnic singers and then connects the superhuman quality of said belting with Merman’s down-home Queens image.

At least Flinn never tries too hard to reconcile Merman’s contradictions. And yet some of her observations are staggeringly generic: To say that Merman reinvented herself in the ’20s and ’30s is to say very little about a performer raised in the theater of the time. To say that she was cooler in business than in love—well, that describes nearly every woman (and man) I know.

One place where both books fail is in trying to convince the reader that the young Merman was a babe. This seems misguided. Merman never had “It” in the fashion of the day. She became a star because she was friendly. She never played the ingenue or sexpot. Give me back my goddess! When she went to Hollywood in the ’30s, she was cast as the mother of the romantic lead.

By giving so much space to the neglected Mermans, Flinn exhausts the reader. No movie––no matter how insignificant—goes unviewed. No revival goes undiscussed. This reader gets a little impatient with the detail about Merman’s cameos in Batman in the ’60s, her Love Boat episodes, and her disco record.

But it’s not just impatience. Sometimes details need more than to be simply thrown out there. For example, Flinn establishes that Six, Merman’s third husband, physically abused her, and she puts to rest the debate about whether Jackie Susann had an affair with Merman. (She didn’t.) OK. But Flinn shouldn’t stop there—the facts alone can never cancel out the myth unless the facts can be raised to a new mythology.

Flinn sees each stage in Merman’s career as part of the churning of the star process. For Merman to be transformed is less about who Merman actually was than about who we wanted her to be. This is an unsatisfying resolution, reminding me of the campus relativists who are always pestering you to teach a Rainbow Coalition of literature. Maybe these days a Rainbow Coalition biography is the best we can do. One thing is for sure: On Broadway and off, we are no longer, as Flinn describes Merman, “confident and connected despite it all.”

Rachel Shteir is at work on a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee and a book on kleptomania.

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