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They Say She Was Wonderful: Ethel Merman at 100

Brian Kellow is nicely attuned to the soft/tough dichotomy in Merman. Here was a woman capable of sympathizing with her friend Judy Garland’s illness, yet blind to her own daughter’s needs.

They Say She Was Wonderful: Ethel Merman at 100

On an evening in the mid-1970s, the actor Carroll O’Connor and his wife took Ethel Merman to hear Bobby Short at Café Carlyle. Merman, who could be strident in her disapproval of other singers, gargled champagne during the set. It was a gesture of hostility too much even for Archie Bunker, and although she and the O’Connors were to remain friends, Merman never had the guest shot on All in the Family that she pined for.

Merman would have been 100 years old on January 16, 2008. To mark the centenary of this Broadway singer and actress, to celebrate her long career that bridged Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and Sondheim, a pair of competing biographies arrive to pull back the curtain, to show us “La Merm” as she was, as separate from the show biz mythology that cloaks our memory of her.

From the East, comes Opera News columnist Brian Kellow’s Ethel Merman: A Life; from the West, Caryl Flinn, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona, rides in on Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman. In casting a scholarly eye on Merman’s stage successes and celluloid frustrations, Flinn not infrequently yields to the uncritical chutzpah of a fangirl (the professor boasts of owning Merman’s 1979 disco album, which she delights in spinning for “unsuspecting” dinner guests). Like any good gender theorist, Flinn emphasizes the “queering” of the former stenographer from Astoria, Queens. She maps Merman’s route from an efficient secretary (who caught naps on the job in order to recoup from moonlighting in nightclubs), to the overnight sensation who held the C above middle C for sixteen bars in “I Got Rhythm” at the 1930 premiere of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, and eventually to a late-in-life figure regarded, affectionately or not, as camp. To this end, Flinn revels in sprightly, indefatigably chipper prose, a kind of pop academia free association:

In her thirteen musicals, she never played a typical romantic lead. Yes, she often got her man…but usually the affair was too forced to make sense, a point made even through casting…Hollywood had plenty of trouble with Merman’s image, deeming it too brash for the film industry’s more genteel notions of…womanly glamour. Indeed, Merman’s femininity was always bedeviled: a castrato for Toscanini; the fantasy lesbian in the Jacqueline Susann rumor; [playing] the male Lieutenant Hurwitz in Airplane! Her gender never seemed to coincide fully with American norms, but at the same time, it didn’t escape them either…

Flinn’s book culminates in a discussion of drag queens as well as online personae who draw inspiration from “iconic Ethels,” as opposed to the real one. Kellow, his operatic background notwithstanding, eschews the outré. He takes a more conventional approach, and while it would nice to say that one method of biography captures the essence of the singer better than the other, the contradictory Ethel ultimately eludes both authors.

Well before Kellow and Flinn set out to reconstruct her life and times, Merman signed off on two ghostwritten autobiographies. “As told to Pete Martin,” Who Could Ask for Anything More (Doubleday, 1955) pictures the star on the dust jacket cover in Annie Oakley regalia, cresting her triumph in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun nearly a decade after the hit show opened. Twenty-three years later, a span of time that encompassed her still greater heights in Gypsy, her 1970 comeback/Broadway swansong Hello, Dolly!, an unfortunate marriage to Ernest Borgnine, and the accidental death of her daughter Ethel Geary, Merman returned to the tape recorder “with George Eells,” for Merman—an autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1978).

Although both are penned in the first person, the tones diverge wildly. Martin, a Saturday Evening Post writer who ghosted books for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, deemed Merman insufficiently revelatory and distorted her voice to a careening pitch. In Martin’s hands, Merman became an endlessly tough-talking “broad,” deriding performers who “use the melody to vocalize instead of just plain singing…Why can’t such people just open their mouths, lay it on the line…That’s where those expensive lessons come in…” That Merman quite famously never had a voice teacher adds an especially condescending touch to the manufactured outrage.

Merman had a sympathetic collaborator in Eells. In his transcriptions, she’s softer, wittier, more measured. Her devotion to her long-lived parents Edward and Agnes Zimmermann emerges, and there’s a warm sense of the comfort she drew from religion, a quality that Flinn ignores almost entirely, after her daughter’s overdose in August 1967. As authentic as the Merman voice sounds in Eells’s pages, there’s much for a biographer to leave out. We learn, for example, that Don Ameche, her co-star from the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, had “beautiful teeth,” whereas Tyrone Power’s “weren’t bad, but they weren’t as perfectly formed as Don Ameche’s either.” And yet there can be something endearing about her penchant for irrelevancy and what it obliquely reveals. Of the January 1958 suicide of her second husband Robert Levitt, Merman doesn’t linger on his depression; she instead praises his “marvelous taste” in jewelry and cuff links. A purported openness in discussing her 38-day union with Borgnine (husband number four) somehow drifts to a decision to switch from white mugs to brown when drinking tea.

In the latter half of the 1978 memoir, Merman twice mentions she “always hankered” to play Lady Macbeth. Neither Kellow nor Flinn brings this up. Nor do they mention her encounter with Helene Weigel who, after seeing Merman as Mamma Rose in Gypsy, approached her about playing the title role in Mother Courage. Both biographers are aware that Merman longed to extend her range in dramatic, non-singing roles. Rather than Shakespeare or Brecht, however, she had to settle for Batman and The Love Boat.

Kellow repeats much from the second autobiography, particularly stories concerning Merman’s earliest years; his fastidiously dry retellings of these chestnuts lack the color of the singer’s voice. Even in Eells’s reportage, the personalities who surrounded Merman never came to life. Here, their ghosts are paler still. Kellow speculates on her mother Agnes as a formidable authority figure, yet doesn’t draw this out. In his quest to be a “serious” biographer, he goes too far in the opposite direction from Martin, draining the narrative of jazzy theatrics—the buoyant qualities the book needs. Kellow stodgily contradicts Elaine Stritch’s superbly funny At Liberty reminiscence of Merman leaving the stage in mid-note, during a performance of Call Me Madam, to toss a drunken heckler out of the theatre and into the street. Flinn, sensibly, comes to the legend’s rescue: “The truth is almost immaterial, for by now, after the war, the tale was fully compatible with the toughening Merman image.”

Kellow is nicely attuned to the soft/tough dichotomy in Merman. Here was a woman capable of sympathizing with her friend Judy Garland’s illness, yet blind to her own daughter’s needs. “Sensitivity and anguish she didn’t understand and therefore she gave it nothing,” states granddaughter Barbara Geary, by way of explaining how Merman could foot the psychiatric bills for Ethel Jr., while not quite seeing the 25-year-old’s instability as a danger signal. On August 23, in the Summer of Love, Ethel Levitt Geary, having relocated from the nervous clime of LA to the bucolic-sounding Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, invited her two, young, non-custodial children to spend a holiday with her, and as they slept, she slipped away in a fatal mix of tranquilizers and vodka, much in the manner of her late father. Three weeks after Geary’s “unintentional suicide,” Merman had courage enough to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing Gordon Jenkins’s “This is All I Ask.” It was, Kellow writes, “one of the most tender, emotionally connected performances she had ever given…a study in heartbreak.” Kellow doesn’t quote from the lyrics, relying on us to know them. Her choice of this song, at the death of a child, seems not just an exploration of despair, it’s an admission of failure on some level.

Brass Diva has a major advantage over Kellow’s book: Flinn gained the cooperation of Merman’s son, Bob Levitt Jr., whose presence lends moral gravitas to Flinn’s account of Merman’s 1953 marriage to Robert Six. Six’s villainy in the Kellow and Eells portrayals was limited to his notorious cheapness. Even as CEO of Continental Airlines, Six expected his wife and two stepchildren to pay two-thirds of their airfare. A darker scenario surfaces in Flinn’s book: A gun enthusiast whose stepchildren from a previous marriage had perished in a house fire (while, somewhat mysteriously, their governess survived), Six, in Levitt’s testimony, physically assaulted Merman’s elderly parents, then in their seventies. Six’s irrationality defined the years Merman spent with him in the Cherry Hills suburb of Denver, a place where she “suffered male violence and covered it with a veneer appropriate to her class,” which is to say, she said nothing. It’s a difficult notion to reconcile: Ethel Merman—the belter, the “wisecracking dame” whose press and public image inevitably honed in on the loudness of her voice, the clarion call of her high notes—rendered silent by domestic abuse. In fact, this notion may be so difficult to reconcile with Merman’s stage and screen persona that the male reviewers who wrote about Brass Diva in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Observer skipped over any mention of spousal abuse—as though it were too unseemly a topic to broach. One of the things that makes Flinn’s book invaluable, despite its flaws, lies in exactly this: a willingness not to gloss over the truth—that that kind of violence could happen to any woman, even a star.

Flinn delineates bittersweet mother-son memories as well. When Levitt was a small boy, he and Merman, each night before she left for Broadway, would sing a rhyming song together. He would alter the words as they went along, getting the rhymes wrong as a way of, “stopping the song…so that we’d have to start over again, so that Mom would stay longer. So that she wouldn’t leave for the theatre.”

Kellow’s book, by contrast, draws much of its punch from good gossip. There’s no denying the appeal of how Merman, during the opening night intermission for Woman of the Year, swept unannounced into Lauren Bacall’s dressing room, helped herself to a stiff drink, then bounded out without so much as a word of congratulations to Bacall. Kellow needs anecdotes as gloriously bitchy as that one because—and one comes to this conclusion fairly early into Ethel Merman: A Life—the singer’s heyday and the conditions that made her the right voice at the right time are too remote from his own sensibility, and therefore Kellow lapses into journalese, such as in this cumbersome statement on Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, “Once audiences had fallen under his spell, they might be forgiven for wondering why it had taken so long for any one to figure out how to write this way.” (That “might be forgiven” may well be the most unforgivable of all hack rhetoric devices.) Professor Flinn not only has more passion than her rival biographer, she can succinctly sum up a distant era while imbuing the past with an in-the-present immediacy. She notes, by way of elucidating the mania that followed Merman’s October 1930 breakthrough in Girl Crazy, “Across the greater New York area, young working women responded to her as a Depression-era fantasy come true.”

Through both volumes runs Merman’s disappointment that her film career never came close to matching her triumphs onstage. “If you don’t exist in, for, and through the movies,” Merman once told The Associated Press, “well, you don’t exist at all.” And more often than not, that was the case. Kellow and Flinn each recount how Merman corralled family and friends to the New York premiere of her 1934 Paramount release, We’re Not Dressing, only to discover, as the reels unfurled, that her big production number had been cut entirely. Neither biographer has much to say about Merman’s encounter with another larger-than-life figure, Marilyn Monroe, with whom she worked on the set of the 1954 film There’s No Business Like Show Business, though even here Flinn’s digressions are more germane than Kellow’s, in particular her assertion that Monroe appropriated the song “Heat Wave” into “a steamy discourse on her own body.”

At the end of these two books, what then does one come away with on Ethel Merman? Although both biographers get close to their subject in certain ways, I’m not entirely sure that I could “see” Merman, in the way that, for instance, after reading David Hajdu’s Lush Life, I felt as though I inhabited the same breathing space where Billy Strayhorn once inhaled and exhaled. One thing, however, was certain: I could most definitely hear her.

For days, if not weeks afterward, the jukebox in my brain spun ‘round with the slow version of her anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which she sang in a kind of Sprechstimme on The Muppet Show. The lights on the back-stage set slowly dim, soften from white to amber before deepening to red, and Merman, in turn, caresses each Muppet with a delicate wave of her hand. Merman often said that of all her television appearances she felt this was the one that captured her true personality. I don’t think Kellow, perhaps not Flinn either, is willing to embrace that childlike strain. Yet there it is, from the young Broadway belter who continued to live at home with her parents, long after she attained financial independence, to the aging divorcée who remarked, “I love having the Christmas spirit the whole year round,” and indeed, from the early 1970s onward, kept a tree with lights in her East Side apartment throughout the year. It was as much a mainstay as the collection of Muppet dolls that adorned her bedroom.

Merman was time and again criticized as a less-than-felicitous interpreter of ballads, but the other song that kept replaying for me was this: her 1946 duet with Ray Middleton, “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from Annie Get Your Gun. “No matter what the emotional temperature,” Kellow writes, “she generally sang one way: the big, stentorian Merman way…” I disagree. To hear the tenderness with which she approached “They Say It’s Wonderful” is to be haunted by a searching quest for love unobtainable. In this three-minute number, she sang wistfully of “I can’t recall who said it. I know I never read it. I only know they tell me that love is grand, and…the thing that’s known as romance is WONDERFUL, wonderful, in every way…so they say.” And this was recorded when her worst marriages were still to come—that plaintive little “so they say” destined to echo forever.

House contributor N.P. Thompson regularly writes for Willamette Week, Northwest Asian Weekly, and sometimes for his own site,

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