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Shut Up and Drink Your Champagne: The Impossible Life of the Impossible Elaine Stritch

The story of Stritch’s collaboration with Prince, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth on the landmark 1970 musical “Company” is the high point of Jacobs’s storytelling, intense and rollicking, as we follow the creation of the character of Joanne, so clearly modeled on Stritch, and Sondheim’s bravura merging of character and actor in “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the song that ultimately defined Elaine Stritch in the minds of audiences for the rest of her career. (Sondheim, Prince and Stritch each claims sole credit for the concluding refrain of “Everybody rise!”)

Once “Company” opens in London, Stritch meets John Bay, a kind actor who is happy to be Elaine’s audience, and their 10-year marriage seems to go by in amiable alcoholic codependency while Elaine’s career putters onward — she succeeds with a Tennessee Williams play, she drives everyone crazy on a British sitcom, she receives a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes — and suddenly Bay dies of a brain tumor, and Stritch is left unmoored at 57.

As Elaine embarks on the third act of her life, the book picks up steam. Deprived of her domestic companionship and finally sober (although her fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members question whether Elaine was ever really on the wagon), Stritch begins to transform from actress to icon, challenged and encouraged by Prince (again), Woody Allen, and, finally, John Lahr and George C. Wolfe, who wisely frame her as the star of her own story and lead her, at last, to her long-sought-after Tony Award with her dazzling one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.”

Even in triumph, Elaine is tedious, ungrateful, grasping, but what is undeniable is her gift as a performer, her ability to be both cauterizingly acerbic and heartbreakingly vulnerable at virtually the same time. Alas, while Jacobs, an editor and writer at The New York Times, includes several lucidly detailed descriptions of Stritch’s onstage performances (including a beauty from Dick Cavett), she can’t quite manage to bring Stritch’s genius into balance with her overwhelming neurosis. When Elaine would stand onstage and bring an entire rehearsal to a halt because she felt as if nobody were paying enough attention to her — a scene I witnessed many times — it wasn’t an act; her panic and fear were palpable and sad. But it was hard to feel sympathy for her in those moments, watching her rail and shout and cry, insensitive to the needs of anyone else in the room, perpetually unsatisfied. How could her work be so observant, so detailed, so responsive, when she herself seemed incapable of empathy, of real connection?

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