The circus is either in town, or it isn't

Elaine Stritch tore off her black vest and white dress shirt in front of me, then fumbled around in only a bra and black stockings. She had just barreled off the tiny stage at the Café Carlyle, chased by wild applause, and was now at my elbow, cursing and thrashing and jiggling through a costume change for her encore. A gentleman would’ve averted his eyes, but I am not one. I am an admirer of Broadway divas, a wannabe broad myself, and here was the grande dame, nearly naked in front of me in her 80-year-old splendor, reeking of Max Factor and Gold Bond, demonstrating quite literally how a true performer must be vulnerable, always, even when projecting strength. I almost offered to help her, but then thought about the consequences if such an advance was unwelcome. When clothed, she squirmed her way back to the stage, through upper crusties scrunched shoulder to shoulder, and caterwauled through “You Gotta Have Heart” like her life depended on it. Which I think it did.

From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

Stritch was a visceral performer. Her artistry came from the guts. It was intestinal. And without a stage she would’ve starved. Her talent was one thing; her need was another. Her need to perform was just a little bit greater than her ability to perform. I adore her for that intransigence.

I swear to Sondheim: I was listening to her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” for the hundredth time this very morning. A couple hours later, Twitter said she was dead at 89.

The smaller show at the Carlyle, where she lived for a time, came after “At Liberty.” I saw it with friends on Oct. 18, 2005, and I took notes, because I knew it would be special. She entered beside me too. As the audience was applauding her imminent move to the stage, she chanted a mantra I couldn’t decipher, did a couple stretches and lunges, and then ran out into the audience toward the stage, where she jumped into “Yes I Can” with the volcanic testosterone of a football coach marshaling his losing team at halftime.

She then put the audience in her pocket by saying that it was “you and me against the world.” She gave out her room number at the Carlyle (309) and its phone number (which I still have written down). She threw out anecdotes like confetti — about old flames (“Here lies Kenny Reardon — about everything”), her friend Noël Coward (“'Good show, Stritchy, but I asked you to behave, not behave like a fucking geography teacher'”), glamorous parties on yachts (“I vaguely remember falling up the gangplank), rivals like Barbara Cook ("Oh please don't sigh") and a chaperoned date with Sinatra:

Sinatra: “People in the theatre are goin’ nowhere.”

Stritch: “It’d like to know where you are going, Mr. Sinatra.”

Sinatra: “Get her outta here.”

Elaine Stritch had balls, brass, brass balls, whatever you want to call it. She sank into alcoholism but surfaced. She aged publicly because her vanity was detached from her body (though thankfully not from her wardrobe). In the recent documentary "Just Shoot Me," she is rattled by the growing prospect of her death. Her terror is there on-screen, 30 feet high. Who would allow an audience into such a performance, as death waits in the wings? Stritch would. It was the only way to stay alive.

At the Carlyle show nine years ago, she did not sing her two signature Sondheim songs, “I’m Still Here” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” but they weren’t necessary. She’d already done them definitively, for posterity:

The songs she did sing were choice and revealing. When she sang “I Want to Get Married," 60 years seemed to melt off her face. When she sang “That’s Him” and “I’ve Been Alone a Long Time,” it was clear that her audience was the only lover she had left. Greater than the songs, though, was her patter in between them. She said two things in particular that guide me to this day, in some way.

At the end of a rambling anecdote: "The circus is either in town, or it isn't." This is one of the truest, simplest statements about life, right up there with Gilda Radner's "It's always something."

And: “Live expectantly. Expect better things. Right up to the end of your life, and beyond that. Widen your horizons. Get an ever-greater circle of friends in your life, if you’re lucky. And create for yourself every-day usefulness."

She said this because she'd lived it. Her gruffness masked an excitement over What Comes Next. Life, for Stritch, was a free-for-all. I loved how she accepted awards. I love how she said "fuck" on the "Today" show five months ago. I loved that she got good work on network television in her 80s. And I loved that she could be counted on for something like this Letterman bit in 1996. Who else could've pulled it off?

What else to say? Need something bad enough and you can stay good at it until you die. Everybody rise.