The Shmooze

When Elaine Stritch Dated Marlon Brando

By Masha Leon

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Elaine Stritch, who died on July 17 at 89, was as feisty off-stage as on— whether belting out the the ode to imbibing: “The Ladies Who Lunch” or the survival anthem “I’m Still Here!.”

A presence at many a New York City bash, she was a participant in the November 17, 2003 “Stella By Starlight” Gala at the Rainbow Room to benefit the Stella Adler School of Acting. Stritch — an alumna — recalled: “When Ellen (Stella’s daughter) and I were both dating Marlon (Brando), Stella invited him to lunch at the Plaza. After lunch she said, ‘Marlon, you are not going to see Ellen any more…unless, darling, you marry her!’” Stritch chuckled: “Three waiters dropped their trays.” Stritch also recalled: “Stella made a purchase at Tiffany’s and when asked where to send it, she gave a New York address. ‘I thought you were English’ said the sales lady.’ Stella replied: ‘I’m not British… just affected.’” Stritch smiled: “I started to talk like her! And it scared the s**t out of me!”

Elaine Stritch and Masha Leon // Photo by Karen Leon

When I called Ellen Adler for some Stritch memories, she told me that her mother — grand dame of the legendary Adler Yiddish Theater dynasty — would say: “’When students come to me, they are bums. They don’t know how to talk, how to walk. When they leave me, they are artists.’” As an afterthought, Ellen Adler said: “When Marlon and Elaine were my mother’s students — both he and my mother would always yell at Stritch ‘Silence’!’”

When Stritch was honored at the January 23, 2005 Theater Hall of Fame Induction Awards Ceremony—in the presence of an assemblage of Broadway royalty that included Ruby Dee, Gwen Verdon and Al Hirschfeld, she quipped: ‘I am not going to do a ‘Sunset Boulevard” scene!” then dramatically yet cautiously descended the Gershwin Theater’s ornate curved staircase.

At the May 8, 2006 “88 Keys for Skitch Henderson” 23rd New York Pops Birthday Gala at Carnegie Hall, a gentle Stritch — with Marvin Hamlisch at the piano — poignantly sang “Fifty Percent” Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lament about a woman willing to settle for half of a married man’s attention.

Kid Rock, Elaine Stritch and Marvin Hamlisch // Photo by Karen Leon

Our last chat was following the March 29, 2009 opening night of Dan Gordon’s dramatic hit “”Irena’s Vow,” at the Walter Kerr Theater which starred Tovah Feldshuh as Irena Opdyke, a Christian Pole who saved a dozen Jews in the home of a Nazi officer. In what can best be described as a Cecil B. DeMille moment, as Feldshuh/Irena went down on her knees, gazing heavenward with hands clasped in prayer for guidance re her Jewish charges…a shattering BOOM! shook the theater. Ultimate actress Feldshuh — as Irena — “crossed herself” [not in the script I was told], as did a number of shell-shocked theatergoers. A few seats away from me sat a speechless Stritch—as rare a phenomenon as the freak storm’s thunder/lightning that hit the theater at that precise dramatic moment. She will be missed.


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