FSB Author Article
Remembering Ethel Merman
By Tony Cointreau,
Author of Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta
When I think back upon it, I can see why Ethel Merman considered her role as Mama Rose in Gypsy to be the pinnacle of her career. I was mesmerized watching her create this monster of a mother, repelling you and making you love her at the same time. I stood and cheered with the rest of the audience as she belted out the last few bars of "Rose's Turn," which she always referred to as her "soliloquy:"
"Everything's coming up roses
This time, for me,
For me, for me, FOR ME, FOR MEEEEEEEE!"
Years later, the well known actor-dancer Harvey Evans, who had been in many Broadway shows, said, "A lot of great actresses have played Mama Rose, but Ethel Merman was." On June 19, 1992, Clive Barnes would write in The New York Post, "Merman was a belter with a gimmick, and the gimmick was called genius." I couldn't have agreed with him more.
After the show, we went backstage. Miss Merman had invited Little Ethel and me to join her for a late supper at Sardi's. While we waited for her to change out of her costume, Little Ethel took me into the wings and, with her great sensitivity, stood back so I could experience for the first time what it was like to stand alone on a massive Broadway stage. As I looked out into the vast, already dark 1752-seat theater, with only a "ghost light" for illumination, the whole six-foot-two of me felt very small and inadequate -- which was strange, in a way, since, later on, the stage would be the only place I would feel at home.
By the time Little Ethel and I arrived at her mother's surprisingly small pink-and-white dressing room, I had to go to the men's room so badly that I shyly asked if there was a bathroom nearby I could use. Miss Merman pointed to a spot hidden behind some costumes where, to my horror, I found a little cubbyhole with barely more than a curtain for privacy. I knew that the other people in the room would be able to hear me as clearly as I could hear them. And I would rather have died than have Ethel Merman hear me urinating.
It was agony flushing the unused toilet and then waiting to get to Sardi's before finding any relief.
Sardi's restaurant was synonymous with show business. Most opening night parties were held there while everyone waited for the reviews to appear in the newspapers. All the great stars congregated at Sardi's after appearing in or seeing a Broadway show, and the red walls were covered with their caricatures. Miss Merman told me that up to that evening, only one caricature had ever been stolen -- hers.
At Sardi's that evening, the conversation was mainly with theater people stopping by to say "Hello" to Ethel Merman. There was a constant parade of performers paying their respects to the woman most often referred to as "the first lady of Broadway." Miss Merman was gracious to them all and got a kick out of introducing them to me. Jule Styne, who wrote the music for Gypsy, was there with his current flame, Sandra Church, a petite, dark-haired beauty who was playing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee. Others I remember meeting that evening were Dolores Hart, the star who gave Elvis Presley his first screen kiss, and the marvelous actress Eva Marie Saint, whom Ethel introduced as Eva Saint Marie. Nobody, least of all I, corrected her. Many sat down for a while and traded industry gossip with Miss Merman.
At Miss Merman's urging, I tried something I had never eaten before -- steak tartare. Originally, the thought of raw steak would have turned my stomach, but not the way they did it at Sardi's. I should have known Miss Merman wouldn't steer me in the wrong direction. However, when I think of it, another of her favorite dishes was one I promise you I would never touch, and that is creamed tripe. Yuck.
When the great producer Billy Rose sat down with us, Little Ethel and I took a break while her mother and Mr. Rose traded inside stories in a low voice so the other tables wouldn't hear. But Little Ethel and I had our own gossiping to do. We had spotted what seemed to our young eyes like an old, overdressed woman with way too much makeup floating around the room talking to everyone. We thought she was trying very hard to be noticed, and felt sorry for her desperation. We both agreed that she reminded us of the eccentric and slightly mad Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Later we asked Miss Merman and Mr. Rose who the lady was. They told us that her name was Mae Murray and that she had been one of the great stars of the silent screen -- just like Norma Desmond.
At the end of the evening, Mr. Rose offered to take us home in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. First he dropped off my friend Little Ethel and her mother at the Park Lane Hotel on 48th Street and then proceeded up Park Avenue to 79th Street where I was still living with my parents. On the way, Mr. Rose talked to me as though I were a peer and not just a kid. He told me he had known the real Mama Rose, and Ethel's character in the musical didn't even come near the terrifying truth of what she was actually like. He added that, in his opinion, the real Mama Rose had been psychotic.
It had been an enchanted evening. First I had a fun dinner with Little Ethel, whose company I had enjoyed ever since our first meeting. The feeling was mutual. She may have had a crush on me but she knew that I had been in a relationship with Pamela Lehman for the last five years. Then I got to see one of the great performances of Broadway history. Finally, I went to Sardi's with one of my best friends and her mother, the greatest star on Broadway, ate steak tartare, met everyone in show business heaven, and went home in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce with the legendary producer Billy Rose. Could an eighteen-year-old aspiring actor and lover of the musical theater ask for anything more?
The following Monday morning Little Ethel came up to me at acting class and said prophetically, "You know, if Mom can't have you for me, I think she wants you for herself!"
That Ethel Merman would want me to be her friend wasn't really a surprise, though, since I had instinctively felt a strong connection between us the moment we met. It was a connection that would encourage me to break the shackles of my need for perfection -- a connection that would continue until her death twenty-five years later.
That summer Pam Lehman was out of town, staying with her parents in Sands Point, Long Island, where I would join them on weekends. Pam was not at all pleased when she read in the gossip columns that I was "dating" Ethel Merman's daughter during the week. The truth of the matter was that Little Ethel and I were just good friends, but I had a hard time convincing Pam of that. Every time Little Ethel and I went to a nightclub, we would ask the orchestra to play "Ain't Misbehavin'," because we weren't. It became "our song." She even gave me a picture of herself on which she had written, "We ain't misbehavin', but it's a blast. Love, Ethel".
One night I was having dinner at 21 Club with the Lehmans, when we spotted Ethel Merman, Bob Six, and Little Ethel at another table. None of them said a word to us. Little Ethel later told me that the reason was that Bob Six had forbidden them to acknowledge my presence because I was with Robert Lehman, a very influential business contact for Continental Airlines, and Mr. Six was afraid that Pam's jealousy of my friendship with Little Ethel might jeopardize his business dealings with Lehman Brothers. However, Miss Merman, who had a strong streak of the naughty little girl in her, wasn't able to resist winking at me when she thought no one was looking.
As I got to know Little Ethel better I found out that Mr. Six was no more charming to his wife and stepchildren than he was to me. At that time, the marriage was already on the rocks and he was having affairs with other women.
From everything Little Ethel and her mother told me in later years, I learned that it had been a house under siege. He had even threatened to kill Little Ethel's pet poodle Midnight. It all looked lovely from the outside but behind closed doors everyone walked on eggshells around "Mr. Robert," as he told the children to call him.
In 1958, a year before I met Little Ethel and Bobby, their real father, Bob Levitt, lay down on the living room couch at his home in Long Island after spending the weekend with his son and daughter, and killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Both children were devastated. Years later, Ethel Merman told me that Bobby was only eleven years old when he heard the news. She heard him crying in his bedroom, but before she could go in and comfort him, Bob Six stopped her and threatened to leave if she went into her son's room. By this time they had all been so bullied by the man that she was afraid to defy him and be with her son when he needed her most. She told me that it was something she would regret until the day she died.
Ethel Merman's decision to go back to Broadway should have been a clue to the world that Colorado and Mr. Six were not working out.
The pain of having endured Bob Six's abuse and the collapse of another marriage was very evident to me the night I went backstage with Little Ethel at the end of a Friday night performance of Gypsy. Knowing that Miss Merman was going through a difficult time with her divorce, Little Ethel and I decided to go to the theater at the end of her mother's show and ask her if she wanted to join us for supper afterwards.
We arrived at the Broadway Theater in time for the curtain calls. Miss Merman did not know we were there and was waiting in the wings to take her final bows. She was looking down at the floor, marking time while the rest of the cast went on stage. To my eighteen-year-old eyes, she looked like the saddest woman I had ever seen.
But as soon as Miss Merman's time came to step out on that stage, I saw the most remarkable transformation. The moment the lights hit her, she somehow made them seem a little brighter than they had been for everyone else. It was as though someone had turned on a switch and released a power that could overwhelm and thrill you with its laser-like beam. The entire theater was electrified by a force of nature called Merman, the same force that had thrilled Broadway audiences since 1930. That evening, not only was I privy to the private moment of a very public human being in pain, but I was also inspired by a glimpse of true theater magic in action.
The above is an excerpt from the book Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta by Tony Cointreau. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2014 Tony Cointreau, author of Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of CalcuttaAuthor Bio
Tony Cointreau, author of Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta, christened Jacques-Henri Robert Mercier-Cointreau, is an heir to the French liqueur family. Although Tony served on the Cointreau board of directors for several years, his voice took him to the stage and his heart took him to Calcutta.
After a successful international singing career and several years on the Cointreau board of directors, he felt a need for something more meaningful in his life.
Tony's childhood experiences with an emotionally remote mother, an angry bullying brother, a cold and unprotective Swiss nurse, and a sexually predatory schoolteacher left him convinced that the only way to be loved is to be perfect. This led him on a lifelong quest for unconditional love and for a mother figure.
His first "other mother" was the internationally acclaimed beauty Lee Lehman. Then the iconic Broadway diva Ethel Merman became his mentor and second "other mother." His memoir describes his close family relationships with both women, as well as his years of work and friendship with Mother Teresa, his last "other mother."
Tony believes that he had no special gifts or talents to bring to Mother Teresa's work and that if he could do it, then anyone could do it. All that really matters is a willingness to share even a small part of oneself with others.For more information please visit http://tonycointreau.com