Nicholas Haslam

Getting a kick

Nicky Haslam on Geoffrey Mark's biography of Ethel Merman

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Ethel Merman

Geoffrey Mark

Barricade Legend, pp. 312, £

One frequently reads of chaps for whom their epiphany was the first sight and sound of Julie Andrews. Mine happened a good few years earlier, lying bed-bound with polio, just after the war. Someone had sent my mother a boxed set of the Broadway cast of Annie Get Your Gun. Ethel Merman’s flamboyant voice belted from the radiogram. I was entranced, learning every note and word perfectly. From then on all I ever wanted was to be Ethel. Reading this book, which is really a re-hash of Merman’s two autobiographies, reminds me of my childhood ambition, tempered with a certain relief that I did not achieve that particular goal.

Miss Merman was indeed the biggest star of the American musical theatre for over 60 years. The greatest song-writers dreamed of her voice, with its perfect pitch, its hear-it-in-the-gods carrying-power, its crystalline diction and unique vibrato, performing their work. All Tin-Pan Alley, from Irving Berlin via the Gershwins to Stephen Sondheim, wrote vehicles especially for Ethel, the latter giving her, in Gypsy, an iconic number, ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’. Ethel was initially fazed by that title. ‘Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?’ she wanted to know.

This streak of naivety was typical of her. ‘Is Tab Hunter gay?’ she asked her co-star Jack Klugman. ‘Ethel, is the Pope Catholic?’ he said. ‘Yes’ she replied unhesitatingly. Arthur Laurents, the playwright and Merman’s friend and frequent collaborator, found her ‘endearing, and despite a life spent in saloons, childlike’. Mind you, he added, ‘four-letter words were as at home in her mouth as saliva’.

The filthy talk came later; the boombox notes first formed in baby Ethel Agnes Zimmermann’s mouth in a large house, replete with all the latest gadgets of the 1900s — indoor plumbing, steam heat, even a telephone — in Astoria, at the time the more affluent part of Queens, Long Island. In these genteel surroundings Ethel Agnes, from a tot on, trilled lustily to parental applause, which nurtured ‘a healthy ego and a confidence uncommon in a child’. She sang her way through schools, churches, colleges, summer camps, lodges, concerts, and, inevitably, local saloons. There her first profanities were encountered, along with cigarettes and liquor and the charleston. Mama Zimmermann was dismayed — as well as by her daughter’s somewhat excessive dress sense: ‘Anything Ethel can’t actually wear, she carries.’

Pretty soon, in those days before microphones, the vibrato vibrated across the East River to Manhattan and up to Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers eyrie ‘down in the depths of the 90th floor’ as he put it in an early song he wrote for Ethel. Porter considered hers, along with Lee Wiley’s, to be the voice most suited to his music. In the early 1930s she introduced many Porter classics, most famously ‘I get a Kick out of You’. He believed the way Merman paused between ‘the most’ and ‘fabulous kick’ made the song. Soon Irving Berlin came up with two smashes for her: the gun-toting Annie Oakley, followed by ‘Call Me Madam’.

By now Merman was not only a huge star, but a major celebrity, at home in a Duchess of Windsor world; she called their mutual friend J. Edgar Hoover, the transvestite head of the FBI, ‘John’. She had a long affair with the Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley, and romances with East Coast establishment gentlemen such as Walter Annenberg and Charlie Cushing.

If she was lucky with flings, she was less fortunate in her four husbands. Her daughter by the first committed suicide. The third she made convert to Christianity, due to her paranoia about being thought Jewish; when asked by show-biz friends to shekheyonu parties, she would wail ‘But wadd’le I eat?’ Her last marriage, to the pug-ugly character actor Ernest Borgnine, lasted less than month. During it, Ethel went for a try-out for a new show. ‘How did it go?’ Borgnine asked. ‘Well,’ Ethel laughed, ‘they were mad about my 35-year-old body, my 35-year-old voice, and my 35-year-old face.’ ‘Is that so?’ said Borgnine. ‘And what did they think of your 65-year-old c**t?’ Ethel glared at him. ‘You weren’t mentioned once.’

Merman died almost in harness, having made an album of the songs she wished had been written for her, and releasing a disco version of her many hits, perhaps the campest record in vinyl’s history. Old timers, such as her sometime understudy Elaine Stritch, the cabaret ‘chantoose’ Marti Stevens, and the present author keep the flame alive, but Ethel Merman’s voice, once the most recognisable in show-biz, is now only an echo to a dwindling few. Her movies, in many of which she is also a brilliant comic, have all but faded from view. And, shamefully, there is no Broadway theatre named after its biggest, ballsiest, brightest star.