Nicholas Haslam

Getting a kick

Nicky Haslam on Geoffrey Mark's biography of Ethel Merman

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.

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