January 16, 1908- Ethel Merman
In the past year, there was a series of memes about putting a woman on the $20 bill & who that woman might be. Some moderator even asked the Republican Presidential hopefuls for their choices. For me there was only one choice & today is her birthday.
I only saw Ethel Merman in person 2 times: in 1970 on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, a role written for her that she finally played 6 years after the musical originally opened. Her Dolly Levi was A+. Merman received several ovations the evening I was lucky enough to be in the house. I was also in the audience for a concert at The Dorothy Chandler in 1974, in support the release of her disco album.
Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, she was a bookkeeper’s daughter from Queens, who worked as a stenographer by day & sang at local parties by night.
Eventually, she acquired an agent who got her some cabaret gigs in Manhattan. After one her engagements, the 22 years old singer actually had George and Ira Gershwin ask her to come & sing some songs they had written for their new Broadway musical, Girl Crazy.
At the end of the audition George Gershwin stated: “Miss Merman, if there’s anything you’d like to change, I’d be happy to do so.” Merman replied: “No, these songs will do very nicely”.
Girl Crazy opened in the autumn of 1930 and when Merman sang I Got Rhythm, the audience went wild and demanded 10 encores. Afterward at the opening night party, Merman took the subway home to Astoria, but the next day she went to lunch with the Gershwins who showed her the rave reviews and explained that she was now a great big Broadway star. George Gershwin told her: “Never take a singing lesson”. She never did.
Merman, as you know, had a huge brassy belting voice, but she also possessed impeccable diction. Every word, every syllable, could be heard in every seat in the theatre, and this is before the use of microphones on stage. It was this skill that made her especially appealing to composers & lyricists. She was absolutely adored by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, and even Igor Stravinsky.
Merman couldn’t read music but she was able memorize a song after hearing it a few times. Cole Porter:
“She can sing anything. But, I really tailor-make my songs for her because I know her range so well.”
Her best note was A above middle C and Porter often ended phrases on that note. Porter knew he could trust her to handle his complicated rhythms & he loved the fact that she could sing: “Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do” in one breath.
Producers adored Merman too. Her poor understudies, she never missed a show. She demanded a big salary, but once the contract had been signed, she was utterly reliable and professional.
Among the shows written for her by Cole Porter: Anything Goes (1934), Red, Hot And Blue (1936), DuBarry Was A Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Something For The Boys (1943). Irving Berlin gave her Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950). Her greatest triumph, and for me the top musical of all time was, of course, Gypsy (1959).
Merman had a long stage career, from Girl Crazy in 1930 to Hello, Dolly! in 1970. She was still belting out There’s No Business Like Show Business when she was in her 70s. She released that disco album I mentioned & The NY Times reviewed it saying: “It’s not quite so embarrassing as might have been feared”.
Not particularly pretty or sexy, Merman was also a bit dim. She never read a book, & when someone asked “Is the Pope Catholic?” she helpfully supplied the answer: “Yes”. Her favorite drink was champagne… on the rocks.
Merman did her own bookkeeping & she accounted for every dime. Her first agent, Lou Irwin said:
“3 things are important to Ethel, the first is money, and the second is money and the third is money.”
She disliked travel & once said that her idea of exercise was sunbathing.
Merman married 4 times, never happily, her last marriage, to fellow actor Ernest Borgnine, ended after 5 weeks. In her autobiography Merman (1978), the chapter entitled My Marriage To Ernest Borgnine consists of one blank page. The Borgnine marriage was short, but it was turbulent. There is a story about how she came back from filming one day and announced to her husband: “The director said I looked sensational. He said I had the face of a 20 year old, and the body and legs of a 30 year old!“. Borgnine replied: “Did he say anything about your old cunt?” Merman replied: “No, he didn’t mention you at all.”
She had 2 children by her second husband, but devoted little time to them. That part of her story is tragic. Her daughter died of a drug overdose in 1967 and her son was killed in a shooting in 1975.
For me, the best thing about Merman was her exuberance and a willingness to make fun of herself. At 72 years old, she appeared in the film Airplane! (1980), playing a wounded soldier so traumatized that he believed he was Ethel Merman, and she leapt from his/her hospital bed singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
I have read gossip claiming that she was lesbian and Jewish, but I have found nothing that points to either being true. The writer Jacqueline Susann once stood outside her door yelling “Ethel, I love you!” but Merman never showed the slightest interest in women. Susann’s claimed the character Helen Lawson in her novel Valley Of The Dolls is based on Merman.
Although many of my younger acquaintances have never heard of her, she remains a Gay Icon to guys of a certain age and is much beloved of drag artists. For decades, there has been an Ethel Merman Choir, consisting entirely of Merman impersonators, in San Francisco.
As a kid, I thrilled to her appearances on dozens of television shows, guesting on variety series hosted by Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, plus talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and Merv The Perv.
In 1984, when Merman moved on to that great baby pink spotlight in the next world, I lit a candle for her while listening to the original Broadway cast album of Gypsy. I do an outstanding imitation of Merman singing I Will Survive. Ask me sometime.
Join me in my campaign to put Merman’s likeness on American currency!
“Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I’ve been very good to Broadway.”