NEW YORK — Elaine Stritch sat in her usual place on the tiny raised stage at the Café Carlyle, the pricey 100-seat cabaret/supper club in the hotel where the actor has lived for more than a decade. Nearby, right where he has hovered for years, was her supportive pianist, Rob Bowman. She wore pretty much what she always has — her trademark white shirt over sheer black hose exposing the skinniest legs this side of the aviary.
But this time was different. It was, she blurted out right away, "the most frightening night in my life."
You see, it was the final opening night of her final five-night engagement before Stritch, 88, moves back to — what? — suburban Birmingham, Mich., where she'll live in a condo near her nieces and nephews.
"I'm going to go to sleep at 9 o'clock at night. I've been up all night all my life," she said.
It is hard to imagine Stritch without Manhattan, and vice versa. For 71 years, she has built a legendary theater career, a life and a persona that feel inseparable from the sophistication, the challenge and the crankiness of New York.
But there she was at her old haunt in a program she named "Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out." Tom Hanks was beaming at her from one of the tables. So were Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Tony Bennett and, seated away from the action, Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine.
But she was scared, at least at the start of the 75 rambling yet riveting minutes. Her health has not been good, a combination of worsening diabetes, a broken hip and reports of small strokes.
"Every time I leave the building," she growled out of both her comic mouth and her serious eyes, "I fall on my ass."
The memory glitches she had at her 85th birthday concert at the Carlyle are more frequent now, and it offends her daunting sense of professionalism. "There's something that really frightens me," she said, "and that is fear." The Stephen Sondheim specialist who set the forever-standard for The Ladies Who Lunch from Company, sang only three numbers that night — and none of her historic ones. Mostly she told anecdotes, some picked by adoring audience members from a circulating bowl of story cues, and she vamped with stars in the audience — especially Hanks — admitting, "I am so crazy about famous people, people who entertain me."
Some stories are familiar from Elaine Stritch at Liberty, her thrilling 2002 Tony-winning solo and Emmy-winning HBO special about the captivating ups and downs of a "good Roman Catholic girl" from the Midwest whose surprisingly innocent but seductive diversions included JFK and Marlon Brando. "Don't ask me about Brando," she said to us, "It's too ... complicated."
There wasn't an inauthentic moment in her then and there isn't now. Chiemi Karasawa, who made the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which premiered last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival, said in a recent phone interview that she marveled at the access Stritch gave her.
"She never wanted to hide anything," she said. The result is a "very intimate movie. Her softer side comes out. She is very generous."
After what Karasawa, 44, describes as a "bittersweet courtship" (Stritch wasn't sure she wanted to do it), the two became "very, very close." The filmmaker knew of Stritch's celebrity and difficult reputation. They were thrown together by happenstance because they both went to the same hairstylist, who said "you really should make a documentary about her."
"I went to Google and YouTube," she remembers, "and I couldn't believe she wasn't a household name. I recognized that most people who know her history are theater buffs or older than I am. My mission is to bring her into the foreground. She is so singular."