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#BornThisDay: Gay Icon, Ethel Merman


In “Girl Crazy”, NY Public Library Archives


January 16, 1908– Ethel Merman:

“I can hold a note as long as the Chase National Bank.”

It seems that our current president is reconsidering the idea of putting the image of woman on the $20 bill and just. Do you remember back in the innocent summer of 2016, some moderator even asked that nutty group of Republican Presidential hopefuls for their choices. They all answered with “my mother”, except for the man who eventually got the nomination who suggested that any Fat-Pig-Dog-Slob would do. It was decided that brave Harriet Tubman would boot Andrew Jackson off the $20 note. My sources tell me that  Treasury Secretary, billionaire banker Steven T. Mnuchin, favors Eva Braun for the $100 bill.

For me there was only one choice for a woman on currency and today is her birthday.

I saw Ethel Merman live on stage twice. First, in 1970, on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, in a role written for her that she finally played six 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 her concert at The Dorothy Chandler in 1979, in support of the release of The Ethel Merman Disco Album.

Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, she was a bookkeeper’s daughter from Queens, who worked as a stenographer by day and sang at local parties by night.

Eventually, Merman acquired an agent who got her some cabaret gigs in Manhattan. After one of her engagements, the 22-year-old singer actually had George and Ira Gershwin ask her to come to their studio and 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, holding the C above middle C for sixteen bars, 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 was decades before the use of microphones on stage. It was this skill that made her especially appealing to composers and lyricists. She was absolutely adored by the Gershwins, Cole PorterIrving BerlinStephen Sondheim, and even Igor Stravinsky.

Merman couldn’t read music but she was able to 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 and 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), and 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 that I mentioned and The NY Times reviewed it saying: “It’s not quite so embarrassing as might have been feared”.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not particularly pretty or sexy, Merman was also a bit dim. She never read a book, and 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 and she accounted for every dime. Her first agent, Lou Irwin said:

“Three things are important to Ethel. The first is money, and the second is money and the third is money.”

She disliked travel and once said that her idea of exercise was sunbathing.

Merman married four times, never happily. The first two husbands were physically abusive. Her final marriage, to fellow actor Ernest Borgnine, ended after five weeks. In her memoir, Merman (1978), the chapter titled 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?” and Merman replied: “No, he didn’t mention you at all.”

She had two children by husband number two, 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.

Merman has been criticized as being a less than inspired interpreter of ballads, but preparing for this column and listening to her recordings, I was drawn to They Say It’s Wonderful from Annie Get Your Gun. She gives this one a deep, haunting tenderness, a quest for love unobtainable. In the three-minute number, she wistfully sings: “I can’t recall who said it. I know I never read it. I only know they tell me that love is grand, and the thing that’s known as romance is wonderful, wonderful, in every way… so they say.” This was recorded when her most dreadful marriages were still to come, and that plaintive “so they say” became her romantic destiny.

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 claimed the character Helen Lawson in her novel Valley Of The Dolls was based on Merman.

Although many of my younger acquaintances have never heard of her, Merman remains a Gay Icon to gay guys of a certain age and is much beloved by 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 MartinEd Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, plus talk shows with Mike DouglasDick Cavett, and Merv Griffin.

Merman was disappointed that her film career never came close to matching her triumphs onstage:

“If you don’t exist in, for, and through the movies, well, you don’t exist at all.”

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 to do it for you sometime.

Join me in my campaign to put Merman’s likeness on American currency! #MermanOnTheFifty.

“Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I’ve been very good to Broadway.”


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