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Brass Diva

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 556
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  • Book Info
    Brass Diva
    Book Description:

    Broadway star Ethel Merman's voice was a mesmerizing force and her vitality was legendary, yet the popular perception of La Merm as the irrepressible wonder falls far short of all that she was and all that she meant to Americans over so many decades. This marvelously detailed biography is the first to tell the full story of how the stenographer from Queens, New York, became the queen of the Broadway musical in its golden age. Mining official and unofficial sources, including interviews with Merman's family and her personal scrapbooks, Caryl Flinn unearths new details of Merman's life and finds that behind the high-octane personality was a remarkably pragmatic woman who never lost sight of her roots.Brass Divatakes us from Merman's working-class beginnings through the extraordinary career that was launched in 1930 when, playing a secondary role in a Gershwin Brothers' show, she became an overnight sensation singing "I Got Rhythm." From there, we follow Merman's hits on Broadway, her uneven successes in Hollywood, and her afterlife as a beloved camp icon. This definitive work on the phenomenon that was Ethel Merman is also the first to thoroughly explore her robust influence on American popular culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92725-4
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. ONE Beginnings
    (pp. 1-29)

    Late in 1932, New York’s hottest singing sensation appeared inTake a Chance, a new Buddy DeSylva musical playing on Broadway. As nightclub singer Wanda Brill, Ethel Merman sang a bluesy ballad that paid tribute to a woman of ill-repute from fin de sièle New Orleans:

    Eadie was a lady,

    Though her past was shady …

    She had savoir-fairy

    Eadie had class

    With a capital K

    The song’s affectionate bawdiness was also apparent in Merman’s costuming. Accentuating the hourglass figure popular in Eadie’s time, Merman wore a tight, long red satin dress edged in black lace. Accessories included a boa,...

  5. TWO From Stenographer to Star
    (pp. 30-56)

    Few legends about Ethel Merman are actually corroborated by historical record. One, however, is beyond dispute: the evening she became an overnight sensation, October 14, 1930, after performing “I Got Rhythm” at the opening ofGirl Crazy. Without having had a singing lesson in her life, this fifth-billed performer brought the house down when she held the C above middle C on the wordI—and held it and held it. When awarding her a special Tony forty years later, Peter Ustinov said, “She stepped out to sing and the walls withdrew two inches.” The rest, as they say, is...

  6. THREE The Early Thirties
    (pp. 57-89)

    A story circulated that young Ethel Merman was so naive that she was almost convinced she needed a passport to move to Manhattan. With the success ofTake a Chanceunder her belt, she used that passport for permanent residency in Manhattan when she moved to a tony 25 Central Park West address, bringing her parents, Edward and Agnes, to a neighboring apartment. Adjacent to Central Park at the northern tip of the theater district, the new location made work a short walk or a cab ride away. The Zimmermann clan stayed here for some twenty years, literally moving up...

  7. FOUR To Hollywood and Back Again
    (pp. 90-112)

    Ethel’s big break in Hollywood, such as it was, came in 1938, when 20th Century–Fox released three Merman pictures:Happy Landing,Alexander’s Ragtime Band, andStraight,Place and Show. A clipping she saved from January 18 predicts “Ethel Merman’s Film Rise Certain.”¹ She had been signed for a three-picture deal beginning October 25, 1937,² and by Christmas she was living in Los Angeles. Though she lacked the clout to procure special treatment—Ethel was not, after all, a “star” borrowed from another studio—she was able to amend the billing clause “to provide for featured screen credit [with] only...

  8. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  9. FIVE Broadway’s Brightest: The Early Forties
    (pp. 113-137)

    New Year’s, 1939. Ethel saw in the new decade with the city’s social elite, playing around as she crowned the colorful former mayor Jimmy Walker with a paper party hat. Ethel was just a month into her run as Madame DuBarry, and by now she had more than Bert Lahr pining at her feet. If the 1930s had established her as Broadway’s rising star, the 1940s made her its queen. Her ascent had been as steady as a steamroller. Commanding more salary than any of her contemporaries in musical comedy, Ethel kept breaking her own records, getting extra salary through...

  10. SIX Forging a Family
    (pp. 138-149)

    So recalls Robert Daniels Levitt, Ethel’s second husband, about that night in April 1940. There was a terrible, late-season snowstorm that evening, and in general, the night was not filled with romance and roses. Levitt remembered keeping quiet in the company of Miss Merman and Young, his business associate. It didn’t help that Ethel’s friends were there and that everyone seemed to know the big star except him.

    We went to some nightclub somewhere, and as I recall it, she had to go home early because she had a matinee the next day. And Young asked me to take her...

  11. SEVEN What Comes Natur’lly: Annie Get Your Gun
    (pp. 150-176)

    Annie Get Your Gunsecured Merman’s place as an all-American icon who embodied the vitality and can-do spirit of a nation. It also confirmed her reign as queen of Broadway; a typical review ran, “Annie Gets Her Gun and Drills a Bull’s Eye in Broadway.”¹ The show became one of the most successful popular shows of twentieth-century musical theater, and since its 1946 premiere, it has been in endless local productions, tours, and revivals on Broadway and around the world. Ticket sales outstripped all of Merman’s previous hits and convinced Irving Berlin that it was the best Merman show ever....

  12. EIGHT Call Me Madam
    (pp. 177-191)

    After the long run ofAnnie, Ethel was tired but did not slow down. For a year and a half, she continued her guest spots on radio and television. Her very first TV appearance was likely to have been on March 22, 1949, on Milton Berle’sTexaco Star Theater.¹ She was back on radio three months later onThe Ford Radio Showwith Berle. For the event, CBS president Frank Stanton sent her a telegram welcoming her to the CBS family.²Typically Ethel, like most guest singers on these shows, engaged in some repartee or brief comic skits with hosts or...

  13. NINE A More Complex Image
    (pp. 192-217)

    By this point, Ethel Merman seemed to symbolize both wholesome, American dynamism and New York brashness, and however contradictory those things might appear, at the time they merely revealed the breadth of her impact. Scrapbook clippings attest that in the years betweenAnnie Get Your GunandCall Me Madam, no one disputed her reign as Broadway’s great queen. Moreover, her image had more range now than ever before. If Annie Oakley had added softness to her persona, Sally Adams had given her sophistication, maturity, and class.

    Still, “I Got Lost in His Arms” has never gone down as a...

  14. TEN Madam in Hollywood
    (pp. 218-238)

    It was in January 1952 that Ethel and Bob Levitt ended their marriage after their half-year separation. As the marriage started to shipwreck, tongues wagged, yet once again Ethel received little vitriol from the columnists, and her cordial relationships with them, and with Sullivan and Kilgallen in particular, paid off. Kilgallen referred to the newly single Ethel as “Broadway’s most enthusiastic mother” and described her running, one Saturday morning at nine o’clock in “casual dress, bandana’d and bobby pinned,” across Grand Central to meet Bobby and Little Ethel on the train, returning from a vacation with their father in Colorado.¹...

  15. ELEVEN Life with Six
    (pp. 239-254)

    Ethel gives conflicting dates for her divorce from Levitt and Bob Six’s from Henriette. In her first autobiography, she writes, “Six got his divorce in Colorado a month before mine was filed. His divorce became final in September of 1952. We married in March 1953.”¹ In her second she says, “I flew to Mexico City on 7 June 1952, for a quickie Mexican divorce. Finding the procedure complicated, I went to Juarez, where a mutual consent decree was granted not more than thirty minutes after the petition was filed.”² Whatever the case, Merman and Six did indeed marry in Mexicali...

  16. TWELVE There’s No Business Like Show Business
    (pp. 255-277)

    Ethel’s next movie project with Fox studio was the galaThere’s No Business Like Show Business, a widescreen color musical with a six-million-dollar budget and big-name costars: Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, and Johnnie Ray. LikeAlexander’s Ragtime Band,There’s No Business Like Show Businesswas planned as a vehicle to showcase Irving Berlin’s songs, lavishing attention on the movie’s spectacle value and placing story and characters at the service of the numbers rather than the other way around.

    There’s No Business Like Show Businesswas Ethel’s first of a two-picture deal; the second was an unspecified...

  17. THIRTEEN From Mrs. Six to Mama Rose
    (pp. 278-292)

    In 1956, Ethel had not yet given up on her marriage with Bob Six and took advantage of a new career opportunity to reinvigorate it. Stunning everyone, she announced her return to Broadway for the upcomingHappy Hunting. The news began to trickle in during February, when Sam Zolotow, Earl Wilson, and Walter Winchell announced separately that Ethel was back in New York “to discuss a musical version of the filmAll About Eve”¹ (eventually,Applause). Explaining her change of heart, Ethel tried to manage the inconsistencies of earlier statements she’d made:

    I’ve been misquoted about giving up the stage....

  18. FOURTEEN Gypsy: Ethel Merman’s Musical Fable
    (pp. 293-332)

    At 7:25 p.m., May 21, 1959, the curtain went up at the Broadway Theatre. The house was packed. Mama Rose/Ethel Merman entered from the back, marching down the stage-left aisle, screaming out, “Sing out, Louise!” to one of the children onstage. An ecstatic Broadway audience exploded. Ethel Merman had announced her return.

    OstensiblyGypsyis the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But from that moment of her grand entrance, Merman made it clear just whose showGypsywas. Merman as Rose lords over everything, and the show was indeed something to lord over.Gypsywas easily her most ambitious...

  19. FIFTEEN It’s a Mad, Mad Schedule
    (pp. 333-346)

    On October 27, 1963, Ethel appeared on the TV quiz showWhat’s My Line?as its mystery guest, whose identity panelists Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Allen Ludden, and Arlene Francis, sporting his-and-her blinders, tried to ascertain through a series of yes/no questions. To disguise the famous voice, Ethel lowered it and answered questions with husky, monosyllabicouisornons. The panelists didn’t understand that the guest wasn’t male until Ludden asked the question outright, and Merman, with her shoulders rising up to her ears and eyes widening in feigned shock, boomed a “non!” with girlish delight. When friend Kilgallen asked...

  20. SIXTEEN The Sixties and the Art of Love
    (pp. 347-373)

    Ethel would be photographically teamed with her fourth and final husband nineteen months before they ever met. On April 22, 1962, papers announced NBC’s plan to broadcastCall Me Madamwith a photo of Merman dancing with George Sanders in the film.¹ Below it on the same page is a picture of Ernest Borgnine fromMarty, his 1955 film, which, likeCall Me Madam, was now making its debut on the small screen. Quite unlike Sally Adams, Marty was ordinary, an overweight Italian-American butcher who lived in the Bronx with his lonely and overbearing mother. Borgnine’s depiction earned him an...

  21. SEVENTEEN After the Big Stem—the Seventies
    (pp. 374-400)

    One of Broadway’s longest-running musicals,Hello,Dolly!had been written with Ethel Merman in mind for the part of Dolly Gallagher Levi, widow of Ephraim Levi, trying to land “half-a-millionaire” in the form of one Horace Vandergelder. The show, a musical version of Thornton Wilder’sThe Matchmakerwas calledDolly Levi: The Exacerbating Womanbefore becomingHello,Dolly!The book was by Michael Stewart, and Jerry Herman did the score. MCA’s David Harker had sent Ethel a copy ofThe Matchmakeralmost as soon as her tour withGypsyhad ended late in 1961, asking if she would be interested...

  22. EIGHTEEN Twilight and Transformation
    (pp. 401-414)

    Twenty years afterGypsy, Kip Cohen of A&M Records contacted Merman to see if she would be interested in recording a disco album with them. Ethel thought it was a great opportunity for something new and took one day to say yes.The Ethel Merman Disco Albumwas produced by songwriter-arranger Peter Matz (1928–2002), whose work had intersected with hers before when he composed the theme song forYou’re Gonna Love It Here.

    Ethel spent two days at A&M’s Studio B in Los Angeles laying down the vocal track, singing with minimal accompaniment; the instrumentation was laid down after...

  23. NINETEEN Afterlife
    (pp. 415-428)

    Merman’s most immediate personal legacy is her family. Today her son, Bob Levitt, lives in a small, close-knit community north of San Francisco, where he keeps up with business affairs involving his mother and mentors children in programs in which they write short plays. He devotes considerable energy to his community and to various other social and political activities. He has an adult son, Richard. Ethel’s son-in-law, Bill Geary, is retired and resides in Sweden with his wife of forty years. Bill and Ethel Jr.’s son, Michael Geary, lives in Florida, where he maintains a swimming pool business. His sister,...

    (pp. 429-432)
    (pp. 433-436)
    (pp. 437-442)
    (pp. 443-462)
    (pp. 463-472)
  29. NOTES
    (pp. 473-524)
  30. INDEX
    (pp. 525-542)