by Bob Thomas ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 20, 1985
The clarion-voiced Queen of Broadway for 30 years, here seen with love--and a lot of her backside showing. Thomas, who knew her for many years and whose 25th book about entertainers or entertainment this is, brings a little more warmth than usual to these pages. Ethel Zimmerman was born and raised in Astoria, Queens, and remained a brassy vulgarian to the end of her days, despite hobnobbing with international swells in her middle years. She ended her days as a tremendous telephone gossip and roaring antiquarian of dirty jokes, with no other cultural or intellectual pursuits but needlepoint, alcohol, and her inspirational guide The Daily Word. ""Jose Ferrer, who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Ethel, remembers encountering her once at a rather formal reception in a palatial Manhattan residence. As Ferrer was descending the curving, marbled double stairway, Merman was ascending the other side. 'Hey, Joe,' Ethel shouted, 'did you hear the one about the Polack who was so dumb he thought Fuck-king and Suck-king were a couple of Chinese cities?' 'No, I hadn't, Ethel,' said Ferrer, continuing on his way with dignity."" Little Ethel, a self-taught phenomenon as a child, grew up into a busty, leggy, merely pretty girl, began her professional life as a club singer of torch songs in her teens while doubling as a full-time steno and secretary-typist. Her first Broadway bombshell was singing ""I Got Rhythm!"" in Gershwin's Girl Crazy, which led to a string of incredible hits including Anything Goes, Du Barry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam and to her great dramatic performance in Gypsy. Utterly beloved by critics and audiences alike, for her trumpet voice, warmth, comic timing and magnetic presence, Ethel nonetheless was a tyrant who would not let herself be upstaged under any conditions or take less than first billing (even in a film with Marilyn Monroe), thought of her stagework as just a job and often referred to her audiences as ""assholes."" As for her talent, ""Hell, I just sing. I open my mouth and it happens."" Her marriages were unhappy. One husband suicided (apparently a depressed alcoholic), another--Bob Six--owned an airline but philandered, while her last--Ernest Borgnine--turned out to be a monster and lasted for one day. Her daughter died of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, though Ethel refused to think her a suicide. Her son never worked, only hippied about the world after a philosophy. After retiring from Broadway (but still performing), she became a heavy drinker with a suspicious, over-beating Jekyll-Hyde personality--after five drinks she became a monster, often cutting off friends for life over an imaginary slight. Said her last concert agent: ""It was all business with Ethel. She didn't want to know about your problems or anybody else's. I tried to give her warmth, but it was impossible. She was simply unapproachable."" She brought her clothes off the rack and remained untouched by adoration, her ego never needing audience approval. Fellow performer comedian Bert Lahr complained, ""She never looks at you on the stage. She has her tricks."" Another friend recalled hearing her bawl out her two kids in Central Park: ""You don't wanna go to the zoo. You don't wanna ride the swings. What the fuck do you want to do?"" She died of an inoperable brain tumor, all that enormous energy stilled and speechless for months.
Pub Date: Nov. 20, 1985
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1985
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