A clear-eyed, perceptive take on the reign of Queen Ethel of Broadway.
An editor at Opera News and an entertainment reporter and biographer, Kellow nimbly sidesteps the booby traps other writers have hit while writing about Ethel Merman. Though he gives her temperament its due, he admirably avoids overloading his account with tales of a sometime-outrageous diva. He places Merman’s ascendancy and success in the context of 20th-century New York City. Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and others provided the scores, and their confluence created such classics as Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. Content at center stage on Broadway, Merman was less happy out of town. Hollywood, in particular, was not her place, as evidenced by the middling films she lensed at Warner Bros. and Paramount. She did score, at least with city audiences, with the film version of Call Me Madam, but losing the main role in the film adaptation of her Broadway triumph Gypsy to Rosalind Russell was a major career disappointment. For Merman, happiness clearly began when the curtain went up. A headstrong, outspoken only child, Merman, notes Kellow, saw only in black and white, a worldview that gave her considerable force onstage but sabotaged four marriages. Her melancholy demise found her down in the depths of the Upper East Side, alone with the ashes of her parents, one ex-husband and Ethel Jr., a daughter whose death may have been an “accidental suicide.”
Kellow displays a keen sense of how and why Merman worked, and his profile of her personal life is an aching refrain worthy of the musical Follies.