Ethel returns for another biographical bow, following Brian Kellow’s Ethel Merman: A Life (2007).
Had Gustav Mahler composed the score to Merman’s brassy Broadway triumph Gypsy, he might have fashioned a work as somnolent as this biography of the musical comedy star. Flinn (Women’s Studies, Media Art/Univ. of Arizona; The New German Cinema, 2004, etc.) gives the diva’s life a decidedly academic spin. Sandbagging the account of the Merm’s life are fuzzy, prolix discussions of her image as created by the press, the roles she played and the rise in the past century of suburbia and mass transportation. There are considerations, as well, of the “racialization” of Merman and the “Rosified” Merman that emerged after Gypsy. The author’s thesis is that many Mermans existed, and that some of them, created by external forces, were at odds with the person she really was. The evidence of Merman’s life, even as Flinn traces it, challenges that notion. From all accounts—including Kellow’s vibrant and far superior version—Merman, both onstage and off, from first day to last, was consistently confident, centered and straightforward. Extensive observations from Merman’s son Bob Levitt and from her longtime friend Tony Cointreau lend some focus, but other sources are too far removed from the subject to answer the many questions Flinn raises. Many of Merman’s quotes, taken from newspaper and magazine interviews, read as if they were carefully manicured by press agents.
A languorous biography ill-suiting the energetic star’s life.