By SPENCER HANKINS
An actual conversation:
Mom: I saw on the news where that lady you love so much died.
Me: Elaine Stritch? Yeah
Mom: That’s the one. How are you?
Me: I’m OK I guess. I feel like my grandmother has died.
Mom: (throwing epic mom shade) Well, let’s hope you were in her will.
Me: (Quoting “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty”) And you wonder why I drank.
I was aware of Elaine from a young age. Thank you, “The Cosby Show.” But it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that my real connection with Ms. Stritch was made.
I had decided to fight this demon that was on my back: alcoholism. A few months of sobriety, I was at friend’s house in Oklahoma and was whining (because that’s what newly sober gay alcoholics do) to a dear friend of mine who was also in “the program.” I was going on and on about my doubts that I could do this whole not drinking thing, when he grabbed me by the shoulders and said “If Elaine can do it, you can do it.”
I looked at him, confused, and said, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
He sat me down and we watched “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.” I sat there for the next two-and-a-half hours, laughing, crying and relating to this complete stranger’s story, while falling in love with her honesty.
Every year, I celebrate her birthday, Feb. 2. In 2009, I celebrated by changing my profile picture to a picture of her taken for “At Liberty.” About an hour later, I had this message from Denise Winters, whom I didn’t yet know.
“Hi Spencer. I’m smiling that you are using the cover for ‘At Liberty.’ Elaine is fabulous! And I took that picture.” I lost my ever-lovin’ gay mind, because there I was, a sober alcoholic, working at his dream job in the theater in D.C., and talking to someone directly connected with a lady I’d idolized for several years.
In one of the tributes I’ve read in the past few days, someone wrote, “Like all addicts and alcoholics, she lived with fear. It followed her everywhere. And it was that fear, that extra hurdle she had to leap to get herself up there on the stage that made her performances so human.”
This is so very true: we alcoholics are driven by fear. Years ago, when I’d feel myself being driven by fear, I’d hear her screaming “WRONG!” like she did in the iconic “Company” documentary. Elaine had become somewhat of a higher power to me for a few years, until I was able to form one of my own. I’d always ask myself, “What would Elaine do?” On every trip I’d make to New York from D.C., I’d pray that this would be the one where I ran into her on the street or in a meeting. It never happened.
But one day in 2011, I received an email from Denise that had a video attached. Denise had been talking to Elaine about me (big gay gasp!), and they thought that a video message would be so much better than some black and white, glossy, autographed photo. I watched it and immediately began to sob. Here was this woman that I’ve idolized, addressing me directly, saying that she’d heard what I’ve been saying, and that she wanted me to take it easy because rumors could get around and we could both get arrested. She also said that when she got a quiet moment, she’d call Denise and we’d all go for tea. I’ve carried this video on my phone for the past three years. When I’m down, it always brightens my day.
She never got that quiet moment. I never got that tea, but it’s comforting to know she was willing to take time, when she had time.
Elaine, I hope you finally figure out what you called your “existential problem in tights,” and what Richard Burton meant by “almost.”
Spencer Hankins is a former D.C. resident and box office coordinator for Signature Theatre. He lives in Oklahoma where he works with addicts and alcoholics.