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Late Broadway legend Elaine Stritch celebrated in new bio

‘Still Here’ rife with funny, frank tales of gay icon

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Elaine Stritch, gay news, Washington Blade
Elaine Stritch (Photo courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

‘Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch’

By Alexandra Jacobs

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$28

352 pages

Fuck! This is a fab read!

Don’t be put off! Long before everyone used the profanity, Elaine Stritch, the queer icon, actress and singer, known as “Broadway’s enduring dame,” embraced the f-word. With her gender-bending white men’s shirts and black tights, it was part of her inimitable style.  

Everyone from Noel Coward to Elton John adored Stritch, who died at age 89 in 2014. She won a Tony Award for her 2001 one-woman show “Elaine Stritch At Liberty” and  an Emmy for her work on “Law and Order.” Her iconic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the 1970 musical “Company” earned her lasting acclaim. Stritch aficionados loved it when she appeared as the mother of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) on NBC’s “30 Rock.”  

Yet, she had a drinking problem and could be difficult to work with. Many, including Harold Prince, thought Stritch was an “employment risk” and a “pain in the ass.”

“How do you solve a problem like Elaine Stritch?” Nathan Lane asked at her memorial service. “How do you hold a fucking moonbeam in your hand?”

Fasten your seatbelts! “Still Here,” a new bio by Alexandra Jacobs, will take you on a fast-moving ride through Stritch’s glamorous, funny, sad, fascinating, lonely life. Along the way, you’ll encounter celebs from Marlon Brando to Rock Hudson to Bea Arthur.

Stritch was born to an upper-middle-class Catholic family in Detroit.  

“The Stritches were committed but not strict Catholics,” Jacobs writes.

Yet, her family “put the convent in conventional.”

Stritch went to a convent school and Cardinal Samuel Stritch was her cousin. Years later, the columnist Earl Wilson erroneously reported that Stritch was the Cardinal’s daughter.  

One day, “she went to meet the holy man in person,” Jacobs writes. “Ushered in by a nun, she sat down on a red-backed seat with a stool under it. ‘Elaine, that’s my chair,’ he told her.”

From childhood on, Stritch wanted to be in show business. At age 5, she fell in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when an uncle took her to see “The Band Wagon” in New York.  

As a child playing on the porch one day, “Elaine fatally swatted enough flies to spell out her name,” Jacobs writes. “‘It was her way of supposing her name in lights,’ according to her friend Julie Keyes. ‘And that’s what billing is about,’ Elaine told her.”

When she was 18, Stritch left the convent school and suburban Detroit behind to make it in the theater in New York. Moving there in 1943 “as a young woman in pursuit of fun, music, nightclubs and theater with all the trimmings was fantastically auspicious,” Jacobs writes.

In the middle of World War II, It was the year when “Oklahoma!” (the “Hamilton” of its time) opened on Broadway and the first American Fashion Week was held. Elaine’s impatient personality was a perfect match, Jacobs writes, for the atmosphere of New York, which was “one of urgency and carpe diem in the face of an uncertain future.”

Some of the best writing in “Still Here” is Jacobs’ evocation of this period. Stritch is so excited when she goes to try-out for the road company of “Oklahoma!” that she forgets to put her skirt on. She goes on a date with Marlon Brando, one of her classmates in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School. They had a wild night: he read to her from “Wuthering Heights.”

Stritch dated many men from producer Jed Harris to actors Gig Young and Ben Gazzara. She had a crush on Rock Hudson. Later in life, she married actor John Bay.

Because of her “low voice; her style of dress and hair, which increasingly tended toward the masculine; her delay of marriage; her many gay friends,” Jacobs writes, people have wondered if Stritch was queer.

Though gender-bending in her style, Stritch wasn’t a lesbian, Jacobs says. Yet, she writes, Stritch was “without prejudice” toward homosexuality. “Live and let live,” Stritch would say. 

“Look into their eyes/And you’ll see what they know/Everybody dies,” Stritch sang in “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

Reading “Still Here” will make you feel as if Stritch, brought back to life, is looking into your eyes and singing just for you.

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

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Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

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(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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Books

New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery

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(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

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