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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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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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