Ethel Merman: A Life

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More than twenty years after her death, Ethel Merman continues to set the standard for American musical theater. The stories about the supremely talented, famously strong-willed, fearsomely blunt, and terrifyingly exacting woman are stuff of legend. But who was Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, really? Brian Kellow’s definitive biography of the great Merman is superb, and the first account to examine both the artist and the woman with as much critical rigor as empathy. Through dozens of interviews with her colleagues, ...

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More than twenty years after her death, Ethel Merman continues to set the standard for American musical theater. The stories about the supremely talented, famously strong-willed, fearsomely blunt, and terrifyingly exacting woman are stuff of legend. But who was Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, really? Brian Kellow’s definitive biography of the great Merman is superb, and the first account to examine both the artist and the woman with as much critical rigor as empathy. Through dozens of interviews with her colleagues, friends, and family members, Kellow traces the arc of her life and her thirty-year singing career to reveal many surprising facts about Broadway’s biggest star.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“ A vivid portrait of a Broadway diva who shone brighter and sang louder than anyone else.” —The Washington Post BookWorld

“ Dishy and seamless; he understands the dynamics of the theater world and makes you feel the exhilaration of an evolving hit and the frustrations inherent in working with a performer like Merman.”—The New York Times Book Review

“ A wonderfully vivid portrait of a unique Broadway star. You can almost hear Merman’s trumpet voice with every turn of the page.”—John Kander, composer of Chicago and Cabaret

“A fascinating read and a thorough theatrical history of her time. Loved it!”—Jane Powell

Neil Genzlinger
Kellow's chronology is dishy and seamless; he understands the dynamics of the theater world and makes you feel the exhilaration of an evolving hit and the frustrations inherent in working with a performer like Merman…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

With dueling Merman biographies being released just prior to her birth centennial in 2008 (see review above of Caryl Flinn's Brass Diva), Kellow's slimmer tome is the livelier of the two with new interviews with friends, family and co-workers bringing vibrant life and clarity to even familiar anecdotes. Kellow (The Bennetts: An Acting Family) is less interested in digging for psychological insights and bluntly paints a more temperamental portrait of the Broadway belter, but readers will be swept up in the colorful eyewitness accounts of her stage triumphs (Anything Goes; Call Me Madam; Annie Get Your Gun; Gypsy; Hello, Dolly!) and her less successful attempts to move from stage to screen (There's No Business Like Show Business; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). With four failed marriages (including a legendarily short one to Ernest Borgnine-she flew back alone from their honeymoon after just two days), a distant relationships with her son and daughter (who died of an accidental overdose in 1967) and volatile personality, there's plenty of diva drama. She found a younger audience with appearances on Love Boat and a show-stopping cameo in Airplane!, but an inoperable brain tumor finally silenced the bombastic singer in 1984. Testimonies from those who were there during her decline bring an emotional wallop to her final days. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 5)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Washington Post BookWorld
A vivid portrait of a Broadway diva who shone brighter and sang louder than anyone else.
The New York Times Book Review
Dishy and seamless; he understands the dynamics of the theater world and makes you feel the exhilaration of an evolving hit and the frustrations inherent in working with a performer like Merman.
Library Journal

Fans of the legendary Broadway star Ethel Merman will be delighted with these two biographies. Merman's own autobiographies (Mermanand Who Could Ask for Anything More?) are fun to read and offer plenty of Broadway dish, but serious biographies have been past due. Flinn (women's studies, Univ. of Arizona; The New German Cinema) and Kellow (The Bennetts: An Acting Family) bring her to life and tellingly reveal her enormous achievements and talent. While it's clear that Merman had her share of human frailties, each author finds her to be sympathetic as a woman, mother, wife, and performer, and each clearly holds her in the highest regard for her place in theatrical and film history. Flinn's academic training and scholarly approach are illustrated in the amount of information and detail she includes. For example, comparing the indexes, Kellow lists, as does Flinn, all of Merman's performances and the musical numbers she sang; however, Flinn includes all the musical numbers sung by all the other performers in her shows and a six-page discography. Flinn's notes, which include archival resources and interviews, take up 52 pages; Kellow's run 22 pages and are not as broad in scope. Flinn's access to the multivolume scrapbook collection created by Merman's father over his lifetime, which Kellow does not mention, surely gave her an enormous amount of detailed information. Public libraries will find Kellow's book an excellent and enjoyable resource; all academic libraries and public libraries with theater collections will want both of these titles. (Photographs and indexes not available at the time of review.)
—Susan L. Peters

Kirkus Reviews
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review
So the other day, I'm watching Sesame Street with my kids and Harvey Fierstein comes on. He's passing out noses to a parade of schnoz-less Muppets, selling the heck out of a slightly altered version of a show tune made famous by Ethel Merman in the Broadway musical Gypsy. "Everything's coming up...noses!" belts Fierstein, punctuating his delivery with the broad arm gestures that were a Merman trademark. "There's no business like the nose business," he concludes, "but that's another story."

One can't help feeling -- as a new generation of three- and four-year-olds is unwittingly introduced to her songs and her style -- that the lingering effects of Ethel Merman, who died in 1984, are everywhere. And while Fierstein's Sesame Street segment has been in rotation since 2004, the diva to whom he's paying tribute is having a moment: Witness the release this month of two comprehensive, carefully researched Merman biographies: Ethel Merman: A Life, by Brian Kellow, and Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman, by Caryl Flinn. Why two Merman biographies? Why now? It may have something to do with what is likely the upcoming centennial of the Broadway legend's birth: Kellow places Ethel Agnes Zimmermann's birth date on January 16, 1908. Flinn is less certain about the year: "Ethel Merman was born on January 16 -- in 1906, 1908, 1910, 1911, and 1912," she writes, noting that source material includes varying dates and Merman appears to have done little to clear up the confusion. But if the two biographies differ on a few minor details, conclusions, and opinions -- Kellow finds the young Ethel "far from being a stunning beauty"; Flinn contends she was "a very attractive young woman" (both books include several pages of photos, so readers may reach their own conclusions) -- the authors agree on at least one thing: During Broadway's golden age, Ethel Merman was its undisputed queen, and to track her career is, in essence, to follow the history of American musical theater.

George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Robbins -- Merman worked with them all. Beginning with her breakthrough Broadway moment in 1930's Girl Crazy, when she stepped onto the boards and stopped the show cold with an electrifying rendition of "I Got Rhythm" -- Kellow describes George Gershwin bursting into Merman's dressing room afterward: " 'Ethel,' he gasped, 'do you know what's happened? Do you know what you've done?' Ethel didn't quite understand. 'You've just been made a star!' " -- Merman routinely thrilled audiences and critics with her tremendous, crystal-clear voice, her impeccable diction, her sparkling vitality, her trademark blend of toughness and vulnerability, of shrewdness and innocence, in shows like Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy, among many others.

Kellow's Ethel Merman: A Life is the more disciplined of the two, strictly adhering to the chronology of Merman's life and career, contemplating each show in admirable depth -- its origins, its significance for Merman in particular and for musical theater in general. Kellow has interviewed a wide and impressive array of performing artists and theater professionals who worked with Merman, among them Jack Klugman, Jerry Orbach, Stephen Sondheim, Dody Goodman, and Nanette Fabray. What emerges is a compelling portrait of Merman as a dogged, inspired, yet somewhat limited performer (she was famous for delivering her lines face forward, declining to make eye contact with her fellow actors) and as a colleague who could be both caring (she never forgot a birthday) and ruthless (woe unto you if she thought you were stepping on her lines). And Kellow evokes, too, a performer with her share of career disappointments; despite her near-flawless string of Broadway hits and a few appearances on film and TV, Merman never did quite manage to conquer Hollywood.

His portrayal of Merman's private life is less revealing -- perhaps because Merman herself was staunchly guarded about her personal affairs. She, like many women of her generation (Merman began her career during the Depression), rigorously kept up appearances, maintaining a cheerful front in the face of personal traumas like her four failed marriages and the premature death of her daughter and namesake, Ethel Jr. Tellingly, her 1978 memoir, Merman: An Autobiography, addresses her unfortunate and lightning-fast (38 days!) fourth marriage with a chapter titled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" that consists of nothing but a single blank page. Funny, yes. Forthcoming, no.

If Kellow's depiction of Merman is as clearly limned and lively as the Hirschfeld portrait that graces his book's cover, Flinn's is as meaty and impishly inviting as the photo of the star depicted on the front of hers. As its length may imply, Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman is an ambitious, sprawling affair. Where Kellow is concerned primarily with painting as complete and accurate a portrait as possible, Flinn is searching for meaning and motivation -- while showing a deep appreciation for Merman's trademark humor: "An entire book could be written of zingers attributed to Merman," she writes in her preface. (And if Flinn occasionally fails to resist the temptation to do just that, well, with a subject who dispensed advice to her granddaughter like "Don't fart higher than your ass," who can blame her?)

But where Kellow looks for the answers, Flinn revels in the questions. Was her era's pervasive misogyny -- and specifically Momism, or anti-mother sentiment -- a factor in the public perception of the woman who originated the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy? And why has Merman become such a camp icon for gays and lesbians? Flinn digs deep and comes up with some truly thought-provoking theories.

Ethel's "desexed" image -- her body "neither erotic nor clumsy" and "seldom the source of much attention" -- may have made her "less of a threat to men or to other women," Flinn says. What's more, "[S]omething about the earthy autonomy that Merman conveyed in performance gives her a strong, unconventional sexual edge" that appeals to "gay male 'musical queens' " and "women of all sexualities" who have overlaid "her iconic 'toughness' with various sexual meanings and expectations." And then there's the fantasy offered by those persistent rumors that she'd had an affair with Valley of the Dolls scribe Jacqueline Susann -- she didn't, though Susann did have an unrequited crush on her.

In Flinn's view, Merman's status as a gay icon may be primarily rooted in her identification with Mama Rose -- the diva who presides over the "gynocentric world" modeled in Gypsy. "Like many other musicals, it is about fantasy and the potentials of people with different worldviews and experiences," she writes. And Merman's "commanding presence" as diva/mother "enables fans to transport the onstage passions offstage, bringing them into her image and all that she seemingly blesses."

Kellow's snappy portrait, Flinn's big ideas -- Ethel Merman: A Life and Brass Diva can each satisfy the casual reader or the hard-core Mermanophile. But tackled in tandem, they sing with the power of their subject. Who could ask for anything more? --Amy Reiter

Amy Reiter is an editor at Salon. She has also written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Wine Spectator, and Glamour, among other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114208
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,464,803
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Kellow

Brian Kellow is the features editor of Opera News, where his column, “On the Beat,” appears monthly. He is the author of The Bennetts: An Acting Family and the coauthor of Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. A classically trained pianist, Kellow has also written for Opera and Playbill, among others. He lives in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2009

    Ethel Merman: A Life

    Very enjoyable...didn't know much about Merman's life before reading. she was a fabulous talent and I enjoyed learning moire about her.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 8, 2009

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