Our book today is that 1978 classic, Merman: An Autobiography, about, obviously, that inimitable Broadway legend, Ethel Merman.The book has one of those ‘with’ side-credits for which show-business autobiographies are justly notorious, ‘with’ usually signalling that the star in question was either illiterate, drunk, drugged, or droolingly stupid (or all of the above) and that the ‘co-writer’ was responsible for all the writing. In this case, the co-writer was a lovely and courtly old industry hack named George Eells, a writing coach (the funniest of his celebrity subjects once referred to him as a “penabler”) who could occasionally be short-tempered, was usually in very good spirits, and was unflaggingly enthusiastic for the work. Even though he tried never to turn down work, ‘his’ stars almost always felt they were lucky to get him, and that happiness tends to show even in his most heavily ghost-written books (that happiness compensates for what can be a surprising amount of work – ghosting any kind of fact-heavy piece of exposition can be a slog).

Merman: An Autobiography wasn’t one of those most heavily ghost-written books (although it might still have constituted a slog – mum’s the word, if so). Ethel Merman would have been the first to admit she was no wordsmith, but when she signed on to a project, any kind of project, she committed herself, not just her name. She helped Eells at every stage of the book’s development, from concept to sentence-by-sentence, and the result is one of the most enjoyable entertainment memoirs ever written (a friend in the book-world recently came across a first edition and wondered if I had it already – which is much akin to coming across a textbook illustration of a human heart and wondering if I have one already, but I didn’t pounce – after all, to most people alive today, “Ethel Merman” belongs to a past as distant as “Ellen Terry”).

Certainly the subject is big enough. Merman was a force of nature on the stage, where she commanded audiences for decades. George Gershwin told her never to go near a singing coach; Cole Porter said she sounded like “a band going by”; Irving Berlin warned, “You’d better not write a bad lyric for Merman, because people will hear it in the second balcony.” Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Gypsy – these and half a dozen other big shows owed a large measure of their popularity to Merman hammy, brassy, indomitable presence on stage. She and Eells had an embarrassing wealth of material at their disposal for the book, whether about her unlikely (and temporary) transformation from Broadway star to Denver wife and mother:

In the beginning, of course, I was something of an oddity around the neighborhood. Ethel Jr. came home from bicycle riding one day and told that while she and another child were tooling around the girl said, “I hear Ethel Merman lives around here.” Ethel Jr. replied, “Yeah, she’s my mom.” I asked what her friend had said. “Nothing,” Ethel Jr. told me. “She just fell off her bicycle.”

… to her celebrated string of marriages (famously, the account of her month-long marriage to Ernest Borgnine consists of one blank page), to her nearly endless roll-call of colleagues, about each one of whom she seems to have the perfect anecdote – like this priceless one about Tallulah Bankhead:

I remember her telling of going into a public ladies’ room and discovering there was no toilet tissue. She looked underneath the book and said to the lady in the next stall, “I beg your pardon, do you happen to have any toilet tissue in there?” The lady said no, she was sorry but she didn’t. So Tallulah said, “Well, then, darling, do you have two fives for a ten?”

In addition to being funny and talented and charismatic, Merman was also grand – a tough quality to capture in words (and apparently a rare quality just in general, since hardly any Broadway stars have exhibited it since) but nonetheless omnipresent in this book. An autobiography must deal with all kinds of sordid stuff, from contracts to marital breakups to bouts of the flu, and in these pages, thanks in large part to Eells, all those sordid things ring true with Merman’s personality. But like all natural-born performers, she approached closest to the heart of her own essence when she was up on stage, at the peak of her powers, handling the audience like a toy. She and her co-writer capture plenty of those moments in this autobiography:

On Gypsy’s closing night in New York when Jack Klugman and I sang “Together Wherever You Go,” the audience demanded more. And for once I broke professional discipline. I held up my hand to silence them and asked, “Do you really want more?” The clamor was deafening. “Okay, boys, let’s take it from the top,” I told the orchestra – and that’s what we did.

Readers of this nifty book will know just how those audiences felt. They’ll want more.


© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue