***This article was originally published on The Huffington Post’s Arts Blog, for which Steve Schonberg is a regular contributor. To view the original article, and others by Steve Schonberg, published on The Huffington Post, visit www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-schonberg.
Re: An Open Letter to Elaine Stritch
Dear Ms. Stritch,
I’m not unique, per se. I’m just another one of your fans who has spent many years idolizing you for your work in theater, cabaret, television and film.
However, rather than pining over your illustrious career that’s already been well documented, I do want to share something publicly for the very first time, that you helped me with, that’s changed my life, and has given me new hope, perspective and strength.
Viewing your At Liberty DVD one day, I finally acknowledged the nagging voice in my head that told me I had a drinking problem. Your stories resonated with me, many eerily familiar, like when you spoke about being a heavy drinker but trying to limit yourself to two drinks a day. “Two drinks a day. It doesn’t work,” you said: “Not when you want eleven. And not when you start shopping for wineglasses in the vase department at Bloomingdale’s.”
For readers less acquainted with Ms. Stritch, her drinking is a part of Broadway lore. Even Cheyenne Jackson, a recovering alcoholic himself, said at his concert this past weekend that when asked if he had ever been drunk on stage, he responded, no, jokingly adding, “I’m not going to pull an Elaine Stritch.”
For the most part, I could function. My drinking was just one of my “quirks,” so carefully managed behind closed doors, or by those who love me. However, their support was misplaced, albeit innocently, making excuses for me, carefully navigating me around parties, or literally carrying me home to sleep it off before work the next day.
You’ve told the story about how Judy Garland famously quipped, “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this, but goodnight.” I have a suspicion that if I were there with you, you’d soon say the same to me, if one of my handlers hadn’t already poured me into a cab.
It was so carefully managed, I figured I could go on forever, until I heard your story of being an insulin-dependent diabetic (which you’ve implied was brought on by alcohol), yet continuing to drink until you had a “major diabetic hypoglycemic attack,” desperately needing sugar. That you were allegedly so soused, you collapsed in the hall at the Carlyle Hotel, and if a mini-bar waiter hadn’t passed by, luckily with a Pepsi on his cart, you might not be alive today.
I suddenly realized that alcohol is a dangerous friend; it’s fun in small doses but can literally take over, and end your life. The key is when you’re like us and “two drinks a day” is just not possible. It becomes three, then four, then that becomes two or three bottles of wine.
Liza Minnelli has spoken publically about this too, that alcoholism is a disease and she, like me (and maybe you too), feel differently when we drink. While some people relax, we are the opposite and feel “great” or, as I say, “like a bucket with a hole that can never be filled.”
I appreciate how Cheyenne Jackson puts it, that he hid his alcoholism behind “intense, deep shame,” (a comment I can personally related to) but once he took that step toward change, he was amazed by the inner strength he found, and what he could do, “if I pull myself up.”
(I applaud Mr. Jackson for his strength, and being so open about his personal battles. We need more current role models like him, to inspire others, including his throngs of adoring Broadway and pop music fans.)
It was hard at first, but I’m proud to say it’s been two years since my last drink. I’ve had a lot of support, including my amazing partner, friends and from God — but I also often think about your story and say, “If Elaine Stritch can do it, so can I.” In a way, you became my unofficial “sponsor.”
With adoration for you as a performer, as well as appreciation for how you helped changed my life, I jumped at the chance to be a backer for the documentary of your life Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. It’s an incredible film, but I do want to say that I was disappointed to learn that you are drinking again.
According to the New York Times, “As a recovering alcoholic, Ms. Stritch, after more than two decades of sobriety, decides to allow herself one drink a day, usually a cosmopolitan. She seems to be abiding by her rule, though it can’t be easy.”
I’m not your manager nor your maker, so it’s really none of my business. However, in the past you’ve admitted you have trouble limiting your alcohol intake. To quote, “It doesn’t work!” So, what has changed now?
In fact, after your incident in the hall at the Carlyle Hotel, you said “all of a sudden, there’s God so quickly… I quit.. and I am not, this time kidding around. Party’s over.”
Ms. Stritch, you are a national treasure, and remain a memorable icon for many generations to come. However, I hope to see you around for many more years, and ask that you to look back at your own admission, and reconsider your alcohol intake.
You were there for me (remotely, via DVD), and I’m here to offer it in return, if you ever need support.
Additionally, for anyone reading this who may feel they have a problem, please know that there’s always people willing and able to help. As hard as it is to admit you have a problem, it makes it that much easier to take steps toward finding a resolution. Acknowledging it is the hardest part.
If you do believe you have an issue with substance abuse, please contact Alcoholics Anonymous at www.aa.com or Narcotics Anonymous at www.na.org. You can even contact me for support at my website, below. I’ll do what I can to help direct you to the correct resources. You are not alone.
Regards, and with admiration for Ms. Stritch and anyone who finds the strength to overcome substance abuse,
Editor-in-Chief, Center On The Aisle