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Elaine Stritch at Liberty

SATURDAY 7th February 2004
Elaine Stritch has had her acceptance speech ready for 40 years. She finally got the chance to use it in 2002 at the age of 77, when her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, earned a Tony award for this long-time Broadway Baby.

At 150 minutes long, with 16 songs and only a barstool for company, the performance would test the freshest of performers, but her sell-out stints in both New York and London have done little to faze the veteran performer, whom her director calls "a complete natural".

Dressed in her trademark top and tights, Stritch simply tells her story to her absorbed audience or, as one critic puts it, "opens up the veins of her life and bleeds".

The actress recounts her strict Catholic upbringing in Detroit, convent education and star-bound escape to Manhattan, aged 17. She made her Broadway debut in 1947 and was soon being feted as "the theatre-goer's actress".

Confrontational and charismatic, Stritch made a few film appearances but never hit the Hollywood heights. Instead, with a voice that could sand a floor and impeccable comic timing, Stritch went from one theatrical success to another. Noel Coward wrote a part only for her in the 1961 Sail Away, and she moved to London for a decade in the 1970s to take her seminal role in Stephen Sondheim's Company.

Famous for living at the Savoy Hotel and appearing in TV sitcom Two's Company, Stritch was the West End's favourite American, but behind the triumphs of a living legend lay years of personal misery.

Her romantic heartbreaks included an unrequited passion for Rock Hudson and the loss of her husband after a decade together. She had her first "thrilling" drink at 13, and carried on through decades of stage fright and insecurity. After 15 years of sobriety, she now rues the years she lost through the bottom of a tumbler, saying, "It's like I wasn't even there."

After becoming the toast of the town once again, the Stritch is showing no sign of closing the stage door, and is already seeking another vehicle for her indomitable talents and considerable energy. She says, "I could never retire. It just wouldn't make sense." In the words of Sondheim and a song she's made her own, Elaine Stritch is Still Here.