Ethel Merman (January 16, 1908 – February 15, 1984) was an American actress and singer. Known primarily for her powerful voice and roles inmusical theatre, she has been called "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage." Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are "I Got Rhythm", "Everything's Coming Up Roses", "Some People", "Rose's Turn", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "It's De-Lovely", "Friendship", "You're the Top", "Anything Goes", and "There's No Business Like Show Business", which later became her theme song.
Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in her maternal grandmother's house located at 265 4th Street in Astoria, Queens, in New York City in 1908, though she would later emphatically declare that it was actually 1912. Her father, Edward Zimmermann (1879–1977), was an accountant with James H. Dunham & Company, a Manhattan wholesale dry-goods company, and her mother, Agnes (née Gardner; 1883–1974), was a school teacher. Zimmermann had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and his wife was Presbyterian, but shortly after they were wed they joined theEpiscopalian congregation at Church of the Redeemer, where Merman was baptized. Her parents were strict about church attendance, and every Sunday she spent the day there, first at morning services, followed by Sunday school, an afternoon prayer meeting, and an evening study group for children.
Merman attended P.S. 4 and William Cullen Bryant High School (which later named its auditorium in her honor), where she pursued a commercial course that offered secretarial training. She was active in numerous extracurricular activities, including the school magazine, the speakers' club, andstudent council, and she frequented the local music store to peruse the weekly arrivals of new sheet music. On Friday nights the Zimmermann family would take the subway into Manhattan to see the vaudeville show at the Palace Theatre, where Merman discovered Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Nora Bayes. At home she tried to emulate their singing styles, but her own distinct voice was difficult to disguise.
After graduating from Bryant High School in 1924, Merman was hired as a stenographer by the Boyce-Ite Company. One day during her lunch break, she met Vic Kliesrath, who offered her a job at the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 increase above the weekly $23 salary she was earning, and Merman accepted the offer. She was eventually made personal secretary to company president Caleb Bragg, whose frequent lengthy absences from the office to race automobiles allowed her to catch up on the sleep she had lost the previous night when she was out late performing at private parties. During this period Merman also began appearing in nightclubs, first hired by Jimmy Durante's partner Lou Clayton. It was at this time she decided that the name Ethel Zimmermann was too long for a theater marquee. She considered combining Ethel with Gardner or Hunter, which was her grandmother's maiden name. These considerations got her father's "German" worked up. Finally she abbreviated Zimmermann to Merman to appease her father.
During a two-week engagement at Little Russia, a club in midtown Manhattan, Merman met agent Lou Irwin, who arranged for her to audition for Archie Mayo, a film director under contract atWarner Bros. He offered her an exclusive six-month contract, starting at $125 per week, and Merman quit her day job, only to find herself idle for weeks while waiting to be cast in a film. She finally urged Irwin to try to cancel her agreement with Mayo; instead, he negotiated her a better deal allowing her to perform in clubs while remaining on the Warners payroll. Merman was hired as a torch singer at Les Ambassadeurs, where the headliner was Jimmy Durante, and the two became lifelong friends. She caught the attention of columnists such as Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger, who began giving her publicity. Soon after Merman underwent a tonsillectomy she feared might damage her voice, but after recovering she discovered it was more powerful than ever.
While performing on the prestigious Keith Circuit, Merman was signed to replace Ruth Etting in the Paramount film Follow the Leader (1930), starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers. Following a successful seven-week run at the Brooklyn Paramount, she was signed to perform at the Palace for $500 per week. During the run, theatre producer Vinton Freedley saw her perform and invited her to audition for the role of San Francisco café singer Kate Fothergill in the new George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. Upon hearing her sing "I Got Rhythm", the Gershwins immediately cast her, and Merman began juggling daytime rehearsals with her matinee and evening performance schedule at the Palace.
Girl Crazy opened on October 14, 1930 at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 272 performances. The New York Times noted Merman sang "with dash, authority, good voice and just the right knowing style," while The New Yorker called her "imitative of no one." Merman was fairly blasé about her notices, prompting George Gershwin to ask her mother, "Have you ever seen a person so unconcerned as Ethel?", and he made her promise never to work with a singing teacher.
During the run of Girl Crazy, Paramount signed Merman to appear in a series of ten short musical films, most of which allowed her to sing a rousing number as well as a ballad. She also performed at the Central Park Casino, the Paramount Theatre, and a return engagement at the Palace. As soon as Girl Crazy closed, she and her parents departed for a much-needed vacation in Lake George in Upstate New York, but after their first day there Merman was summoned to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to help salvage the troubled latest edition of George White's Scandals. Because she was still under contract to Freedley, White was forced to pay the producer $10,000 for her services, in addition to her weekly $1,500 salary. Following the Atlantic City run, the show played in Newark and then Brooklyn before opening on Broadway, where it ran for 202 performances.
Merman's next show, Humpty Dumpty, began rehearsals in August 1932 and opened—and immediately closed—in Pittsburgh the following month. Producer Buddy DeSylva, who also had written the book and lyrics, was certain it could be reworked into a success and, with a revamped script and additional songs by Vincent Youmans, it opened with the new title Take a Chance on November 26 at the Apollo, where it ran for 243 performances. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it "fast, loud, and funny" and added Merman "has never loosed herself with quite so much abandon." Following the Broadway run, she agreed to join the show on the road, but shortly after the Chicago opening she claimed the chlorine in the city's water supply was irritating her throat, and Merman returned to Manhattan.
Merman returned to Hollywood to appear in We're Not Dressing, a 1934 screwball comedy based on the J. M. Barrie play The Admirable Crichton. Despite working with a cast that included Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, and Burns and Allen, under the direction of Academy Award–winning director Norman Taurog, Merman was unhappy with the experience, and she was dismayed to discover one of her musical numbers had been cut when she attended the New York opening with her family and friends. That same year she also appeared on screen with Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions, but it was her return to Broadway that established her as a major star and cemented her image as a tough girl with a soft heart.
Anything Goes proved to be the first of five Cole Porter musicals in which Merman starred. In addition to the title song, the score included "I Get a Kick Out of You", "You're the Top", and "Blow Gabriel Blow". It opened on November 21, 1934 at the Alvin Theatre, and the New York Post called Merman "vivacious and ingratiating in her comedy moments, and the embodiment of poise and technical adroitness" when singing "as only she knows how to do." Although Merman always had remained with a show until the end of its run, she left Anything Goes after eight months to appear with Eddie Cantor in the film Strike Me Pink. She was replaced by Benay Venuta, with whom she enjoyed a long but frequently tempestuous friendship.
Merman initially was overlooked for the 1936 screen adaptation of Anything Goes when Bing Crosby insisted his wife Dixie Lee be cast as Reno Sweeney opposite his Billy Crocker, but when she unexpectedly dropped out of the project Merman was given the opportunity to reprise the role she had originated on stage. From the beginning, it was clear to Merman the film would not be the enjoyable experience she had hoped it would be. The focus was shifted to Crosby, leaving her very much in a supporting role. Many of Porter's ribald lyrics were altered to conform to the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code, and "Blow Gabriel Blow" was eliminated completely, replaced by a song Merman was forced to perform in a headdress made of peacock feathers while surrounded by dancers dressed as Chinese slave girls. The film was completed $201,000 over budget and seventeen days behind schedule, and Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune described it as "dull and commonplace," with Merman doing "as well as possible" but unable to register "on the screen as magnificently as she does on the stage."
Merman returned to Broadway for another Porter musical, but despite the presence of Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope in the cast, Red, Hot and Blueclosed after less than six months. Back in Hollywood, Merman was featured in Happy Landing, a minor comedy with Cesar Romero, Don Ameche, and Sonja Henie; the box office hit Alexander's Ragtime Band, a pastiche of Irving Berlin songs interpolated into a plot that vaguely paralleled the composer's life; and Straight, Place or Show, a critical and commercial flop starring the Ritz Brothers. She returned to the stage in Stars in Your Eyes, which struggled to survive while the public flocked to the 1939 New York World's Fair instead and finally closed short of four months. Merman followed this with two more Porter musicals. DuBarry Was a Lady, with Bert Lahr and Betty Grable, ran for a year, and Panama Hattie, with Betty Hutton, June Allyson, and Arthur Treacher, fared even better, lasting slightly more than fourteen months.
Shortly after the opening of the latter, Merman—still despondent about the end of her affair with Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley—married her first husband, Treacher's agent, William Smith. She later said she knew on their wedding night she had made "a dreadful mistake," and two months later she filed for divorce on grounds of desertion. Shortly after she met and married Robert D. Levitt, promotion director for the New York Journal-American. The couple eventually had two children and divorced in 1952 because of his excessive drinking and erratic behavior.
In 1943, Merman was a featured performer in the film Stage Door Canteen and opened in another Porter musical, Something for the Boys, produced byMichael Todd. Her next project was Sadie Thompson, a Vernon Duke – Howard Dietz musical adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham short story, but Merman found she was unable to retain the lyrics and resigned twelve days after rehearsals began.
In August 1945, while in the hospital recovering from the Caesarean birth of her second child, Merman was visited by Dorothy Fields, who proposed she star as Annie Oakley in a musical she and her brother Herbert were writing with Jerome Kern. Merman accepted, but in November Kern suffered a stroke while in New York City visiting Rodgers and Hammerstein (the producers of the show) and died a few days later. Producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II invited Irving Berlin to replace him, and the result was Annie Get Your Gun, which opened on May 16, 1946, at the Imperial Theatre, where it ran for nearly three years and 1,147 performances. During that time, Merman took only two vacations and missed only two performances because of illness.Merman lost the film version to Judy Garland, who eventually was replaced by Betty Hutton, but she did star in a Broadway revival two decades later at Lincoln Center with Bruce Yarnell, who was twenty-seven years Merman's junior, cast as Annie Oakley's loyal husband and manager, Frank E. Butler.
Merman and Berlin reunited for Call Me Madam in 1950, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and she went on to star in the 1953 screen adaptation as well, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her performance. The following year she appeared as the matriarch of the singing and dancing Donahue family in There's No Business Like Show Business, a film with a Berlin score.
Merman returned to Broadway at the behest of her third husband, Continental Airlines executive Robert Six, who was upset she had chosen to become a Colorado housewife following their wedding in 1953. He expected her public appearances to engender publicity for the airline, and her decision to forgo the limelight did not sit well with him. He urged her to accept the lead in Happy Hunting, with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who had written Call Me Madam) and a score by the unknown team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman acquiesced to her husband's demands, although she clashed with the composers from the start and soon was at odds with co-star Fernando Lamas and his wife, Arlene Dahl, who frequently attended rehearsals. Based on the Merman name, the show opened in New York with an advance sale of $1.5 million and, despite the star's dissatisfaction with it, garnered respectable reviews. Although Brooks Atkinson thought the score was "hardly more than adequate", he called Merman "as brassy as ever, glowing like a neon light whenever she steps on the stage." Several months into the run, she insisted that two of her least favorite numbers be replaced by songs written by her friend Roger Edens, who, because of his exclusive contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, credited them to Kay Thompson. She lost the Tony Award to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, and the show closed after 412 performances, with Merman happy to see what she considered "a dreary obligation" finally come to an end.
Gypsy was based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee and starred Merman as her domineering stage mother Rose Hovick, possibly Merman's best remembered performance. The musical opened on May 21, 1959 at The Broadway Theatre. In the New York Post, Richard Watts called Merman: "A brilliant actress," and Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times said: "She gives an indomitable performance, both as actress and singer." Despite, the acclaim Merman lost the Tony Award to her close friend Mary Martin in The Sound of Music and jokingly quipped, "How are you going to buck a nun?" Shortly, after she divorced Robert Six, his affair with television actress Audrey Meadows became public, and she found solace in her work.
Throughout the 702-performance run of Gypsy, Mervyn LeRoy saw it numerous times, and repeatedly assured Merman that he planned to cast her in the film adaptation he was preparing. However, prior to the show's closing it was announced that Rosalind Russell had been signed to star instead. Russell's husband, theatre producer Frederick Brisson (whom Merman later called "the lizard of Roz"), had sold the screen rights to the Leonard Spigelgass play A Majority of One to Warner Bros. with the stipulation his wife would star in both films. Because Russell was still a major box office draw with the success of Auntie Mame a few years earlier, and Merman never having established herself as a popular screen presence, the studio agreed to Brisson's terms. Merman was devastated at this turn of events and called the loss of the role, "The greatest professional disappointment of my life."
Following the Broadway closing of Gypsy on March 25, 1961, Merman half-heartedly embarked on the national tour. In San Francisco, she severely injured her back but continued to play to packed houses. During the Los Angeles run, LeRoy visited her backstage and claimed Russell was so ill, "I think you're going to end up getting this part." Believing the film version of Gypsy was within her grasp, she generously gave him the many house seats he requested for friends and industry colleagues, only to discover she had been duped.
Over the next several years Merman was featured in two films, the successful It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and the flop The Art of Love (1965). She made dozens of television appearances on variety series' hosted by Perry Como, Red Skelton, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, and in episodes of That Girl, The Lucy Show, Batman, and Tarzan, among others.
Producer David Merrick encouraged Jerry Herman to compose Hello, Dolly! specifically for Merman's vocal range, but when he offered her the role she declined it. She finally joined the cast on March 28, 1970 six years after the production opened. On Merman's opening night her performance was continually brought to a halt by prolonged standing ovations and the critics unanimously heralded her return to the New York stage. Walter Kerr in The New York Time] described her voice: "Exactly as trumpet-clean, exactly as penny whistle-piercing, exactly as Wurlitzer-wonderful as it always was." He went on to say: "Her comic sense is every bit as authoritative, as high-handed, really, as her voice." The seventh actress to portray the scheming matchmaker, she remained with the musical for 210 performances until it closed on December 27, 1970. Merman received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for what proved to be her last appearance on Broadway.
For the remainder of her career, Merman worked as frequently as offers were made. In 1979, she recorded The Ethel Merman Disco Album, with many of her signature show-stoppers set to adisco beat. Her last screen role was a self-parody in the 1980 comedy film Airplane!, in which she portrayed Lieutenant Hurwitz, a shell shocked soldier who thinks he is Ethel Merman. In the cameo appearance, Merman leaps out of bed singing Everything's Coming Up Roses as orderlies restrain her. She appeared in multiple episodes of The Love Boat (playing Gopher's mother), guested on a CBS Television tribute to George Gershwin, did a summer comedy/concert tour with Carroll O'Connor, played a two-week engagement at the London Palladium, performed with Mary Martin in a concert benefitting the theatre and museum collection of the Museum of the City of New York, and frequently appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras. She also volunteered atSt. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center working in the gift shop or visiting patients.
Later life and death
Merman began to become forgetful with advancing age and on occasion had difficulty with her speech. At times her behavior was erratic causing concern among her friends.
On April 7, 1983, she was preparing to leave for Los Angeles to appear on the 55th Academy Awards telecast when she collapsed in her apartment. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma and underwent brain surgery to have the malignant tumor removed.
Early on the morning of February 15, 1984, she died in her sleep. Her private funeral service was held in a chapel at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where she had frequently worshipped. On October 10, 1984, an auction of her personal effects, including furniture, artwork, and theatre memorabilia, earned in excess of $120,000 at Christie's East.
Merman was known for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice, precise enunciation and pitch. Because stage singers performed without microphones when Merman began singing professionally, she had a great advantage, despite the fact that she never took any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin advised her never to take a singing lesson after she opened in his Girl Crazy.
Merman was married and divorced four times:
- William Smith, theatrical agent (1940–1941)
- Robert Levitt, a newspaper executive (1941–1952)
- Robert Six, President, Continental Airlines (1953–1960)
- Ernest Borgnine, the actor, in 1964. Merman filed for divorce 32 days later.
Merman had two children with Levitt: Ethel (born July 20, 1942), and Robert, Jr. (born August 11, 1945). Ethel Levitt died on August 23, 1967, of a drug overdose that was ruled accidental. Merman's son was married to actress Barbara Colby, who, along with her boyfriend (she and Robert were estranged at the time) was shot and killed by apparent gang members with no apparent motive in a parking garage in Los Angeles in 1975.
Merman co-wrote two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1955) and Merman (1978). In a radio interview, she said of her many marriages: "We all make mistakes, that's why they put rubbers on pencils, and that's what I did. I made a few loo-loos!" In "Merman," the chapter entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" consists of one blank page.
Merman was notorious for her love of vulgar jokes. She delighted in telling dirty jokes and vulgar stories at public parties. For instance, she once shouted a dirty joke across the room at José Ferrer during a formal reception. Merman also enjoyed sending out greeting cards with obscene jokes in them. Merman was known for swearing during rehearsals and meetings. While rehearsing a guest appearance on NBC's The Loretta Young Show, she was told she had to pay $1 each time she swore since Young opposed foul language. As she was being shoehorned into an ill fitting gown for the next number Merman exclaimed, "Oh shit, this damn thing's too tight." Young advanced on her waving her curse box and said, "Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules." Merman's retort reportedly was, "Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?!"
Ernest Borgnine told fellow actor Frank Wilson that he spent three weeks of his 32-day marriage arguing with Merman. By the end, he recounted how she came back from a film one day and said,"The director said I looked sensational. He said I had the face of a 20 year old, and the body and legs of a 30 year old!", Borgnine replied, "Did he say anything about your old cunt?". "No" replied Ethel, "he didn't mention you at all."
Merman was a lifelong Republican, and during the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration, she was a frequent guest at The White House. She even appeared at the 1956 Republican National Convention in San Francisco with Jane Powell, Irene Dunne, Wendell Corey, and later U.S. Senator George Murphy.