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Generations loved tart-tongued stage legend

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Elaine Stritch personified the term 'brassy' in her many roles on the stage and screen.

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Elaine Stritch personified the term 'brassy' in her many roles on the stage and screen.

NEW YORK -- Elaine Stritch, the brash theatre performer whose gravelly, gin-laced voice and impeccable comic timing made her a Broadway legend, has died. She was 89.

A spokesman for Brigade Marketing, a publicity firm that represents Stritch, said the actress died Thursday of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. Stritch moved to Michigan last year, bidding farewell to New York after 70 years as a tart-tongued monument to old-school show business endurance.

Although Stritch appeared in movies and on television, garnering three Emmys, she was best known for her stage work, particularly in her candid one-woman memoir, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company.

She worked well into her late 80s, most recently as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music. She replaced Angela Lansbury in 2010 to critical acclaim.

In 2013, Stritch retired to Michigan after 71 years in New York City and made her final performance at the Carlyle Hotel, Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out. She said she suffered from diabetes, a broken hip and memory loss -- all of which she nakedly documented in the film Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a documentary released in February.

"It's going to be hard to turn my back on you guys, for a little while at least. But I have to. I've just got to take it easy," she told the crowd. "Wish me well and I'll do the same to you."

Born Feb. 2, 1925, in Detroit, Stritch was the daughter of a Michigan business executive. She attended a Roman Catholic girls school and came to New York to study acting in 1944.

Stritch was a striking woman, with a quick wit, a shock of blond hair and great legs. She showed them off most elegantly in At Liberty, wearing a loose white shirt, high heels and black tights that became her signature style.

In Company (1970), Stritch played the acerbic Joanne, delivering a lacerating version of The Ladies Who Lunch, a classic Sondheim song dissecting the modern Manhattan matron. Stritch originated the role in New York and then appeared in the London production.

Among her other notable Broadway appearances were as Grace, the owner of a small-town Kansas restaurant in William Inge's Bus Stop (1955), and as a harried cruise-ship social director in the Noel Coward musical Sail Away (1961).

She starred in the London stage productions of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady and Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings. It was in England that Stritch met and married actor John Bay. They were married for 10 years. He died of a brain tumour in 1982.

Each generation found her relevant and hip. She was parodied in 2010 on an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson attends a fancy performing arts camp. One class was on making wallets with Elaine Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stritch got a kick out of it. "That's worth being in the business for 150 years," she said with a laugh.

Stritch's films include A Farewell to Arms (1957), Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), Out to Sea (1997), and Woody Allen's September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000). She also appeared in many American TV series, including a guest spot on Law & Order in 1990, which won her her first Emmy.

Stritch was back at the top of the sitcom pyramid with a recurring role in 30 Rock winning her another Emmy in 2007 as best guest actress in a comedy. She played Alec Baldwin's unforgiving mother.

"You know where I'm at in age?" she said with typical sass backstage at a recent revival of A Little Night Music. "I don't need anything. That's a little scary -- when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won't need any more. I'm not going to live long for any big, new discovery at Victoria's Secret."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2014 D2

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