Elaine Stritch, Great Dame of Broadway, Dead at 89

Jul 17, 2014

Updated: 10:07 a.m. ET Friday

Elaine Stritch, the Broadway musical theater actress who was best known for her salty personality and and star power even into old age, died Thursday in Birmingham, Mich., at 89.

She's one of only stage actresses who worked consistently from the golden age of American theater through to the present. She first starred in a 1952 revival of "Pal Joey," then a 1955 production of William Inge's "Bus Stop," and then played Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" from 1962-1964. But she got her big break in 1970, in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." She became known as one of the best actresses to interpret Sondheim's work, which she did again in 2009 in "A Little Night Music."

Stritch was a theater actress first and foremost, but she also had a successful movie and television career. She most recently played Jack Donaghy's mother Colleen on 30 Rock when she was already in her 80s, but also made two movies with Woody Allen (September, in 1987 and Small Time Crooks in 2000) over a career that spanned six decades.

"Elaine was a 'tough old bird' but I suspect she may have been a 'tough old bird' since birth," 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tells TIME. "I loved her voice, her timing, her stories and her natural elegance. One day she was wearing a beautiful butterfly cocktail ring and when I admired it, she gave it to me on the spot-- like an Arab sheik in black pantyhose. I feel very lucky to have worked with her as much as I did."

The stage was her true home, however-- whether it was musicals, dramatic plays, or one-women shows, Stritch's biggest fans wanted to see her in person.

"I remember seeing Elaine in the touring company of Call Me Madam, in Los Angeles," six-time Emmy winner Carol Burnett tells TIME. "I was a hopeful musical comedy 'wannabe,' still in high school, and she bowled me over. Many years later, in New York, I got to know her and even though our paths didn’t cross as often as I would’ve liked, we would pick up where we left off as if time had never passed. I loved her because she never censored herself when it came to expressing her (often hilarious) opinions. On stage, her comedic timing was impeccable, and as far as selling a song goes, I don’t think she could’ve been topped. One more observation: She had great gams."

Perhaps her greatest role was playing herself, as the caustic grand dame of the Broadway theater. She won her last Tony for a one-woman show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty", in which she sang, danced and told stories to packed houses.

"I’m a funny age — funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, funny, funny. I could hardly open my mouth on the stage without getting a laugh," she told the New York Times in January. "That’s a pretty sensational thing to brag about, but it’s also dangerous. I had a great time, and I’m very glad it’s over. Oh, my God, it’s hard. Entertaining is hard."

Here's a trailer for a documentary about Stritch's life released earlier this year:

Actress Elaine Stritch c. 1956
Actress Elaine Stritch c. 1956NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
Actress Elaine Stritch c. 1956
Ed Sullivan talks with Elaine Stritch on TOAST OF THE TOWN on November 14, 1954.
Elaine Stritch, Ray Bolger
THE PERFECT FURLOUGH, Troy Donahue, Les Tremayne, Linda Cristal, Keenan Wynn, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Elaine Stritch, King Donovan in 1958.
Grover Dale and Elaine Stritch of the cast of Sail Away on November 27, 1961.
Elaine Stritch on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Elaine Stritch talks to patrons while serving drinks at Elaine's (no relation) where she works as a barmaid on August 12, 1964. Miss Stritch chose to spend the summer working in a bar even though she could have had her pick of summer theater tours.
Elaine Stritch poses for a portrait at the Tunnel night club in the mid 1990s in New York City.
Elaine Stritch performs at the Kennedy Center Honors on October 29, 1994.
Elaine Stritch with her Emmy for "Outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program," for "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty," in the press room at the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on September 19, 2004.
Elaine Stritch performing in the New York Philharmonic Gala Evening at Avery Fisher Hall New York City on March 15, 2010.
Bradley Dean, Katherine McNamara, Alexander Hanson, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Kevin David Thomas, Karen Murphy, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Tony Award-winning masterpiece A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, directed by Tony Award-winner Trevor Nunn. Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City on July 13, 2010.
Elaine Stritch performs during a White House music series concert saluting Broadway in the East Room at the White House in Washington on July 19, 2010.
George Grizzard as George Albright, Elaine Stritch as Martha Albright, Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright and John Lithgow as Dr. Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock From The Sun.
Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy and Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy in 30 Rock.
USA: 'Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over And Out' - Performance
Actress Elaine Stritch c. 1956
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
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