Last year, Elaine Stritch told the New York Times' Charles Isherwood that her epitaph would be a single word: "Later." It's a characteristically sassy way to say goodbye to the world from a magnificently eccentric and glorious performer— one who screeched at everyone from busboys to directors, told Alec Baldwin that she first had an orgasm onstage while performing in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even managed to momentarily stun Kathie Lee and Hoda earlier this year when she mischievously dropped an f-bomb on The Today Show.
More than her epitaph, her alcoholism, her TV roles, and even her outlandish, cantankerous personality, Stritch will most likely be remembered for the song that's now as inextricably hers as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is Judy Garland's: "Ladies Who Lunch," from Stephen Sondheim's Company. Stritch originated the role of Joanne, a bitter, booze-addled woman of a certain age who rants exquisitely about the vacuity of wealthy socialites and their daily proclivities while gesturing extravagantly with a martini. The irony of the number isn't lost on Joanne, nor was it on the actress who played her, with Stritch telling a Times reporter in 1968, "I drink, and I love to drink, and it's part of my life." (She quit eventually, although started having a daily cocktail or two again in her 80s.)
Stritch's voice—raspy, rough, and almost acidic in its ability to cut through a note—was utterly unlike the identikit vibratos that tend to proliferate around Broadway. In a recording of "Ladies Who Lunch" from the '70s, filmed for PBS, she sits on a stool in a white shirt and stares aggressively at the camera, eking out syllables with all the confidence of one who knows the conductor follows her. "The ones who follow the rules/ And meet themselves at the schools/ Too busy to know that they're fools/ Aren't they a gem?" she half-screams, eventually letting out a roar of feral frustration at how infuriating it all is. "I'll drink to them."