Broadway Star Elaine Stritch Reflects on Diabetes
Elaine Stritch died on July 17, 2014, at her home in Michigan. She was 89 and lived life to the fullest. Learn more about her journey with diabetes in this exclusive interview from 2013.
Elaine Stritch says she's only visiting New York. But as a visitor for the past 65 years, she sure seems to have settled in. Upon arrival at the Broadway veteran's light-filled suite in the Carlyle Hotel, you'll see dozens of photos of Stritch and other theater types, phone numbers for contacts from stage, screen, and across the city, and a still-wrapped box from Prada, a gift from famed gossip columnist Liz Smith, the "grand dame of dish."
You may swoon at the glamour of it all: Broadway! The Upper East Side! Room service! But from her bed, in a short, plush white robe with her feet up on pillows, Stritch will tell you it hasn't all been a walk in Central Park. This morning, she says, she had an episode of hypoglycemia; she's been recovering from that for most of the day.
You might know Stritch, 88, from her Tony-nominated performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Stephen Sondheim's Company, perhaps from her Emmy-winning turn as Jack's cantankerous mother, Colleen, on the recently concluded 30 Rock, or even as the voice of Grandma in the animated flick ParaNorman. But now the brash Broadway legend is starring in a different sort of role, in a documentary that looks at her life as she ages with type 1 diabetes on and off the stage. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me premieres this spring at New York's Tribeca Film Festival.
Stritch still exudes that showbiz glamour, but what's even more dazzling is how frankly she speaks, especially about her diabetes. She was diagnosed in her 40s, at the height of her Broadway career. "I showed all the symptoms," Stritch recalls. "[I was] losing weight, which I loved. My figure was in great shape for a while—then I got too thin. I got all the good parts. But my husband was exhausted from my diabetes." Stritch's late husband, actor and playwright John Bay, helped her manage her health, she says. "When I had John, I had no worries about anything. Because he was the love of my life and he took care of me." And once she got in the swing of treating her diabetes with insulin injections, she says, there was "no reason to stop living. You just have to treat it, keep your blood sugar as normal as possible."
Today, Stritch's care is state of the art—she uses a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, a useful tool for predicting lows, but sometimes the alarm doesn't wake her as her glucose falls. Like hair and makeup, regular blood glucose checks are part of her preshow preparation. In fact, she can remember only one instance when she had a severe low on stage: She was performing her Tony-winning one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Her blood glucose was in the safe range before the curtain went up, but as she delivered her first line—"As the prostitute once said, 'It's not the work, it's the stairs' "—she knew she had gone low.
"I walked down to the apron of the stage and said, 'I don't feel good. I thought you oughta be the first to know,' " she says. "They laughed again. I still had the humor. But I was fading away. I said, 'I really have to get off stage and see if I can do something about this.' "
Stritch was able to get backstage and drink some juice to bring her blood glucose level up. Shirley MacLaine was in the audience that night, she remembers, and helped keep the crowd from getting too restless before Stritch returned to the stage half an hour later. "I was so proud of that audience," she says.
Then and now, Stritch says, diet, exercise, frequent testing, and insulin therapy (she uses pens) have helped her keep her diabetes in check. When the weather is nice, she takes walks with friends. She still has her signature great legs—"And I didn't need 78-inch heels to get a look from a guy," she quips. She doesn't perform as often, but occasionally she still does her cabaret act, Elaine Stritch: At Home at the Carlyle.
Always, she says, diabetes care must be at the forefront. Recent eye and hip surgeries, she says, distracted her. When her CGM beeped during her low earlier the morning of this interview, it reminded her: Diabetes comes first. "It has to be a 24-hour job," she says. "I don't care if you broke both legs. It's your whole life—behavior and results."
Living in a hotel, she says, has been beneficial in this way. When she has a medical emergency, or just needs an extra hand, there's a whole staff that knows her and can respond—even if it's just as simple as having an elevator attendant help her get ready to go out. "I don't care how elegant your townhouse is … you can't say, 'Room service,' and you can't say, 'Would you come off the elevator and help me get my socks on?' " she says. "There's so much to be said [for hotel living], especially with the Carlyle."
Through everything, Stritch keeps her trademark sharp wit and positive attitude. "I handle it with as much humor as I can muster," she says. On seeing her documentary, she adds, "I think it says it all! None of us want to see ourselves aging. So we don't tap-dance anymore; what the hell? Sometimes I still can, and when I can, I feel good about it. When I can't, I put my feet up on two pillows and turn on the television, and say, 'The hell with all of you.'"
Now, Stritch plans to move back to Birmingham, Mich., where she was born and raised, to spend time with family and relax. A 65-year visit to New York, she thinks, is a pretty good run. She hopes her work on stage and screen will inspire other people with diabetes—at least to laugh, she says. "If you've got any complaints in life, you know, keep your chin up, along with your blood sugar."