Caryl Flinn's biography of Ethel Merman is as much an admiration of a voice as it is a story of a life. The author is quick to describe the "mesmerizing force" with "its homegrown Astoria accent" filling up auditoriums before amplifiers and microphones could do the job.
Under a section subtitled "Belting," Flinn calls on voice specialists, singers and critics to discuss the practice at length. It's an apt approach, because Merman is her sound -- brassy, clear and blaring. Flinn's emphasis on its characteristics has the curious effect of turning the voice as well as the woman into an object to be studied, something that we can only ever be outside of, admiring but not identifying with.
Merman might not have minded. There was something about her that resisted subjectivity. "Ethel," Flinn declares, "was not the introspective type." Maybe it was simply her well-known pragmatism. She never had stage fright. When asked if she was nervous before a show, the singer reportedly replied, "What the hell should I be nervous about, for Chrissake? They came to see me. I didn't come to see them."
In "Brass Diva" (University of California Press, 556 pages, $34.95), there are no breakdowns, no stints in rehab, no pills. Merman could be a bad drunk, but that didn't undermine her famous discipline and gusto. She hated watching the daily rushes of her film work, a medium she would never command. She didn't make eye contact with other actors, preferring to address only the audience or the camera. Her favorite co-stars were the Muppets.
Her inability to interact, as we say, is fascinating given her obsession with documenting her career.
In addition to drawing extensively on this formidable trove, Flinn, a professor at the University of Arizona who has written about film and gender, has combed archives, quoted other biographies and interviewed myriad sources to get the Broadway legend's story on paper.
Born in Queens between 1906 and 1912, Merman was singing by age 3, first around the house, then for her father's Masonic Lodge as well as troops stationed on Long Island. Stenographer by day, the singer traveled the local vaudeville circuit by night until she became a sensation in 1930, wowing the audience of "Girl Crazy" when she cut loose with "I Got Rhythm." George Gershwin famously advised her to never take a singing lesson.
Merman would reign over Broadway for most of the 20th Century, from the spunky, uncouth Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" to starring roles in Cole Porter musicals, including "Anything Goes," and as the bullying, maddening, heartbreaking Mama Rose in "Gypsy." In her later years, Merman continued to welcome show business, appearing as Gopher's mother on "The Love Boat," releasing a disco album and playing a shell-shocked Lt. Hurwitz in "Airplane!"
The woman at the center of this book offers little to identify with and possibly less to admire -- among other faults, she was a bad tipper. She is compelling the way a hurricane or steam engine might be; neither is especially engaging for a reader but riveting for a spectator.