I Got Rhythm THE ETHEL MERMAN STORY by Bob Thomas (Putnam’s: $16.95; 228 pp., illustrated)
A woman with no background, uneducated, foul-mouthed, and a bargain-basement shopper, Ethel Merman still became a national treasure. What she had was a personality with more brass than an Army band and a voice to match.
Graduating from a business course at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City, Ethel Zimmerman moved quickly into the work force, taking a job with a company that manufactured anti-freeze for automobiles. Not finding that to her liking, she moved on to a stenographic position as personal secretary to Caleb Bragg at the Bragg-Kliesrath Co.
The move was a lucky break for the young girl with theatrical ambitions. Bragg, enamored of show business and celebrities, numbered several producers and agents as social cronies.
Never one to allow an opportunity to go unused, Ethel parlayed her employer’s contacts into an agency contract with Lou Irwin. Irwin boasted Helen Morgan and the Ritz Brothers among his clients, which impressed Miss Zimmerman. A Warner Bros. contract followed, but Merman was never very successful in movies. With the exception of “Call Me Madam,” she simply did not come across on film as she did on stage. She would never admit the truth, however, and always said that “Hollywood never gave me a break.”
Broadway was another story. From the moment she stepped before the footlights on Oct. 14, 1930, in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” and belted out “I Got Rhythm,” her place in the annals of show business was assured. Shows in which she starred read like a “Who’s Who” of the Broadway musical: “Girl Crazy,” “Anything Goes,” “Red, Hot and Blue,” “Du Barry Was a Lady,” “Panama Hattie,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” “Happy Hunting” and “Gypsy.” These were only the highlights of her unparalleled reign as “Queen of the Broadway Musical.”
Merman was married to the stage. Her deep inner feelings were revealed only in her performance and her rapport with an audience. She disdained audiences in private, often referring to them as “those clowns out there,” but she understood what they wanted and gave it to them. “It’s just a job,” she counseled newcomers to her shows. “You go to work and when the curtain falls, it’s over and you go home.”
In a Merman show, she was in command of every aspect of the production. To upstage her was to be looking for a new job. Thin-skinned, she was quick to be offended by even the hint of a slight. To curry her disfavor was to be banished from her presence for life. Close friends were not excluded from her wrath.
Merman became the toast of several continents, but she failed to find compatibility with the opposite sex for any great length of time. Her first (some say only) real love was Sherman Billingsly, owner of the famous Stork Club in Manhattan. Billingsly never kept his promise to divorce his wife for Ethel. It broke her heart.
She was married four times. Her last husband was Ernest Borgnine, whose volatile temper equaled her own. Their marriage didn’t survive the first week of a Far Eastern honeymoon. After divorcing Borgnine, she declared that she would never again walk down the aisle, and she didn’t.
When the curtain fell on “Gypsy” in 1961 after 702 performances, Merman vowed it would be her last Broadway show. She later reprised a couple of her older hits and once took over “Hello, Dolly!” for a season, but never appeared in another “original” musical.
The untimely death of her daughter from an overdose of barbiturates in August of 1967 brought home to Ethel some harsh realities of life with which she was never able to cope. She had alienated her children, who found it difficult to stand in her shadow. It was only at the end of her life that she was reconciled with her beloved son Bobby, and it was Bobby at her bedside when Ethel died quietly on Feb. 15, 1984, from a brain tumor. In a black limousine, Bobby and an urn containing his mother’s ashes drove slowly down Broadway just before show time, passing all the theaters where she had belted out her inimitable style of singing. One minute before curtain time, “all of the shining marquees dimmed their lights” to pay homage to “The Merm.”
The author of “I Got Rhythm,” Bob Thomas, has for many years been a top Associated Press reporter covering the Hollywood beat. His credentials as a writer of celebrity biographies are mixed. Some blockbusters and some lacklusters. “I Got Rhythm” falls somewhere between the two. The first 10 chapters might easily be a rehash of the Ethel Merman AP morgue file.
Beginning with Chapter 11, and Thomas’ first personal interviews with Merman, it starts to sizzle, crackle and pop and the essence of who Ethel Merman was begins to come across. This is not the definitive biography of Ethel Merman, nor were the two preceding it that she penned herself--one with the able assistance of George Eells. Nonetheless, it is filled with show business trivia and quotes from the greats who catered to and worked with Merman. The Ethel Merman cult will love it, and celebrity buffs will follow suit, for Merman was undeniably a saga in musical history.