I only saw Ethel Merman in person 2 times: on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, a role written for her that she finally played 6 years after the musical opened. Her Dolly Levi was A+. Merman received several ovations the evening I was lucky enough to be in the house. I was also in the audience for a concert at The Dorothy Chandler in 1974, in support the release of her disco album.
Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was a bookkeeper's daughter from Queens, who worked as a stenographer by day & sang at local parties by night.
Eventually, she acquired an agent who got her some cabaret engagements in Manhattan. After one her gigs, the 22 years old singer actually had no less than George & Ira Gershwin ask her to come & sing some songs they had written for their new musical- Girl Crazy.
At the end of the audition George Gershwin stated: "Miss Merman, if there's anything you'd like to change, I'd be happy to do so." Merman: “No, the songs will do very nicely".
Girl Crazy opened in the autumn of 1930 & when she sang I Got Rhythm, the audience went wild, & demanded 10 encores. Afterwards she took the subway home to Astoria, but the next day she went to lunch with the Gershwins who showed her the reviews & explained that she was now a big Broadway star. George Gershwin told her: "Never take a singing lesson", She never did.
She had a huge brassy belting voice, but she also had such impeccable diction that every word, every syllable, could be heard in every seat in the theatre. It was this skill that made her so appealing to composers & lyricists. She was adored by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim & even Igor Stravinsky.
Merman couldn't read music but she was able memorize a song after a few hearings. Cole Porter: "She can sing anything. But, I really tailor-made my songs for her because I know her range so well." Her best note was A above middle C & he often ended phrases on that note. Porter knew he could trust her to handle his complicated rhythms & he loved the fact that she could sing: "Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do" in one breath.
Producers adored Merman. She almost never missed a show. She demanded high fees, but once the contract was signed, she was utterly reliable & professional.
Merman had a long stage career, from Girl Crazy in 1930 to Hello, Dolly! in 1970. She was still belting out There's No Business Like Show Business when she was in her 70s. She released that disco album & The NY Times reviewed it as: "not quite so embarrassing as might have been feared".
Not really pretty or sexy, Merman was also a bit dim. She never read a book, & when someone asked "Is the Pope Catholic?", she helpfully supplied the answer: "Yes". Her favorite drink was champagne… on the rocks.
She did her own book-keeping & counted pennies; her first agent- Lou Irwin: "3 things are important to Ethel, the first is money, & the second is money & the third is money." She disliked travel & once said that her idea of exercise was sunbathing.
Merman would marry 4 times, never happily, her last marriage, to Ernest Borgnine, ended after 5 weeks. She had 2 children by her second husband, Bob Levitt, but devoted little time to them.
For me, the best thing about Merman was her exuberance & willingness to make fun of herself. At 72 years old, she appeared in the movie- Airplane! playing a wounded soldier so traumatized that he believed he was Ethel Merman, & she leapt from his/her hospital bed singing Everything's Coming Up Roses.
I have read gossip claiming that she was lesbian & Jewish, but I have found nothing that points to either being true. The writer Jacqueline Susann once stood outside her door yelling "Ethel, I love you!" but Merman never showed the slightest interest in women. The character Helen Lawson in Susann’s novel Valley Of The Dolls is based on Merman.
Although many of my younger acquaintances have never heard of her, but she remains a gay icon to men of a certain age, beloved of drag artists. There is even an Ethel Merman choir, consisting entirely of Merman impersonators, in San Francisco.
As a kid, I thrilled to her appearances on dozens of TV appearances, guesting on variety series hosted by Perry Como, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, & Carol Burnett, on talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, & Merv.
When Merman moved on to the great spotlight in 1984, I lit a candle for her while listening to Gypsy. I do an outstanding imitation of her.
"Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I've been very good to Broadway."