The ailing 88-year-old Tony and Emmy award winner got a sustained burst of applause and wolf-whistles Tuesday night from a standing-room only crowd at the supper club Cafe Carlyle, but immediately tried to cut it off by pounding on the stage.
"You listen to me. This is the most frightening night of my life," she said, dressed in a white shirt, black leather boots, a long black vest and her trademark black leggings. "There's something that really frightens me—and that's fear."
Stritch plans soon to retire to Birmingham, Mich.—a suburb of Detroit—after seven decades in New York City. She ends her five-show farewell on Saturday.
The singer and actress admitted to failing health. She suffers from diabetes—sipping orange juice on Tuesday to keep her blood sugar in check—and a broken hip.
"I'm going to kind of take it easy. Every time I leave the building, I fall on my ass," she joked. In Michigan, she said: "I am going to be able to go to sleep at 9 o'clock at night. I've been up all my life."
Stritch had difficulty remembering stories and sometimes found it hard to recall words, but her inner light shone. "I'm not going to be right on the ball here," she warned. "I'm going to be just a little bit shaky. So please stay with me.
She explained that she's been in and out of hospitals but feels great. "I've had a couple of bad falls," she said, and the audience moaned. "Don't you feel sorry for me!" she replied. "Don't you dare feel sorry for me!"
The 188-room Hotel Carlyle on Manhattan's Upper East Side has been a home for Stritch for years and her sold-out engagements there over the past seven years have been legendary. Tickets for her final concerts went for between $85-$175.
On Tuesday, for over an hour she told stories about Rock Hudson, Stephen Sondheim, Jane Fonda, John F. Kennedy, Gregory Peck, Judy Garland and Ethel Merman. She passed around a silver jug with preprinted story ideas, but waved away requests to talk about Marlon Brando, saying, "That takes half an hour. If I were you, I'd go home."
She read her favorite fan letter—from a third grader from Memphis, Tenn.—who wanted an autographed photo of Stritch for his sick mother even though he'd much prefer one from NFL star Brett Favre. She closed with a profane joke about Jesus and St. Peter playing golf.
In the audience were Martin Short, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Tom Hanks, with whom she took particular joy flirting. "Stay in touch, Tom," she said.
With assistance from Rob Bowman on a piano, she sang Eddie Cantor's "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)" a filthy version of Cole Porter's "You're the Top" and closed with "He Was Too Good to Me" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
"There are an awful lot of attractive men in this room," she said wolfishly as the house lights went up. "It's making me crazy."
Stritch became a sort of shorthand for acting longevity since she made her Broadway debut in "Loco" in 1946. Since then, she performed in both musicals and dramas, from Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" to Noel Coward's "Sail Away" to Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" and "Company," for which she sang a memorable "The Ladies Who Lunch."
She appeared in films such as "Monster-in-Law" and "Out to Sea," and on TV as the Emmy-winning mother of Alec Baldwin in "30 Rock." Her one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" won her a second Tony in 2002.
At the cabaret show, she told the crowd, "It's going to be hard to turn my back on you guys, for a little while at least. But I have to. I've just got to take it easy." She added: "Wish me well and I'll do the same to you."
As she was being led away from the stage on the arm of a young, good-looking man, Stritch couldn't resist one last joke.
"Everybody pay their bill?" she asked. "It's a shocker."