Elaine Stritch kicked Rick Borutta in the stomach every day. That, anyway, is how he says it felt at the beginning. “Other than that, she was rather likable,” says Borutta, who worked as her personal assistant for four years, an experience that he has turned into a solo show, entitled “Nobody’s Bitch,” which he is bringing to New York for the first time for one night only at The Duplex on November 26th.
Borutta offers an elaborate explanation for the title of his show, which he’s been performing on and off since 2015 in San Francisco:
“Elaine was often called ‘Stritch the bitch.’ Or misunderstood as a bitch when she just wanted to get things right on the stage. As her assistant I was her bitch. In my personal growth, I’ve learned that my inner feminine is a lot like Elaine – but I wasn’t ready to own that then. So ‘Nobody’s Bitch’ is me, Elaine, and my inner feminine energy that channels and holds my creative energy.”
Borutta’s show is mentioned in “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch” by Alexandra Jacobs, one of the two new biographies about Stritch, who died in 2014 at the age of 89. (The other is “Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend” by John Bell.) Jacobs interviewed Borutta and recounts in the book how the actress relied on him from the get-go, when he was the stage manager for a show in which she starred, a show that wasn’t going well:
“At the dress rehearsal, Stritch called for cues from him so much that the hundred-odd people invited to watch, ushers and friends, wanted to know why the ‘Rick character’ didn’t take a bow at the end of the show.”
Below, my interview with Rick Borutta, which has been lightly edited.
How did you come to work with Elaine Stritch?
I was hired by the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY to stage manage a workshop of a play titled, “Elsa/Edgar” which was written by Bob Kingdom as a solo vehicle for himself. [It is about gossip columnist and party hostess Elsa Maxwell and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.] He was talked into allowing a star to be cast in the play with the hope that it would transfer to Off-Broadway. Elaine Stritch was cast and Gene Saks was the original director. Elaine had just bought a house in Sag Harbor and wanted to get involved with the theatre which at that time was led by Emma Walton, daughter of Julie Andrews and set designer Tony Walton, along with Sybil Christopher, first wife of Richard Burton.
Elaine was fired from the production. It was the wrong material for her and she had a lot of difficulty with it. For some reason, she immediately asked me “What would it take for you to be my assistant?” I was about to tell her there was not a chance in hell, but she interrupted me and backtracked to “What would it take for somebody LIKE you to be my assistant?” A year later, she asked me again but she offered me the opportunity to help her develop her solo show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” I also got to move into the third floor of her house. It was then that my job entailed managing all her mundane tasks: shopping, prescriptions, insurance paperwork, being the “gatekeeper” between her and those who asked her to appear at benefits and other appearances, compiling recordings of all her TV and movie appearances, to be a sounding board for ideas related to her solo show, and to accompany her to a number of events where I carried her infamous shopping bags filled with numerous personal items, stolen food and sometimes stolen hotel supplies like toiletries. As the show became closer to reality I had more production related duties. When John Lahr was involved with co-creating the book, I was at every session as a factotum, amanuensis, and collaborator.
What was your initial reaction to her? Did it change over time?
At the Bay Street Theatre, when many things were going wrong for Elaine, she was nervous and acted out at me, Gene Saks and eventually the replacement director. I felt like I got kicked in the stomach every day. And yet, I really wanted to help Elaine. I had this “the show must go on” mentality and would have done anything for her. Other than that, she was rather likable, she worked hard, and I was empathetic towards her. I observed people around her blame her completely for the failure of the show, which was unfair. It would not be the first time I stood by Elaine as others used her reputation to vent their own anger and frustration when Elaine was simply being the Elaine that everyone knew and had heard about. Her behavior was not always excusable but neither is running her through the mud in the press just to get a little publicity and sympathy.
Over time, I got to know more about Elaine’s insecurity and vulnerability. I got to see a woman who attempted to look at some deep questions, or at least pretended to look at them. She may not have been intellectually capable of holding them for long, but I admired her for that and especially admired her for her talent. I knew I was in a private master class. So that’s partly why I have to do my show.
How did “Nobody’s Bitch” come about?
John Lahr, who co-authored Elaine Stritch At Liberty told me in 2001 he hoped I was keeping good notes. The fact is, I wasn’t. So in 2012 I began a definitive process to record my memories of working and living with Elaine Stritch. In 2014 I decided that the material would make a great solo show and began to re-work the material into monologues….
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the show?
People respond very positively to Elaine Stritch as a character, even though she can be shocking and completely narcissistic. I’ve had people come to me in tears after the show.
I understand you’ve read the Jacobs biography. Did you learn anything you didn’t know?
I didn’t know Elaine was so connected to Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell. She barely mentioned Kilgallen to me in the four years I worked with her. I also didn’t know about all of her former lovers. I always thought Elaine didn’t like sex.
From “Nobody’s Bitch”
We also ran her lines late at night, as it was also my job to make sure she knew the script. I drew up her insulin syringes and made lists of things to get done. Whenever Elaine had a limo she would make the driver wait for me to take me home. The closer we got to the opening night, the more Elaine bristled, cajoled, screamed and kicked. During the tech rehearsal Elaine was on stage..
(As Elaine) It was sometime in the year 1973…Hal Prince called me up and said, “Elaine, I know more than you do.”
She was referring to being cast in the Broadway show Company. But that was 1970. Her audience would have known that, so from the wings I shout “1970!” We go back.
(As Elaine) In 1973…
(As Elaine) Rick, what are you talking about?
“You got married in 1973. That comes later, in London, AFTER you open in Company.” Back to the scene….
(As Elaine) Sometime later that year, I forget when it was, just ask Rick, he’ll tell you!