She had a big voice and a foul mouth. I love listening to her voice – it was like a brass band going by, said Cole Porter – and I love the stories about her profanity.
Loretta Young, the actress, was something of a hypocrite. Although she had had a child out of wedlock with Clark Gable, she claimed to be mightily offended by curse words. On the set of her show, she vowed that she would assess any guest $1 for using a swear word.
Ethel Merman used a swear word, and Loretta came over and demanded that she put $1 into her collection box for charity. Said the Merm: “How much do I have to put in if I tell you to go f--- yourself?”
She was married (for 30 or so days) to actor Ernest Borgnine (famous for his role in the film “Marty”). In her autobiography she has a chapter entitled “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” It’s a single blank page.
Here’s something from Wikipedia. According to actor Frank Wilson, Borgnine “recounted how she came back from a film one day and said, ‘The director said I looked sensational. He said I had the face of a 20-year-old, and the body and legs of a 30-year-old!’ Borgnine answered, ‘Did he say anything about your old [c---]?’ ‘No,’ replied Ethel, ‘he didn't mention you at all.’”
She lived from 1908 to 1984, and had a life marked by tragedy.
Here are some things you might not have known about her:
+ She wasn’t very bright, said Stephen Sondheim and others. After playing opposite the handsome actor Tab Hunter, she was puzzled that he hadn’t made a pass at her. “Is he a homosexual?” she asked actor Jack Klugman, a co-star. Klugman replied, “Is the pope Catholic?” The Merm thought a minute, then said, “Of course. Why do you ask?”
+ She had been assured that she would star in the film version of “Gypsy,” but Rosalind Russell got the part – thanks to the efforts of Russell’s husband. The Merm dubbed him “the lizard of Roz” and called her loss of the role “the greatest professional disappointment of my life.” Russell’s voice in the film was dubbed by Lisa Kirk; The New Yorker called the film “thoroughly repellent.”
+ Offered the lead role in “Hello, Dolly” by David Merrick, for some reason she turned it down. But she joined the cast six years after it opened — and she was a sensation.
+ She had a torrid affair with Sherman Billingsley, owner of the Stock Club.
+ Her biggest success may have been her role in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” — although Betty Hutton appeared in the film version. What a mistake. A critic wrote of the manic Miss Hutton: “She should be given one number in the course of an evening and then be permitted to work off her surplus energies elsewhere.”
+ When she starred in “Annie,” she was getting pretty long in the tooth. A critic dubbed it “Granny Get Your Gun.”
+ She liked opera and was friendly with a few male opera singers. She joked about her lack of musical knowledge, asking someone, was my head voice or chest voice better tonight?
+ Pavarotti, admiringly, once said there was no break between the Merm’s chest voice and her hea d voice.
+ Her second husband, Robert Levitt, killed himself with an overdose of barbituates. Merman, who said she had truly loved him, felt guilty, believing that if they had stayed married that wouldn’t have happened.
+ Her daughter-in-law, the actress Barbara Colby, was shot dead for no apparent reason as she left an acting class in California. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Colby
+ She was competitive with most other singers, but not with Mary Martin, with whom she often sang. “She’s okay,” she said of Martin, “if you like talent.”
+ She was not widely accepted outside New York. Biographer Brian Kellow thinks the rest of the country was cool because she was so obviously a New Yorker.
+ She was annoyed that so many people thought she was Jewish. She wasn’t.
+ She was born Zimmerman, and shortened the name.
+ She sang for George Gershwin, before playing in his musical “Girl Crazy,” and he gave her this advice: Don’t ever go near a voice teacher. (Her voice was fine as it was.)
+ After singing for Gershwin, he asked her if there was anything in his music she would like changed. She marveled: George Gershwin asking Ethel Zimmerman of Queens if she wanted to change his music!
+ Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing her sing, supposedly said, “Castrato!” (A man, usually surgically altered, who sings like a woman.)
+ A critic compared her voice to that of Enrico Caruso, with its bigness of voice, richness, and steadiness.
+ In front of a hostile audience, when she was young, she said, “Screw you, you jerks. If you were as good as I am, you’d be up here!”
+ She complained about living for a while in Hollywood: She missed the nightclubs, the great restaurants, of New York — “the things that make life worth living just aren’t here.”
+ When Rodgers and Hammerstein cut their performers’ salaries because sales of one of their musicals declined, she was furious — and had them reverse their decision. Later on, whenever she heard their names, she started cursing.
+ After her mother died, hardly anyone attended the funeral. Said a friend, “Well, you can’t go through life telling your best friends to go f--- themselves and expect them to turn up at your mother’s funeral.”
+ She won all sorts of awards — a Tony, a Golden Globe, Drama Desk. She was the Queen of Broadway during much of the 20th century.
+ She served as a volunteer in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, working in the gift shop and visiting patients.
+ Another good biography of her, besides Brian Kellow’s “Ethel Merman,” is Caryl Flinn’s “Brass Diva.”
See more clips of famous Ethel Merman performances below :