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Jeff Simon

Books on Nichols, Stritch will make theater geeks delirious with joy

Jeff Simon

Mike Nichols - comedian, actor, director, authentic legend - suffered from alopecia, the medical condition marked by hairlessness.

What it meant, in his case, were constant wigs, including tiny patches for his eyebrows.

I never knew that until I read - addictively - Ash Carter and Sam Kashman's "Life Isn't Eveything: Mike Nichols as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends" (Henry Holt, 321 pages, $30).

I immediately started studying photos of Nichols and it suddenly seemed so obvious that it was amazing I had  missed it.

After reading the book, I realized every day of his life involved a kind of theatrical self-presentation. Before he left home in the morning, he had to be cosmetically put together to go onstage and face the world.

That wouldn't seem remarkable to women, but for most modern American men, it isn't ordinary to think of theatrical presentation as a requisite for "everyday" life. For ordinary middle-class males, it's basic grooming and hello. For Nichols, he was theatrically put together from the clavicles up. Daily.

Which make his gifts for realism as a director all the more complex, powerful and admirable in a way.

What we've got in this book is a feast between covers for a certain genus of American.

Movie and TV devotees comprise a certain kind of show business book reader. They'll be captivated by the book. But deep, in-the-pocket theater devotees (theater freaks as they used to be called, "theater geeks" now after "freaks" began to gain specificity) are going to feast on this brilliant and terrific oral history of the life and times of the singular Mike Nichols.

Nor is that all. This particular pre-holiday book season is marked by one more quietly spectacular book designed to keep the most dedicated theater geeks in a state of book-centered bliss.

And that's Alexandra Jacobs' compulsively readable "Still Here: The Madcap Singular Life of Elaine Stritch" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $28) about a woman whose long TV career from early game shows and Peter Falk's "The Trials of O'Brian" to playing Alec Baldwin's sardonic mother on "30 Rock" was nothing compared to the  pageantry of her life in the New York theater and in the one-woman shows whose audiences have always assured the world that she was one of the theatrical experiences of our age.

Sheila Weller's blurb on the book flap was written in publishing's accustomed hype-speak but it manages, with both economy and apparent accuracy, to get across the attraction of ravenously consuming "Still Here" for those who will consider it manna from heaven. "A delicious, page turning and meticulous romp through the distinctive life of a feminist icon. The talented urbane, smoking and drinking queen of Broadway's tough dames lived a life of accomplishment, boldly frank opinions and just as many bold-faced names that defined the Great White Way of recent yore."

The first time her father gave a young Elaine Stritch half of his whiskey sour, she belted it down and, according to her, "felt suddenly like 'Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Ethel Merman, Gertie Lawrence, and Fanny Brice" in one, she put it in her one-woman show. One of the fabled drinkers of theatrical anecdote was born.

She was Broadway's Scheherazade. She could, typically, claim that in a children's play called "Babino" she inhabited the back end of a cow to Marlon Brando's front. Never mind that the play's author (and later film critic) Stanley Kauffman said it was really a giraffe, it was in Stritch's tale, what happened when "Marlon wanted to be upfront and she said 'oh, that will be all right' trying to impress him with the fact that I would gladly be the backside of the cow if he was going to be the cow."

For those precious few of us who remember her thrown away in the cast of a distinctively idiosyncratic 1960s TV show "The Trials of O'Brian," Stritch turned that biographical indignity into a tidbit in the O'Neillian alcohol-soaked saga of her life. Stritch said she got the gig by walking into P. J. Clarke's saloon and "joining [Peter] Falk's table with the memorable line, as related by the character actor George Furth, 'Just get me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.' "

The theatrical world cherished excess in her prime. Hers was theatrical life that proved that, for some, life was meant to be measured out in outrageous quotability and antic anecdotes.

She liked to commit an occasional bit of thievery onstage. Whatever she did tended to end up in a tale about her. Appearing in an all-star cast of a PBS version of Sondheim's "Follies," Stritch, at 60, said of her version of one of Sondheim's songs "Geez, I sound like Lionel Stander." (Remember Stander's basso rasp in TV's "Hart to Hart.")

Author Alexandra Jacobs is a fixture of writing and editing in the Features Department of the New York Times. If ever someone knew how to put a genuinely irresistible book together, it's Jacobs in "Still Here." It's a book that postulates that the un-anecdotalized life was scarcely worth living and largely gets away with it.

It has, on the other hand, always bewildered me why we don't see more oral histories like Ash Carter and Sam Kashman's "Life Isn't Everything." I am a sucker for the form - just an artfully arranged avalanche of quotes from those who knew a subject and no infusion of cluttering authorial filler - you know, all that Boswell stuff. While it's true that the authors are artfully selecting and arranging their chronology, there's always a sense in such oral histories that the reader is somehow participating in the book's authorship,

And when the subject is a success as fabled as Mike Nichols - about whom there is more interesting to say than about 90 percent of those who would be his peers - the resultant book is another of the year's irresistibles.

Just the high points of Nichols' life are incomparable - the virtual "discovery" of both Whoopi Goldberg and Dustin Hoffman, the Oscar races populated by his actors (would you believe "Cher" for "Silkwood?"), the greatly mistaken version of "Catch-22," the gloriously extant recordings and videos of his sublime, groundbreaking comedy with Elaine May, the late-life marriage to Diane Sawyer.

Add to all that the Niagara of Nichols anecdotes which is mostly from proud friends giving testimony to all the qualities that make his friendship uniquely graceful but also, along with that, abundant reports of verbal cruelty to those who, in his eyes, didn't measure up.

For anyone who has ever heard Nichols talk in an interview or who has read one quoting him written by someone else, Nichols has seemed one of the American cultural figures who would be most compelling and companionable.

"Life Isn't Everything" gives us all our chance to find that out for ourselves over the course of 325 pages.

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