cover image Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Caryl Flinn, . . Univ. of Calif., $34.95 (542pp) ISBN 978-0-520-22942-6

This comprehensive biography of the Broadway legend (1908–1984) may lack some of the vitality of Brian Kellow's Ethel Merman: A Life (which boasts more than 100 new interviews with Merman's contemporaries offering backstage anecdotes; see review below), but is better written and researched. Flinn offers a more psychologically complex portrait of the fiercely talented and competitive Merman (deftly sorting through and debunking rumors of her being a bigot, anti-Semite and homophobe). She also clears up speculation about Merman having a lesbian affair with Jacqueline Susann, which turns out to have been a one-sided obsession on the part of Susann (who later exacted revenge for her spurned affections by giving her Valley of the Dolls villainess, Helen Lawson, many of Merman's traits). Flinn's extensive use of Merman's 50+ scrapbooks (covering the early 1930s to 1970s) enables her to cover Merman's professional career with microscopic precision. But this is not just a recitation of Merman's long string of Broadway successes (beginning with 1930's Girl Crazy and stretching to 1970's Hello, Dolly! ), Flinn (The New German Cinema ) masterfully analyzes Merman's work on stage, screen and TV with a sophisticated eye for detail that will delight theater buffs. Photos not seen by PW . (Nov.)