cover image Ethel Merman: A Life

Ethel Merman: A Life

Brian Kellow, . . Viking, $25.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-670-01829-1

With dueling Merman biographies being released just prior to her birth centennial in 2008 (see review above of Caryl Flinn's Brass Diva ), Kellow's slimmer tome is the livelier of the two with new interviews with friends, family and co-workers bringing vibrant life and clarity to even familiar anecdotes. Kellow (The Bennetts: An Acting Family ) is less interested in digging for psychological insights and bluntly paints a more temperamental portrait of the Broadway belter, but readers will be swept up in the colorful eyewitness accounts of her stage triumphs (Anything Goes ; Call Me Madam ; Annie Get Your Gun ; Gypsy ; Hello, Dolly! ) and her less successful attempts to move from stage to screen (There's No Business Like Show Business ; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ). With four failed marriages (including a legendarily short one to Ernest Borgnine—she flew back alone from their honeymoon after just two days), a distant relationships with her son and daughter (who died of an accidental overdose in 1967) and volatile personality, there's plenty of diva drama. She found a younger audience with appearances on Love Boat and a show-stopping cameo in Airplane! , but an inoperable brain tumor finally silenced the bombastic singer in 1984. Testimonies from those who were there during her decline bring an emotional wallop to her final days. Photos not seen by PW . (Nov. 5)