Here’s to the Lady Who Lunched: or My Six Degrees of Separation from Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch died last week. The announcement of her death made me very sad. Let me state at the outset, I have only the remotest connection with Elaine Stritch—rather like my six degrees of separation connection from Kevin Bacon, which would take a bit of doing to discover. True, I have always been a great admirer of her work. She was, by her own description, and according to her obituary by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, “…an existential problem in tights: a woman of fearless candor, spectacular intelligence, and an ability to translate the problems of her 89 years into a metaphor for the victories and defeats endemic to human life itself.”
I followed her career as a Broadway star. I saw her in Company, and will never forget her rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch”. I have imitated her performance of “I’m Still Here” any number of times. And her interpretation of “Zip” in Gypsy was classic. Still, it was not any of these that established my connection to her. It was something a good deal more far-fetched. I went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris with her nephew, George Bay.
Americans in Paris
It was the fall of 1978. In a foolhardy move, I left my position at Northwestern University and went off to Paris to cook. God only knows why. Maybe it was because I was tired of academia and wanted to try something entirely different. Maybe it was because I really wanted to learn to cook. Or maybe it was because I just wanted to live in Paris. So, off I went.
At the Cordon Bleu
Day one was really scary. No English was spoken. All directions were given in French. There were no written recipes. You took notes on what the chef expected you to prepare and headed off to the kitchen, hoping for the best. I remember well, the first preparation was "Omelette Norvegienne (baked Alaska) and Canard a l'Orange (duck in orange sauce). We actually had to pluck the duck and make the ice cream for the Baked Alaska from scratch. Fortunately, the ONLY piece of electrical equipment in the kitchen was an ice cream maker.
I have to admit, they both turned out pretty well, although the chef fussed constantly.
Fortunately, there were a few Americans in the class whose French was much better than mine, and they saved my bacon—literally. One of these was George Bay, scion of Chicago’s Bay family who make Bays English Muffins. George had come to Paris to learn more about food preparation and to oversee the introduction of Eggs McMuffin at McDonald’s recently opened on the famous Champs Elyssees.
Others were Brooke, Leslie, and Hank—whose last names, alas, I have forgotten. We formed a quintet and did Paris together outside the class. I should mention there were a few other cool people who were part of our group as well: Agnete Lampe (a Swedish journalist on assignment), a pair of Japanese students from Tokyo, Mathieu a young Indian restaurateur from Delhi, Katrine Boorman (daughter of famed British film director John Boorman and later to become one of his leading ladies), and Didier a handsome, aspiring French chef.
I have many great memories of this group. Late in our stay, Hank got married. It was a total surprise, and one that left the rest of us baffled. We found out that his “bride” wanted to live in America, and the easiest way to get her here was as the wife of an American citizen. Hank obliged. We all predicted the marriage wouldn’t last. It didn’t. A friend of the bride’s had a small reception for her, and invited the Cordon Bleu gang. Afterwards, we continued the celebration at Au Pied de Cochon, a noted French restaurant in the First Arrondissment.
Another night, we all went disco dancing at an underground club that was favored by young Parisiennes. Well, that was an experience for me! I had never been to a disco, and this one was predictably loud and uninhibited. In truth, I didn’t enjoy it much, but I pretended I did. Thank God there were no I phones then, so no selfies or impromptu photos to show that I was a terrible disco dancer.
We partied well past the 12:00 p.m. closing of the Metro and I was frantic. Not anticipating being out so late and buying overpriced drinks, I hadn’t brought enough money, so I didn’t have cab fare back to my apartment. Luckily, George had my back and saw to it that I (and the others) made it home in cabs after Metro hours.
But my favorite outing was a Saturday night in October when George, Brooke, Leslie, Katrine, and I all decided to go out on the town. Our destination was the recently opened McDonalds on the Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris. We were laughing and chatting away when George threw out his arms and declared to us and the night, “Mes amies, le Champs Elysees!”
A short time later, we were happily munching away on “Beeg Macs,” “pommes frites,” and “grand- sized Cocas,” in the lobby outside McDonalds.
So what does any of this have to do with my connection to Elaine Stritch? Well, one day George announced that he was going to London to visit his aunt. “You may have heard of her,” he said. “Her name is Elaine Stritch, and she’s married to my uncle, the actor John Bay.” Heard of her—I was her number one fan. I practically started singing “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” on the spot. Right then and there, George was my hero. Never mind that we had been Paris pals and that he had come to my rescue on a late night out. He was Elaine Stritch’s nephew.
George talked to us about his Aunt Elaine: her wit, her exuberance, her larger-than-life persona. He also shared that she LOVED Bays English Muffins (who doesn’t) and that she consumed them voraciously. Year later, I learned that she sent them to her best friends every Christmas: Paul Newman, Stephen Sondheim, Elton John, and many others.
Today, George is President of the family firm, Bays English Muffins Corporation. In his Linked-In photo, he looks very businesslike, and, well, presidential. I rather doubt that he will remember the halcyon days at Cordon Bleu and the little gang of four who partied together while learning to prepare la cuisine francaise. He will, I know, be among the family gathering to send his aunt, to her final rest here in Chicago--beside her husband, John Bay, where she will be, in a sense, “…still here.” As for me, I will raise a Bays English muffin in her honor.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times