Elaine Stritch Wrestles Happiness to the Ground at the Rubin

Elaine Stritch, the veteran Broadway baby, was not happy when she turned up at The Rubin Museum of Art for her on-stage conversation on the subject of happiness. When I approached her in the summer of 2012 to see if she would like to talk about the things that made her happy, she was excited to be invited. She had just received renewed accolades for appearing as Alec Baldwin's mother on 30 Rock. Being paired on-stage at The Rubin with a neuroscientist was just the next frontier for her. We scheduled her as the first in a fine line-up: Liev Schreiber, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael C. Hall, Aimee Mann, Rosanne Cash, and Neil LaBute. Tickets went on sale, and the proverbial hotcakes applied to her session. People clearly still cared about what made the actress -- she who made the curmudgeonly sublime -- happy.

But then she had a close encounter with Madison Avenue. The pavement, not the shopping. The fall detached the retina in her right eye. Amazingly, she had broken no bones. But the September date at The Rubin was off. But not for long. Miss Stritch is not only the proverbial Broadway baby, but the Broadway trooper. There were plans to reschedule for December, making it the final HappyTalk instead of the first. Then the second blow. She was having a drink at the Carlyle Hotel with the director who was making a film of her life (Shoot Me) when she collapsed, shattering her hip. At age 87 she went in for a hip replacement. This might have deterred a lesser mortal, but within weeks she was mobile enough to walk on stage -- unassisted -- at The Rubin on Dec. 19, 2012. The sheer willpower she demonstrated in order to give a good "show" was remarkable. "I am in a dark room on the subject of happiness but I am happy to be here," she said when she took her seat next to neuropsychologist Murali Doraiswamy. Those of her who had witnessed her arrival at the museum knew that the 'be here' was on stage, and nowhere else. Ms. Stritch had arrived a little earlier than expected. She was in pain. Her assistant had just quit. She was hungry. She was cold. And she was on the wagon again. She didn't like the wheelchair provided. All of which contributed to her being unequivocally unhappy about being where she was. Nothing was right. When ushered backstage, even our pretense of cultivating the atmosphere of a theater rather than the customary museum auditorium did not escape her pain-induced discernment. "This isn't a GREEN room," she bellowed, "this is just a DRESSING room!" Fortunately the attention tendered her and the museum cafe's trademark mulligatawny soup did much to mellow. By the time she took those tentative steps on stage she had mustered a mood that was as feisty and as funny as we have come to expect. "If you're funny you can get away with murder," she admitted. Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a renowned expert on brain longevity and mental health, and head of Duke University's Biological Psychiatry division, asked her the inevitable: "What is the happiest moment of your life?" Miss Stritch didn't even have to think twice. "Being introduced at Carnegie Hall as a performer where 'you can't stop laughing and you can't stop crying'... a beautiful introduction." Then, peering out into the packed audience, she underscored the source of her happiness by exclaiming, "The house is sold out! Do you know what that means to a performer?" (Having Maestro James Levine and drag legend Charles Busch in the crowd didn't hurt.) "Applause is heavenly," she continued. "It's good for your health." "We call it flow," said Doraiswamy. "Time stands still." And while the conversation flowed, time and time again it became evident that happiness for the actress was absolutely married to the ecstasy of being applauded and acknowledged, what the psychologist called "the hedonistic treadmill of success." Yet he conceded that while any durable happiness needs to come from within, you can always get pleasure from a lifetime achievement award. "Well it beats a tennis game," cracked Stritch.

With this self-confessed dependence on public adoration, it came as a surprise, met, I think, by considerable skepticism, when the octogenarian announced that she was giving up New York to move to Michigan to spend time near her nephews and nieces. She was not afraid of being alone, she was tired of people, she claimed. Then she challenged her stage partner, "You're smart. Talk about that horrible thing called fear." "Fear can be good," said Doraiswamy. "It helps us escape danger. But being in an urban environment our fear response is triggered by non-life threatening situations. People have panic disorders and are out of whack. So when something really happens you don't panic (which is bad)." "Like our complacency with Sandy!" offered Miss Stritch. And, to relate to her profession, the doctor pointed out that stage fright is a form of this panic disorder. You can't avoid fear, only face it or meditate (which is the opposite of hyperventilation) instead of turning to medication. (Or, in Miss Stritch's case, alcohol, which acts on the same brain indicators as Valium.) "When I stopped drinking I lost my stage fright because I learned my lines so well," added Miss Stritch both rueful and proud. "That's security... not alcohol."

The conversation was not all one way. Stritch had some leading questions of her own. "Are you married?" she asked the good looking Indian American doctor. After a beat, Dr. Doraiswamy conceded that he was engaged, in an arranged marriage, which is still commonplace in Hindu culture. There are, he continued, two types of marriage, the passionate and the companion. "I like the passionate one!" blurted Miss Stritch and invited laughter back into the conversation once again, and back to happiness. GPS for the Soul has published a clip of this conversation, which includes Miss Stritch's personal tip to everlasting happiness and back again.