Ethel Merman, 1967 (Wikimedia Commons/ABC Television)
When we think of Ethel Merman, there’s usually a certain song that comes to mind…
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” was Merman’s signature song, and it encapsulates her image: brassy and camp, cheerful and a little abrasive. Most readers can probably hum a few bars of this and a few other Merman songs, maybe even offer a decent impression of her legendary singing voice, but how much do they really know about La Merm? In honor of the anniversary of Ethel Merman's death, we offer 10 things you may not have known about the brash songstress.
1. She recorded a disco album. In 1979, disco was king. And it wasn’t just popular, it was versatile. You could set almost anything to a disco beat and end up with a catchy treat for the dance floor – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the Star Wars theme, the quacks of a disco duck… or Ethel Merman’s greatest hits. Merman recorded seven of her top songs, producers added disco beats, strings and background vocals, and a cult classic was born. Although the album only made a minor splash in the clubs and never charted, it has since found a cherished and campy place in gay culture.
2. She named her daughter Ethel Jr. Ethel Merman had two children, and they were both juniors: her son Robert and her daughter Ethel, both born to Merman and her second husband, Robert Levitt. While “Junior” wasn’t a legal part of young Ethel’s name, she was nicknamed “Ethel Jr.”
3. She sang with the Muppets. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Merman made guest appearances on a wide variety of TV shows. On The Carol Burnett Show, she dueted with Burnett; on Sha Na Na, she knocked the boys to the ground with the power of her voice; on That Girl, she reprised her role from Gypsy and gave Ann tips for achieving stardom. And then there was her Muppet Show appearance, an unexpectedly sweet guest star turn in which Merman cheered up a despondent Fozzie Bear and went on to sing with the whole gang.
4. She was self-taught. That big voice didn’t come from years of lessons, working and studying to increase her range and power. No, it was all natural – Merman never had a singing lesson in her life. And yet her powerful voice could reach every corner of a Broadway theater, right to the back row, without amplification. And her enunciation was so crystal clear that every word could be heard and understood by the folks in that back row. Composer George Gershwin was so impressed that he begged her never to work with a vocal teacher.
5. Tonsillitis improved her voice. In 1929, the young starlet contracted a severe case of tonsillitis. Merman subjected to a tonsillectomy despite fears that it would ruin her greatest asset, her big and distinctive voice. To her surprise and delight, once she had recovered and tried singing again, her voice was even more powerful than it had been before the surgery.
6. She was married to Ernest Borgnine for 32 days. Merman’s marriage to Borgnine was her fourth, last and briefest. Merman admitted she didn’t have the best judgment when it came to men: in a radio interview, she noted of her many marriages, "We all make mistakes, that's why they put rubbers on pencils, and that's what I did. I made a few loo-loos!" Her 1972 memoir Merman includes a chapter entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine": the chapter title is followed by nothing more than a single blank page. But don’t worry about Borgnine – he got off his own quip too, commenting about the marriage, "Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney."
Ernest Borgnine, 2004 (Wikimedia Commons/JO1 MARK D. FARAM, USN)
7. Jacqueline Susann fell in love with her. It may or may not be true that Merman had an affair with Jacqueline Susann, queen of the trashy novel. Some say that Merman was spotted making out with the author on a couch at a party; others assert that Merman, though a staple of gay culture, just wasn’t interested in other women at all. But what’s certain is that Susann once showed up at Merman’s New York apartment, distraught and screaming “I love you!” Susann went on to base her Valley of the Dolls character Anne, an aging stage actress, on Merman.
8. Her role in Gypsy was her biggest triumph and her biggest disappointment. Merman loved playing Rose Hovick, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, on Broadway in Gypsy. Her interpretation brought rave reviews from fans and critics alike – she was called brilliant and indomitable. Yet she didn’t win the Tony that year (it went to Mary Martin in The Sound of Music, and Merman took it in stride, quipping “How are you going to buck a nun?”), and, surprisingly, she didn’t land the role in the film. Merman fully expected to play Rose on the silver screen, having been assured by the director that the role was hers. But in the end, without much explanation, the film role was given to Rosalind Russell. Though Merman considered the loss of the movie “the greatest professional disappointment of my life,” she stuck with the Broadway show, even continuing on the national tour with a severe back injury.
9. She loved dirty jokes. Merman had a blue sense of humor and a mouth like a sailor’s. She delighted in opportunities to share vulgar jokes – whether she was shouting them across crowded rooms or including them in greeting cards.
10. She was a hottie. It’s likely not the first – or hundredth – word to come to mind for most people when thinking of Merman. She was never known as a sweet, pretty ingénue, and her talents ran more toward wowing the audience with her voice than romancing them with her looks. But as a young woman, she was attractive indeed. Just look at her in this clip from 1931, crooning and batting her pretty eyes…before she leaps up for the kind of rousing song and dance we expect from her.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published January 2011.