They Say She Was Wonderful: Ethel Merman at 100

Ethel Merman: A Life
By Brian Kellow
Viking. 326 pp. $25.95

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman
By Caryl Flinn
University of California. 542 pp. $34.95

On an evening in the mid-1970s, the actor Carroll O’Connor and his wife took Ethel Merman to hear Bobby Short at Café Carlyle. Merman, who could be strident in her disapproval of other singers, gargled champagne during the set. It was a gesture of hostility too much even for Archie Bunker, and although she and the O’Connors were to remain friends, Merman never had the guest shot on All in the Family that she pined for.

Merman would have been 100 years old on January 16, 2008. To mark the centenary of this Broadway singer and actress, to celebrate her long career that bridged Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and Sondheim, a pair of competing biographies arrive to pull back the curtain, to show us “La Merm” as she was, as separate from the show biz mythology that cloaks our memory of her.

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