Over many, many years, I — and countless others — have written countless words about Liza Minnelli. Praising, reviewing, worrying. Happy words, sad words, words that meant a lot or meant nothing in the long run, to this great star.
Today, on the occasion of Liza’s 75th birthday, I think I’ll let her speak for herself. Digging through my files, I found this interview, circa 2009, shortly after she’d closed “Liza’s at the Palace” — a spectacular four week stint that easily could gone on much longer, had she so desired. I’d forgotten about this sit-down, and found myself moved and amused by Liza’s candor. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Liza Minnelli. Happy birthday, darling, and many more.
“IF YOU’VE got one foot in yesterday, and one foot in tomorrow, you’re pissing all over today!”
That’s Liza Minnelli, more or less summing up her amazing resilience, her ability to live in the Now.
The great star — the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner — who describes herself simply as “a modern vaudevillian,” is fresh off her triumphant four-week run at the legendary Palace Theater on Broadway. This is the very spot where her mother, Judy Garland, made history — Not once, not twice, but three times.
“Liza’s at the Palace” was conceived in part as a tribute to her godmother Kay Thompson, whose performing style influenced many an MGM star, including Miss Garland. (Judy appropriated a passel of Thompson gestures and cadences.)
Kay Thompson is best remembered today as the author of the “Eloise” books. But check out the movie “Funny Face” with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn to see Kay in glorious action, singing “Think Pink.”
I’ve known Liza many years. What has always struck me is this girl’s ability to banish the blues, bury the bad, and start out all over again. (Yes, she is still girlish and fresh at 62.)
When Liza walks into a room, or appears, a dazzling figure on stage, I seem to hear the lyrics of the song “Optimistic Voices” from “The Wizard of Oz.” We are, all of us, adoring Munchkins, singing: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night/ Step into the sun, step into the light/Hold onto your heart/Hold onto your hope.”
Liza has, over and over again, stepped into the light and held onto her heart and hope. That is the empowerment she delivers to her audience.
Yet, what most journalists still want from Liza is a temporary abandonment of hope, so that she can tell The Shocking Truth of her life. The tell-all interview. The myth-shattering memoir. So silly.
Why? Because over the course of forty years, Liza has told that tale — in increments, with humor, with a wry nod indicating, “Please be smart enough to read between the lines.” She’s gone as far as she’ll go. It is not in her nature to look back in anger or sadness.
And, it’s not an act. When you meet her at her best you’ll find nothing irrational about her optimism. She has a naked need for approval, and she always receives it. How can you not help build her up, and give her what she must have to go on?
I’m waiting for Liza at Cipriani, in New York’s elegant Sherry Netherland hotel. I am early. You don’t keep a star waiting, even if she is an old friend. I am fiddling with a tape recorder, which I am sure will fail me, when I hear a familiar female voice: “I just needed to go on my own. It was very hard, to break up the group, but I had to…” I look up and there is Miss Diana Ross, no makeup, dark glasses, giving an interview — and apparently whoever she is talking to still wants to know about Flo and Mary! I don’t intrude. After all, I’m not interviewing her.
Suddenly, with the breathless flourish that accompanies the entrance of every star, Liza appears. She’s dressed in black, trim and youthful and though made-up like a normal mortal, she is instantly recognizable. We embrace, and the first thing she says is: “I was in something of a panic about meeting you, because I decided not to wear my lashes.”
“Liza, I’ve seen you without your lashes.”
“Yes, but never in public.”
We sit down and I indicate the presence of Miss Ross. Liza rises to turn and greet her; Ross is on her feet as well. They hug and kiss and Cipriani patrons gawk with pleasure. (Liza and Diana were both up for an Oscar in 1972. Liza took it, for “Cabaret.”)
Diana laughs and says to me: “Don’t you dare write that you saw me like this, I just got off a plane!” I assure her she looks terrific, which she does.
Liza and I settle in over tea. She gives me that look I know so well, staring right into my face, an expression that conveys a compelling mix of hope and trepidation. Even after all I had written about her Palace appearance, she still needs to hear it.
LIZA: Liz, did you really like the show?
DF: Liza, Liza! It was sensational! I loved it. Everything about it. The Kay Thompson material was incredible.
LIZA: Well, you know, it was a hard sell, this show. When I first thought of it, and starting talking about it, it was like, “Uh, okay. Kay Thompson?” It was the director Ron Lewis who had as much faith in it as I did. And faith in me, that I could do it. The show wouldn’t have happened but for him. Kay was not only a phenomenal performer whose work I wanted to celebrate, but she was there for me in so many ways, such a powerful influence. And she always said the right thing. The first thing she said to me when the news came that my mother had died was ‘Remember this. Your mother had a fabulous life. She did everything she ever wanted to do.’ It was perfect. What I needed to hear, and, by the way, true.
DF: And oh, the finale of the first act, singing your mother’s ‘Palace Medley…’”
LIZA: Ah, yes. Something else that didn’t initially go over too well with some people. It was like, ‘Ah, singing your mother’s songs now?’ And it was not that at all. I mean, I had always promised my mother I wouldn’t, but, at the Palace this time, I wanted to convey what the theatre meant to me, and how I got to this place. One of my most vivid early memories of my mother is onstage at the Palace. For the first time, I realized the power of her voice. The power to move an audience. I could see them, I could hear them. I didn’t know then what the Palace meant to performers, to my mother, but it made an incredible impression on me. So, I wanted to pay tribute to the Palace, what it means. My mother’s song seems best suited, and yes — it’s a tribute to her, as well.
DF: You never worry about the inevitable comparisons?
LIZA: No. Look, I’m the child of famous parents. This is how it goes if you’re that child: ‘Oh, so and so just wrote a book, did a show, whatever and it was great.’ The response is, ‘Well, of course’ If it goes, ‘so and so flopped,’ the response is, ‘Well, of course’ There’s no winning so you might as well just forget to be worried over that.
DF: You once said, ‘I am my mother’s daughter. Who should I sound like, Peggy Lee?’
LIZA: I said that? That’s very funny. I have to remember that.
DF: Do you wait with dread for the ‘Judy questions?’
LIZA: Not at all. I expect them. Why not? The thing is, they want the ‘Judy Garland Story.’ I don’t have that. You can read that in some biography written by somebody who never met her. I have the story of my mother. The lady who made me do my homework. The lady who asked if I wanted Italian or Chinese after she got off stage? I knew something of ‘Judy Garland’ later, after I became a woman working in show business myself. But the story of my funny mother … I suppose that can be a letdown to some.
DF: I read a quote somewhere from a friend who said, ‘When I think of Judy, I always remember laughter. Where ever she was, there was laughter.’
LIZA: (very quietly): That’s it. Exactly. Her laughter and her ability to make others laugh was a gift. The other side, the tragic thing? Well that was something she worked. She really did say, “Sympathy is my business.”
DF: Your own persona and choice of material …”
LIZA: It’s more upbeat, it has more hope. Even when Mama sang happy, it was like, “Don’t worry, folks, we’re getting to the sad stuff!”
DF: You’re not nostalgic in a sad way.
LIZA: No, I look back, but in appreciation. I don’t wish I was ‘back then’ or ‘back then with what I know now.’ Completely pointless!
DF: Why are you able to come back, to so be strong, to survive and thrive?
LIZA: Because that is how I was taught. I was not taught self-pity. I was not taught to give up. I was taught to do what I think and follow a dream. Nobody in my life, not my father, my mother, Kay, Freb Ebb and Jon Kander — my wonderful composers who ‘invented’ what I do onstage — ever encouraged me to give in.
DF: But surely when you were so sick about ten years with brain encephalitis. Really, you’d already been through so much.
LIZA: Listen, the doctors came in and said, “You’ll probably never walk again. You’ll never dance or sing. Accept this. Your performing career is over.” Obviously, this was not good news, and at first I panicked. How would go on, how would I make a living? The doctors had said, “You’re lucky to be alive,” and I thought ‘Bullshit! This is not living.’ So I lay there, and I thought, Liza what do you do best? And the answer came — rehearse! I love to rehearse. And so, I literally rehearsed my way back. I walked, I talked, I sang, I danced. I looked on my recovery as a performance. The performance of my life, which it literally was.
DF: I don’t think people realize that it isn’t just luck that you are still here. You have incredible discipline.
LIZA: I’m a dancer. I’m an athlete. Yes, I think when you have that basis, there’s an overall discipline.
DF: You should write a book
LIZA: Ugh … never!
DF: No, no, not a memoir, an inspirational book — how to survive.
LIZA: Well, I never give people advice (she laughs merrily) and I’d never write a book giving advice. But, if I did, I’d encourage curiosity — about everything. I’m the daughter of a director. I ask questions. I’d encourage banishing fear and shame from your life. Fear and shame — out!! So many people make all their decisions based on those two things. Re-teach yourself, re-educate yourself.
DF: You fear nothing?
LIZA: Yes. Organizing a closet! I mean it. I’m hopeless in all that. If you judged me by those skills, you’d say, “She can’t possibly get it together to go onstage!”
DF: Do you fear falling off the wagon? I think now you just look at a drink, and you go get help, no fuss.
LIZA: You are so right! And no, I don’t fear it. I deal with it. For me, and for a lot of people, once you really see it is a disease, you learn to treat it as a disease, not a moral failure.
DF: Liza, I don’t think we can avoid some probing into your personal life.
LIZA: You mean this hasn’t been?!
DF: Darling, brace yourself. Will you ever marry again?
LIZA: Oh, God! Wait! Turn that off and let me run outside and have a cigarette. (And then, though it’s no good for her voice, and about 12 degrees outside, Liza indeed runs out, lights up, has a couple of puffs and comes back in.)
LIZA: Okay, put it back on. Are you kidding? Never! Never!
DF: So, do you regret your marriages …
LIZA: Wronnnnggg! Not at all. Not at all.
DF: Not even the last one, the circus event? (Neither of us utter the name — David Gest.)
LIZA: Darling, I was recovering from brain encephalitis! No. No. I don’t regret any of them. I mean Peter Allen. Denis — I was with him when he died, he was a great love. Jack Haley was a genius, a wonderful man. And Mark Gero …well, that was hard. That breakup was hard. We were together 12 years. I really regret we couldn’t make it. He wanted children, and I couldn’t have them — you know, he lives in Croatia now, and is married and has four wonderful children and a divine wife! But, it wasn’t just children. I just don’t think it’s fair, it’s too hard on any man to be married to a woman like me.
DF: A woman like you?
LIZA: A famous woman. With all that goes with it. No matter how successful the man is, it’s hard for him to take. And maybe it’s politically incorrect to say, but — I get it. I’m not going to refuse that autograph. I’m not going to deny that photographer. I certainly won’t stop touring. It’s too hard on any man.
DF: But Liza, it’s not like you were Sadie Smith, when you married, they all knew …
LIZA: Oh, but see — I was Sadie Smith. That’s what I tried to be in the beginning, with all my men. What they wanted. But as unfair as it was to them, it was unfair to me. I’m not Sadie Smith. I’m Liza Minnelli. I want to be Liza Minnelli. And I must say, I’m sooooooo happy now.
DF: Do you think your life would have been different, had you’d had a child?
LIZA: Yes, of course it would have been different. I would have had a child. But maybe that’s why it didn’t happen.
DF: What do you mean?
LIZA: Well, Kay Thompson was a wonderful godmother to me. Now I am a wonderful — I hope! — godmother and aunt to the children in my life. I work a lot with brain damaged children. Would that work, those relationships be what they are now, were I raising my own children? The fact is — I wanted children. I couldn’t have them. That’s how it turned out. I can’t look around and say I have nothing else in my life, just because I didn’t have a child.
DF: Your audiences mean so much to you.
LIZA: Yes. But, that’s part of my work, my job. You do something you love, you want who you’re working for to love it, too, right? Audiences are great, but they are not a substitution for children — I don’t think of it that way at all.
DF: Will you ever stop doing it?
LIZA: What, working?!
DF: Working at this level. Do you ever see a single baby spot, a beaded gown and a lot of ballads — sort of Dietrich?
LIZA: Nope. I’m a dancer. I have to move. Also, I don’t think I’d look that good standing still in a beaded gown.
DF: I think your audience would love you whatever you did.
LIZA: Hmmmm … maybe. But that won’t be what I do! You know, people think I can’t see the audience, because of the lights and also, my eyelashes! They think, oh, she can’t see out here. But I can. I can see at least the first eight rows and a lot in the balcony.
DF: So people better react.
LIZA: Yes! Every once in a while there’ll be somebody up close I’m not getting to. I can see it. I can feel it. I go backstage and I’m like, ‘Who is that guy? Why isn’t he into it? I’m gonna get him!’
DF: And do you?
LIZA: Oh, yes. Every time.
Liza says this with a slight smile of self satisfaction, proud in her power to move thousands of people — as well as that ONE guy!
Miss Minnelli gives more credit to others than any star I have ever known. But in her heart, she knows that it is she alone, with her great big talent and her great big heart, up there on stage. Onstage she is complete. And — thank you ‘Jerry Maguire’ — she completes us.
How Liza’s fans around the world can celebrate her birthday:
1) Tune-in to Love Letter to Liza: A 75th Birthday Tribute Celebration on the streaming platform Stellar on March 12, 13 & 14. The star-studded tribute, which will raise money for The Actor’s Fund, will feature Joel Grey, Kathy Griffin, Hoda Kotb, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Joan Collins, Kathie Lee Gifford, Andrew Rannells, Nathan Lane, Andrea Martin and many more. Tickets, priced at $30.00, are now available at stellartickets.com
2) Follow @LizaOutlives on Twitter which serves as a loving but humorous tribute to Minnelli’s endurance and resilience. Created by Scott Gorenstein, Minnelli’s former longtime publicist, the Twitter feed is a running tally of the people, trends and things that Liza has stubbornly outlived. With a knowing wink, @LiZaOutlives tackles everything from politics to canceled tv shows to celebrity marriages gone bust.