A one-of-a-kind: Elaine Stritch

Actress Elaine Stritch, subject of a new documentary, 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."
CBS News

Elaine Stritch was indeed a "Broadway Baby" as the song says . . . and what a lady she was to her many fans, right up to the moment of her passing on Thursday. If there ever was anyone who believed age was just a number, it was Elaine Stritch, as Lee Cowan learned when he talked to her just a few months ago:

Portions of this story were originally broadcast March 9, 2014.

" 'Oh my God look at that, she's 89 years old!' " said Stritch.

"Do you feel 89?" asked Cowan.


"I'm sorry I asked!"

"I'm sorry you asked, too!" she laughed.

CBS News

It was last February, just before she took ill, when we sat down with Broadway legend Elaine Stritch -- and true to form -- she held nothing back.

She said, "You are one good-looking . . . "

"Are you -- " Cowan interjected.

"Let me finish! You are one good-looking fella, I'll tell you the truth."

"So years ago, we could have been a thing, you and me?"

"Oh my God, yes! Oh my God yes, Are you crazy?"

That's saying a lot coming from the leggy, mouthy blonde who took Broadway by storm. For an astounding 70 years, Stritch captivated audiences, from musicals like Noel Coward's "Sail Away," to William Inge's "Bus Stop," and Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance."

Elaine Stritch with Ben Astar in the 1954 revival of "On Your Toes."
Photograph by Talbot/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Stritch was poignant, funny, irascible, and most of all, just downright brassy.

That throaty, unmistakable voice became synonymous with composer Stephen Sondheim, especially her rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company."

She's won countless awards, including a Tony, and three Emmys, her most recent for her role as Alec Baldwin's firecracker of a mother on NBC's "30 Rock."

Time, however, intruded into her life in a not-so-delicate manner.

And yet, in true Elaine Stritch style, she's decided to make aging a performance.

She agreed to let filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa document her life off-stage in a project fittingly called, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."

"It's sort of an anthem to aging in a way," Karasawa told Cowan. "You know, she makes a statement -- this is who we are, this is what happens in your life, and you need to accept it at every stage."

Elaine Stritch performs in the documentary, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."
Sundance Selects

Cameras followed her everywhere as Stritch was preparing for one of her final shows at the famed Cafe Carlyle in New York.

Karasawa said, "It was really, really an open invitation, and that, I think, takes an incredible amount of courage to expose yourself that way, and typical of Elaine, balls. You know? All out, she's just got 'em."

It's as unfiltered as you might imagine:

"I did 'Virginia Woolf' on Broadway, and for the first time in my life, I had an orgasm."

Was that true? Cowan asked Stritch. You really did?

"You're damn right, I did," she replied. "Would you make that up?"

But while she was scaldingly frank, the film is also poignant and sometimes heartbreaking as it documents Stritch's slow decline.

Her failing memory left her with an inability to remember lyrics -- and that seemed to frustrate her most of all.

"I don't think I've had a happy, happy, happy life," Stritch said. "I don't think I have."

"All the success, all the . . . ?"

"Success doesn't mean a damn thing."

It wasn't the first time Stritch has put the bumpy parts of her life up in lights. In 2002 her show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," took New York by storm.

It was a confessional of sorts -- just her and a stool, opening up about life, love, and her infamous battle with alcoholism.

"You didn't go out on stage for a long time without having a drink, or two," Cowan said.

"Oooh, no. I think drinking is part of performing," Stritch said.

"Even though you were confident that you had the talent, you were still . . . "

"Frightened to death," she said. "I HAD to be entertaining. I HAD to be entertaining the folks."

"That's a lot of pressure."

"Oh, is it ever."

She was raised a devout Catholic -- a convent girl -- who at 17 headed for New York intent on making it as someone else, on stage.

"I love the escape of being another human being," she said.

"You liked pretending?"

"Oh, what a word. Yes! Because I didn't like where I was."

Her acting school classmates, however, seemed to like her just fine -- everyone from Marlon Brando to Kirk Douglas: "He fell in love with me," Stritch said, "and he'll tell you that today, and he's still alive!"