The Book of the Week is “Ethel Merman, An Autobiography” with George Eells, published in 1978.
Born in 1912 in Astoria (a section of Queens in New York City), Ethel Merman started singing when she was five years old. Her parents encouraged her to do so. By the tail end of the 1920’s, she had acquired stenography/shorthand training and had become a secretary, just in case the show business thing didn’t work out.
Working full-time during the day, and singing in dives at night and on weekends, Merman was extremely lucky to be “discovered” in a matter of a few years. She got herself an agent and was off and running. She played in big-name clubs, movie venues and vaudeville theaters in and around New York City– doing five shows a day at the Brooklyn Paramount. She got to meet celebrities like singer Guy Lombardo and composer George Gershwin. She sang in the musical “Girl Crazy” on Broadway.
Merman never had singing lessons or a vocal coach; she was just a natural. Early on, Ginger Rogers got paid $1,500 a week, while Merman got $375. For a number of years, Merman moved back and forth between Los Angeles to make movies, and New York City to appear in Broadway musicals.
In the 1930’s, Broadway musicals thrived. The culture was such that “Nobody worried whether it [a song] fit logically into the score, and the successful songwriters thought more about reaching the top of the Hit Parade than integrating the song into the story.” She played Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” eight times a week for two years between 1945 and 1946.
The one beef Merman had about her fabulous career, though, was the media’s intrusion into her private life. Read the book to learn the details of her almost instantaneous and long-lived success, her psychologically troubled love life, and much more.