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Ethel Merman: A Life Hardcover – November 1, 2007

23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With dueling Merman biographies being released just prior to her birth centennial in 2008 (see review above of Caryl Flinn's Brass Diva), Kellow's slimmer tome is the livelier of the two with new interviews with friends, family and co-workers bringing vibrant life and clarity to even familiar anecdotes. Kellow (The Bennetts: An Acting Family) is less interested in digging for psychological insights and bluntly paints a more temperamental portrait of the Broadway belter, but readers will be swept up in the colorful eyewitness accounts of her stage triumphs (Anything Goes; Call Me Madam; Annie Get Your Gun; Gypsy; Hello, Dolly!) and her less successful attempts to move from stage to screen (There's No Business Like Show Business; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). With four failed marriages (including a legendarily short one to Ernest Borgnine—she flew back alone from their honeymoon after just two days), a distant relationships with her son and daughter (who died of an accidental overdose in 1967) and volatile personality, there's plenty of diva drama. She found a younger audience with appearances on Love Boat and a show-stopping cameo in Airplane!, but an inoperable brain tumor finally silenced the bombastic singer in 1984. Testimonies from those who were there during her decline bring an emotional wallop to her final days. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“ A vivid portrait of a Broadway diva who shone brighter and sang louder than anyone else.”
The Washington Post BookWorld

“ Dishy and seamless; he understands the dynamics of the theater world and makes you feel the exhilaration of an evolving hit and the frustrations inherent in working with a performer like Merman.”
The New York Times Book Review

“ A wonderfully vivid portrait of a unique Broadway star. You can almost hear Merman’s trumpet voice with every turn of the page.”
—John Kander, composer of Chicago and Cabaret

“ A fascinating read and a thorough theatrical history of her time. Loved it!”
—Jane Powell --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (November 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670018295
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670018291
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #932,836 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Blu-ray Bill on November 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Finally, a worthy biography of Ethel Merman, one of the 20th century's greatest performers, has been published -- two, in fact, in honor of the 2008 centenary of her birth. They supersede all previous attempts. The question now is, which to buy? I've just read both. Here's my take.

If you had the books in front of you, the first thing you'd notice would be the difference in length. "Ethel Merman" by Brian Kellow is 326 pages, including the (rather incomplete) index. "Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman" by Caryl Flinn is a much-weightier 542 pages, including a more-detailed index. That's indicative of their very different approaches. Kellow adeptly hits the highlights of Merman's personal and professional lives, and places them in historical context. Flinn, a university professor, goes for the comprehensive and scholarly approach. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Here's an example. Flinn spends five paragraphs sorting through all the stated dates for Merman's birth, before settling on the correct one: 1908. Kellow simply notes the right date. And that points to Flinn's main shortcoming: Having obviously done a tremendous amount of research for the book, she's loath to exclude anything.

I got the sense while reading Kellow's that he wants to convey the woman behind the image (he succeeds). As a professor of women's studies, Flinn seems to care more about how Merman was perceived, specifically as a woman in a certain time period. If Kellow and Flinn had decided to collaborate on a single book, we might have had the ideal Merman biography.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By George Dansker on April 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a masterful bio of Ethel Merman. Worthy of 5 stars! After you have finished reading it you will feel like you know "The Merm" as never before. Author Brian Kellow has created what is the definitive work on Ethel Merman. Kellow recreates the world of Broadway in which Merman thrived and by so doing allows the reader to understand just how such a wonderful performer came to exist. Merman is very much a product of her era and vice versa and Kellow clearly tells us why.
The later years of Merman's life are particularly well handled by Kellow and the reader will finish the book quite moved.

Reading this bio has greatly increased my enjoyment of the many Ethel Merman recordings, as we now know the woman behind the music. And Kellow has interviewed scores of people who worked with Merman and we get a glimpse of what it is like to be in a hit Broadway show with such a great star.

Unlike other books on Merman's life, this one is highly accurate, well researched, has great photos and above all is an INTERESTING READ!
I highly recommend this book. You will not be disappointed!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mark Carroll on January 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been in Show Business all of my life. Still am doing it at 72 years and Merman is one of the very best Show Business Bio's I have ever read. I knew a lot about her Life and Career but this Book tells it all. Great Read.
Mark Carroll
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By R. Demyan on July 21, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As someone with only a superficial knowledge of Ethel Merman and her place in the American musical theater, this book was a revelation. It's not only a fascinating and lively portrait of this one-of-a-kind show biz icon, the book also provides some terrific insight into how the Broadway musical evolved with the ever changing currents of American culture.

Kellow wisely avoids the biographer's temptation to write an "authoritative" version of his subject's life. He avoids the pitfalls of the academic tome and instead offers the reader a vivid portrait of Merman's professional triumphs and personal failures. Kellow sketches the arc of Merman's life through vivid anecdotes, the memories of those who knew her, and, most importantly, through Merman's own words. For me, the latter was the most enlightening and entertaining. Bossy, brassy, sharp-tongued and often vulgar, Merman was at heart a kid from Queens who, Kellow reminds us, despite her success and the circles she ran in, would never be accused of pretentious affectation.

And to me, that's the real joy of this book. Kellow lets us see Merman warts and all. This is certainly no hagiography, but Kellow clearly has affection and respect for this legend of the musical theatre. His prose is vibrant and evocative as he deftly shows the reader how Merman owned the stage like no one before or since. And Kellow doesn't sentimentalize Merman's ill fortune offstage. In the end, Merman was incapable of being anything but the persona she had created, and in the end, that was all she was left with. Kellow understands that this is the heart of the Merman story-- the monumental achievements onstage and the disappointments, betrayals and tragedies of her life offstage.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mark Andrew Lawrence on January 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
January 16th, 2008 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ethel Merman. (In her autobiography she claims it was to be fair we can celebrate again in 2012.) Brian Kellow offers a well-researched and fairly definitive overview of both her career and personal life.

If you read Ethel's two autobiographies (1955 and 1978) as well as Bob Thomas's I Got Rhythm and Geoffrey Mark's sloppily researched The Biggest Star on Broadway, and combined the best of all of these the result would be what Brian Kellow has accomplished: a thoughtful portrait of a lady who became the top star on Broadway from 1930 to 1970.

At this point there is not a great deal of new information, but Kellow goes to greet lengths to dispel the myth that Merman at the height of her career was little more than a loud, vulgar diva who drank a lot. She was tough in a business that at the time demanded women be tough or else they'd be taken advantage of. Her level of professionalism, however, was enviable. In a 40-year career she missed only a handful of performances due to illness and always gave the same performance closing night as she did opening night.

Kellow's book would have been enhanced had he included a detailed discography, and he repeats the same basic listing of shows (with only the songs Merman sang) and films that appeared in her 1978 book Merman.

All in all it's an enjoyable read and an accurate portrayal of this legendary lady.
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