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Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520229426
ISBN-10: 0520229428
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This comprehensive biography of the Broadway legend (1908–1984) may lack some of the vitality of Brian Kellow's Ethel Merman: A Life (which boasts more than 100 new interviews with Merman's contemporaries offering backstage anecdotes; see review below), but is better written and researched. Flinn offers a more psychologically complex portrait of the fiercely talented and competitive Merman (deftly sorting through and debunking rumors of her being a bigot, anti-Semite and homophobe). She also clears up speculation about Merman having a lesbian affair with Jacqueline Susann, which turns out to have been a one-sided obsession on the part of Susann (who later exacted revenge for her spurned affections by giving her Valley of the Dolls villainess, Helen Lawson, many of Merman's traits). Flinn's extensive use of Merman's 50+ scrapbooks (covering the early 1930s to 1970s) enables her to cover Merman's professional career with microscopic precision. But this is not just a recitation of Merman's long string of Broadway successes (beginning with 1930's Girl Crazy and stretching to 1970's Hello, Dolly!), Flinn (The New German Cinema) masterfully analyzes Merman's work on stage, screen and TV with a sophisticated eye for detail that will delight theater buffs. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
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“This well-written and psychologically astute portrait will satisfy musical theater fans and anyone who loves a snappy comeback.”
(The Advocate 2007-11-06)

“Masterfully analyzes Merman's work on stage, screen and TV with a sophisticated eye for detail that will delight theater buffs.”
(Publishers Weekly 2007-09-10)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 556 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (November 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520229428
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520229426
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,317,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover
Nobody really expects a snappy read from a scholarly-looking tome like this where every other paragraph contains numerous citations to indexed references in the back; one assumes that's the price of accuracy.

But despite it's lofty intentions, this hefty cradle-to-grave (and beyond) examination of the Broadway legend's life contains a surprising amount of misinformation, something that becomes apparent to anyone familiar with Merman (and show business in general) just through a cursory skim.

Among other things, author claims It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was produced by Universal (actually it was United Artists), wrongly credits Universal with creating the Cinerama process (that studio never even released a picture in this process), screws up names of a number of plays/movies (it's Under the Yum Yum Tree, not The Yum Yum Tree and so on) and provides the erroneous information that Marlo Thomas produced her That Girl series (on which Merman appeared several times) under the pseudonym Danny Arnold--which will come as a big surprise to anyone familiar with the work of TV veteran Arnold and a number of other very real producers who worked on the show over the years. How much else is wrong? Who knows? And these are mistakes I discovered while just casually leafing through the book.

Nitpicking? Perhaps. But even if everything else IS correct, whatever made Merman such a legendary character is buried under such a mountain of minutiea that her magic is lost. Skip this one and read the far more enjoyable Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow instead. With the exception of Merman's famed lungpower, big isn't necessarily better.
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Format: Hardcover
Just finished the two new bios on Ethel Merman, and while both have a lot to offer, this one, written by Flinn is the one to read if you only wanted one. While Kellow does admirably in his take on the Merm and his linear is better constructed, Flinn really seeks out more details, not only from her personal life, but from her career as well. Especially well done is her research on her two most famous films, CALL ME MADAM and THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. While Kellow devotes only a few pages to SHOW BUSINESS, Flinn devotes a whole chapter, noting the changes that took place from the stories inception to the end product. Very well researched and interesting to read. She also goes into all of her TV appearances in much more detail, as well as her two failed pilots. If one wants to know about Merman, one wants details on her work and Flinn wins with flying colors. Flinn also details more of Mermans marital problems than Kellow. For instance, he never mentions anything about Six's abuse of her, where Flinn goes into it quite a lot. There are many other facets that Kellow either ignores or doesn't know about that Flinn dwelves into. However, Kellow goes into bit of detail about her feud with Fernando Lamas and his apparent upstaging her by wearing tight white pants to accentuate his "crouch" area. She was fumming mad. Flinn doesn't go into this at all. She also doesn't go into the Ernest Borgnine marriage fiasco as well as Kellow. He mentions his script girl as living with them and his affair with her. They both hint at the physical abuse aspect. A shame these two wonderful authors didn't colaborate on just one book. That would definately be the essential Merman biography.
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