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Liza Must Go On

Liza Minnelli, by Andy Warhol, 1977.   

The show is an opportunity for her to send a message, a basic and beautiful show-business message—I’m still here. I can do it. And I’ll show you how. Before she leaves the diner, she takes me by the shoulders, pulls me in, and stares with alarming depth straight into my eyes, as if trying to hypnotize me. “We’ll see each other in New York, right? We’ll be friends forever?”

Earlier that day, Liza and I meet in a bare hotel room. On the glass coffee table, her assistant sets up a bottle of Coke, an ashtray, and a pack of cigarettes. There’s a NO SMOKING sign outside the door, but who cares. Liza’s an elegant smoker; when she crosses her legs and dangles a hand down and the smoke rises, it makes me want to light up. And I don’t even smoke.

I compliment her on her red socks. “Thanks. I couldn’t find black ones, so I said, Oh, screw it. I feel vaguely like Van Johnson.”

According to Liza’s press agent, by the terms of their settlement, Liza can’t even speak David Gest’s name, like Voldemort. Whenever I tiptoe near these topics, her lips press shut, her eyes darken. But just in case you’re wondering, she doesn’t seem even mildly crazy. She’s warm, cagey, girlish. Brash laugh, throaty voice. When we discuss her impressive physical rehabilitation, she pulls up her pants leg and reaches out and grabs my hand. “Feel this!” she says, running my fingers up the thick beige scar on her knee. “Nice, huh? Wire.”

Her current show is a nod to her mother’s performances at the Palace back in 1952, a legendary seventeen-week run; it’s Liza’s first time back on Broadway since Minnelli on Minnelli in 2000, which also ran at the Palace, but she’s been doing the show around the world for two years, tweaking it as she made her way through Antwerp, Uruguay, and Helsinki. The real labor of love here is the second act, Liza’s homage to Kay Thompson, her godmother. If you’ve heard of Thompson at all, it’s because she wrote the Eloise children’s books, or perhaps for her role as the “Think Pink!” editor in Funny Face. But to those who knew her, Kay Thompson is a thrilling showbiz secret, a kind of skeleton key to mid-century Broadway and Hollywood: pioneer musical arranger, radio star, cabaret performer, and all-around eccentric aesthete, the model for Liza of the defiant creative survivor.

Liza’s fans share an understanding that things can only go very, very badly or magically well.

“She was this funny, serene force,” Liza tells me of Thompson and her influence on Liza’s childhood. “I remember once we were walking around in New York, I was about 4, and she had a big wolf coat, gray, just heavenly looking—she was so tall and thin. She stopped by the Stork Club. This very nice black gentleman opened the door, and she asked for Mr. So-and-So, and the man wasn’t in. And she said, ‘Yeah, well, just tell him that Miss Thompson and Miss Minnelli stopped by.’ And my world changed! I was Miss Minnelli.”

When she was 22, Minnelli spent a month studying Russian ballet, poring over Nijinsky with Thompson at her apartment at the Plaza. “We also went through a whole period when we studied haiku.” After Thompson was kicked out of the Plaza (she’d stayed rent-free for many years), she moved to Rome, then spent her last ten years in Minnelli’s apartment, wheeling about in elaborate turbans, riffing scat verses at her visitors, until she died in 1998, somewhere in her nineties. (She’d made up so many stories, no one knew her true age.)

As Liza describes the way she begged Ron Lewis to come be her director to reenact Kay’s act, he opens the hotel door.

“Hi baby! I’m braggin’ on ya.”

“You look great,” he says.

“I feel great,” she says.

We all continue happily chatting about that whole lost glamorous world—Liza’s stories are studded with visits to Noël Coward’s house in Switzerland, memories of the time that Charles Aznavour and Liliane Montevecchi snuck her into a Las Vegas show. Only when I mention Kay Thompson’s early rejections does the mood chill slightly. Thompson had a peculiar, acerbic charisma, I suggest—to some tastes insufficiently va-va-voom? Liza shakes her head: No, no, no.

“Oh, no, she conquered everything, then moved on,” Liza tells me. “She was the greatest person ever at MGM, then she got tired of that. She did a nightclub act that was the greatest nightclub act that had ever been seen, then she got tired of that. Then she wrote the best children’s book in the world. She lived her life! Anybody who knew her was lucky— ”

Worshipped her,” adds Lewis.