John Cameron Mitchell and Marilyn Maye Talk Love, Art, and Dying in Style

Marilyn Maye and John Cameron Mitchell. Photo-Illustration: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Tom Postilio & Mickey Conlon and Patrick McMullan

This conversation between John Cameron Mitchell and Marilyn Maye is from the Death, Sex & Money podcast from WNYC Studios.

I’ve known jazz cabaret mistress Marilyn Maye for only about five years. She’s 91 years old, so I’ve known her for like .01 percent of her life. And while her home base is the suburbs of Kansas City, she’s in New York a lot. She’s still working. And I met up with her working at 54 Below, the iconic cabaret in midtown Manhattan. Marilyn was there to perform a week-long run of shows, because even though it’s been more than 50 years since she was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy — against Tom Jones! — she’s still going strong as a performer. For her birthday last year, she celebrated by debuting a show here in the city called “90 At Last.”

Marilyn Maye: And you know, it really worked. We had, we had full houses every night.

John Cameron Mitchell: Really? You played the age card, and you monetized it.
MM: Well, yeah. They do show up, and I always wondered: Are they showing up because they think the old girl is going to kick off any minute, or are they showing up because they like the songs?

JM: Well when I always say I’m going to work with you, you’re like, “Hurry.”
MM: [Laughs.] I know it. I do say that.

JM: When I discovered you was in Provincetown. I came to see you. My friends said, just go see Marilyn Maye. If you’re feeling down, go see Marilyn Maye. And I really do go see you at weird transitions in my life where… at the end of something, coming back to New York, you know that weird feeling of coming home and you’re like, “Oh God, my life”? I get that feeling a lot traveling around.
MM: Do you feel that you have to start again or what?

JM: It’s just all the the things I haven’t thought about come back. And I come back to my rent stabilized apartment and I go, ugh, God. As a performer there’s a temporariness about life.
MM: But but, but you’re so successful in New York, you are so loved here that—

JM: I do feel loved, but as you know, we don’t — we didn’t necessarily chase money. We didn’t necessarily chase fame
MM: No. We are now. [Laughs.]

JM: Well now we have to, right? I’ve got to make money for my mom, who has Alzheimer’s.
MM: I have to make money to live -I’m subleasing an apartment here, which is very, very expensive. And worth every nickel. Because I want to stay. I’m happier here.

JM: I mean, you’re 90 years old and working hard.
MM: Mmhm, like crazy. Yeah.

JM: You were just working from so young. It’s just part of your life.
MM: Oh yeah. My mother played piano and and she named me Marilyn after Marilyn Miller, who was a you know big Broadway show star in her time. She decided that I would be a singer. So when I was nine years old, we entered amateur contests. And then when I was 15, I would leave high school and walk down about two blocks to the streetcar in Des Moines, Iowa, and take the streetcar to my gig, a radio show called Marilyn Entertains on KRNT in Des Moines. And then when I was 16, I started working on Friday and Saturdays in a nightclub, but still going to high school.

JM: Your dad and mom separated when you were about nine, right?
MM: No, I was like 11 or 12. I think I was 12.

JM: What was going through your mind? Did you take it in stride? Were you heartbroken?
MM: My mother shared so much of what my dad was doing, which I think is a mistake. At the time I didn’t realize it was a mistake, but my Dad just loved ladies. [Laughs.]

JM: That was weakness?
MM: Uh huh. She found love letters, five, from five different women at the same time. So she shared all that with me at that age She was strong. It was not easy. Not easy at all. Years and years ago when I was a little girl, like you know, in my teens, before I’d walk on, she’d say, now don’t you let me down.

Like Marilyn, I grew up in the heartland of the country, actually in Kansas for a few years. And as soon as I could, I made my way to New York. Not Marilyn though. She’s lived in Kansas City since she was in her 20s, when she was building her singing career, taking gigs at local nightclubs and radio stations in the Midwest. Then, when she was in her late 30s, she was “discovered” in Kansas City by the TV host and composer Steve Allen. She ended up getting a record contract with RCA, and later became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.

JM: It’s wild. I mean, you were a friend of Ella Fitzgerald.
MM: Oh yeah, she was a dear, dear buddy of mine. Where we had all of our conversations — we’re in a dressing room, it was always in dressing rooms. When we were in the same town, we would always get together. And then I’d go to her show or she’d come to mine, and after the show we’d sit for two or three hours in the dressing room and talk. She was adorable.

JM: And she called you the greatest white chick singer, didn’t she?
MM: Well, people — it was taken out of context.

JM: How did she put it?
MM: Because on a television show, they would say, who are your favorite singers? And she said, well, I love Sarah Vaughan and Carmen Carmen McRae. And then: “the greatest white singer is Marilyn.” She would say it like that.

JM: Ooh. That’s so special.
MM: Yeah, it was very special, and then we wound up recording. I’ve got a picture of us on either side of a mic — I cherish that.

JM: Ooo. Do you remember what you sang?
MM: “Step to the Rear,” we were doing “Step to the Rear.”

JM: You decided to stay in Kansas City rather than move to the big cities. Why was that?
MM: Well no I married, I married a guy from Kansas City.That was my second husband. So that’s why I wound up in Kansas City with him.

JM: Was there a moment where you’re like, honey, we gotta go to New York or LA?
MM: No, isn’t that a shame that there wasn’t. I was just too busy making a living. You know, we had a daughter, and I was just working. I was singing with bands on the weekend and, and teaching. He was a dancer. And I taught the singing and he taught to kids from eight to 18. We had dance recitals, and I had this darling baby that I was raising while working every day.

JM: Your life was full. It was impossible.
MM: Oh just totally, and plus he was an alcoholic and that was, that was all the bad stuff too.

JM: That’ll take the wind out of the sails, won’t it?
MM: Yeah, there was bad stuff going on behind the scenes, you know.

JM: Yeah. Were you a saver? Were you a helper?
MM: Didn’t I think I could. Didn’t I think I could make him quit drinking. Couldn’t  just fix him.

JM: Yeah. You know, I had an alcoholic boyfriend who passed away from it.
MM: Oh yeah. Well my, my third husband then, pianist, same thing. He passed away from it.

JM: Were all three husbands alcoholics?
MM: Uh huh. Uh huh.

JM: Gosh. Was it in your family?
MM: No, not at all.

JM: Isn’t that weird? It wasn’t in mine either. I was like, why am I so good at this, or bad?
MM: Did, did your dad drink?

JM: No!
MM: No, my mother or dad didn’t at all.

JM: Did you — when you had your guys that were charming and alcoholic, did you feel a challenge in, in tying them down?

MM: It was just fun to kiss and hug.

JM: You were more in the moment and you didn’t expect much.
MM: Very, very much so in the moment. We worked together. I always found talent. You know, my first marriage was one year and then, forget that. It was just fun and games because he was fun and he was older than I, much older, 20 years older than I. And, and whippy and sophisticated, and I was 19 and you know, so that was fun for about a year and then I went off to my career.

JM: It reminds me of the Ethel Merman thing, her marriage to Ernest Borgnine. In her biography, there’s a chapter that says, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” And then you turn the page, it’s blank, and then it’s like, “Chapter 10, the next -“
MM: [Laughs.] Well, yes, I can say that about, about the first one. The second one was this dancer. We were creative together and making a living together. And um, so it was a production. Then the third one was a great pianist. My talent was what drew me to him — and same thing [for me], his great talent. I loved him for that. We had such great musical rapport.

JM: You know, we both sometimes have been attracted to maybe wonderful but wrong guys. Maybe not wrong as much as you know… there’s sometimes patterns of behavior. I get bored with people who haven’t had problems sometimes, you know. Did you find that you learned from those experiences? Were there men in your life that were like, okay this is the kind of person I need and this is actually working.
MM: I don’t know. I would become obsessed. I was kind of obsessed, and I was more obsessed with my last one then I was in earlier days. I always call him my meaningful love affair. See, by that time I was in my early fifties, I guess. About like you.

JM: What kind of guy was he?
MM: Um, he was, he was a dog. [Laughs.] And just a doll. I mean he was handsome and wonderful and funny.

JM: Roguish?
MM: And just awful. He was just bad.

JM: I love that.
MM: Both sides. After I would perform, oh, he was so in love with me after I’d perform. And then one time I said, do you love me or do you love Marilyn Maye, you know? And he said, well, how can I separate the two? Which was kind of smart of him, that was smart. He was kind of smart. [Laughs.]

JM: What did he do?
MM: He owned clubs. He owned nightclubs and he had a very sexy apartment down underneath the club. It was a hideaway, and we’d go there.  But I’m sure he took… because he, too, was like my dad maybe in that respect. And I would leave town and I knew he was with somebody, you know. I would find out. Just terrible, just terrible.

JM: Was that in Kansas City or New York?
MM: So I think it was about a 10 year thing on-and-off in Kansas City. But I was just nuts. I don’t know that I was so in love with him, but I was nuts about him. He proposed to me one time. He had done a terrible thing one weekend, and so now we’re having dinner a week later and he  pulls out this beautiful ring and proposed to me. And he said, Now we won’t say anything more about the past. This was his condition, right when he’s handing me the ring. And I said, well, okay, that’s fine. But of course I can’t keep my mouth shut, you know, so sometime I want to know about last weekend. Give me the ring. So now I’ve put the ring on and I can’t get it off and I’m crying, and it’s it’s a little too little for me and I’m going crazy trying to take the ring off and crying in the restaurant, and it’s so beautiful.

JM: Why did you want to take it off?
MM: Well, because he said, give me the ring. He said, if we have to talk about last weekend, forget it, you know? So I go to the ladies’ room, and get water and soap and get the ring off and say, here.

JM: So it was something that was fiery, but it it was never constant.
MM: Yeah, it was very fiery. Um, there’s a song that I did called “I Will Survive.”

JM: The disco song?
MM: Yeah. We had broken up, and on this particular Carson show, I was doing “I Will Survive.” And I called him and said, “I’m on The Tonight Show” — and I hadn’t talked to him for a long time by then, maybe three or four months — and I said, “I’m going to be on The Tonight Show and I’m doing a song especially for you, and I want you to be sure to tune in.” He said, “You are? Oh, well I’m flattered.” oh you know. And I sang right directly into that camera, to you, son of a B. [Laughs.]

JM: I will survive.
MM: I will survive, and am. I am surviving.

When I first saw Marilyn Maye perform in Provincetown, Massachusetts, there were very few people in the audience. It was a converted, tiny movie theater, but she made it seem like it was the Copacabana. She gave her all. I was overwhelmed.

That was about five or six years ago, when her career was actually on the upswing in her late 80s. Which means she’s been through some tough times. As musical tastes shifted in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Marilyn found her talents less in demand. She always says she was born too late for jazz stardom because rock and roll supplanted it. But she says that through it all, her most loyal friends and fans were in the gay community.

MM: You know, they’re the ones that love the lyrics. And they I think live it. Maybe because of what they had to endure or not. But I think they live what I sing.

JM: You can take any style and make it not just your own, but make it clear. So when I go [to your shows], I feel a kind of catharsis. I let go. I’m always crying at your show and always feeling better.
MM: Oh, it’s that bad?

JM: Good crying.

MM: Oh, good cry.

JM: Yeah, I mean we’ve both seen a lot of people pass from AIDS.
MM: Oh my gosh. The ‘80s and ‘90s, just awful. Just awful. My, my precious pianist for 20 years, Mark Franklin. Mark was one of the early AIDS cases.

JM: Very early.

MM: It was like, um like losing my son, you know, because he joined me when he was 19 and we traveled extensively together and laughed and his sense of humor. We laughed on planes, we’d we’d have food fights on planes and the attendant would come by and say, Are you kids having a good time? [Laughs.] He was like my child. For 20 years he was, was with me. It was terrible to lose him, just terrible.

JM: Did he go fast?
MM: He died at 39. Pneumonia. It was just awful. And, so I had so many friends, so many close close friends that I lost, and it just seemed to go on and on and on.

JM: Have you had any major health issues?
MM: No. I’d never been in a hospital until for some reason I got kidney stones and then I went to the emergency and then they, then I got sepsis. Six days in intensive care and then maybe another week or so in the hospital. Then they said, well you need rehab, so I went to this, this home and I was doing rehab. They said, well, don’t you want to have lunch out out in the dining room? And I said, everybody’s old out there and they were younger than I. [Laughs.]

JM: Oh my God. I’m terrified of like being in a community of declining people.
MM: Yeah. Well my mother was in a nursing home for four and a half years. So I spent every day that I could with her in the nursing home. So I’d had enough nursing homes. But you know, in the nursing homes, the wonderful part of it is that the music you can bring and they—

JM: Yes, oh my gosh. They respond.
MM: They identify with music. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to go into the nursing homes and sing and reach them. And you do reach those who have not been reached any other way for that week or month or day, you know.

JM: My mom is a little bit non-responsive sometimes now. She’s happy, she’s very smiley, but you know it’s hard to put some words together. But I would just sing, “Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing, onward the sailors cry.”
MM: Would she join you singing?

JM: Yes, and then she, with her little quavering voice, “Carry the lad that’s born to be king over the sea to sky.” And then she’s right there.
MM: Darling.

JM: That’s the last thing you forget is a song.
MM: Yes. Isn’t that interesting?

JM: The faces of people you love. And then the songs.
MM: Uh huh.

JM: You know in my fifties, dealing with parents who, in a way who become your, your children in their later years, I tell you — it’s as expensive as sending a kid to Harvard with no financial aid, with her care right now.
MM: Tell me. I know.

JM: Yeah, do you know what environment you want be in?
MM: Do you know what you want to do?

JM: So for myself, I don’t know. Some of my friends think that we’re going to pool our money together and buy a place and have our young friends take care of us.
MM: But do you think they’ll show up when you really need that?

JM: Well, I like this idea of getting a few friends of the same age and making plans to be in the same place.
MM: See I don’t know very many people my age. That’s the bad thing. They’ve gone. The ones that would have done that are already gone. But then do you want to be… how do you want to…

JM: Oh, I don’t care. I mean, I grew up Catholic. I like the idea of memorials, but funerals are so stupid. And the open casket, what the hell is that about?
MM: Oh, no, no, no. We can’t do open casket. Nobody knows how to put my lashes on. [Laughs.] We can’t do that.

JM: I know! Those undertakers are not Broadway quality.
MM: Mm-hmm. One of my dearest friends — she was like my soul sister. We kind of looked alike. And her name was Betty Holloway. And so her sister knew how much that I loved her and they and wanted me to sing for the funeral, and I said of course. But she always wore lashes, and her sister called me and said, Marilyn, will you put her lashes on? Because the, um…

JM: The heterosexual undertakers just—
MM: Didn’t know how to do it. And I said, oh my gosh, honey, yes of course I will. And I did.

JM: Was that scary?
MM: Yeah, because I loved her, so it was difficult.

JM: A lot of tears. Yeah.
MM: I don’t know that I cried. I don’t cry very much. I cried so much during my [younger years], I think I’m out of that now.

JM: All those men?
MM: I laugh a lot now.

This interview has been edited and condensed from its original version, which can be found at WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money.

John Cameron Mitchell and Marilyn Maye on Love, Life and Art