JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: You know, Marilyn...
MARILYN MAYE: What is this about?
JM: Death, sex and money.
MM: I don't know anything about death.
JM: Do you know anything about money?
MM: Not enough. (Laughs)
MM: Uh, quite a bit.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m John Cameron Mitchell, filling in for Anna Sale.
EMCEE: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the marvelous Marilyn Maye!
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.
MM: (Singing) You're just too good to be true/Can't take my eyes off of you./You'd be like heaven to touch/because I love you so much./At long last I have arrived/and I thank God I'm alive...
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."
MM: And you know, it really worked. We had, we had full houses every night.
JM: Really? You you played the age card and it, you monetized it.
MM: I think they’re - well yeah, and I just hate to play the, yeah. And 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." (Laughs)
MM: (Laughs) I know it. I do say that.
JM: When I discovered you was in Provincetown. I came to see you.
MM: Oh. What a wonderful day that I met you.
JM: My friends said, just go see Marilyn Maye. Just -
JM: 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." You know I, I get that feeling a lot traveling around, you know, you and I both do that.
MM: Do you feel that you have to start again or what - ?
JM: It’s - it's just all the the things I haven't thought about come back. And I'm like - and I come back to my rent stabilized apartment and I go, ugh God. You know, I wish I could change the the floor in here but because it's rented I can’t, and you know, it's just like you, it, 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 - I do feel loved, but as you know, we don't, we necc-, we didn't necessarily chase money.
JM: We didn't necessarily chase fame, um -
MM: We are now. (Laughs)
JM: Well now we have to, right?
JM: I've got to make money for my mom...
JM: ...who has Alzheimer's.
JM: You know?
JM: You gotta make money to pay the -
MM: I have to make money to live - I - I'm, um um subleasing an apartment here, which is very, it's very expensive.
MM: 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: Working crazy.
MM: Yeah. And um -
JM: You were just working from so young.
JM: It's just part of your life.
MM: Oh yeah. My mother played piano and um she mar - she named me Marilyn after Marilyn Miller, who was a you know big Broadway show star in her time. Um, and um, she decided, you know 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 (laughs), 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, I was, I was 11 or 12. I think I was 12.
JM: Okay. And 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. Uh, at the time I didn't realize it was a mistake, but, but my Dad just loved ladies. (Laughs)
JM: That was his weakness?
MM: Uh huh. She found love letters, five, from five different women at the same time.
JM: Oh wow.
MM: I mean, you know just crazy. And uh so she shared all that with me. And so -
JM: At that age?
MM: At that age, yeah.
JM: Which is a lot.
MM: It was, it was. She was strong. And, and not, not easy.
JM: No? Prickly sometimes or -
MM: 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 - it’s wild. I mean, you were a friend of Ella Fitzgerald.
MM: Oh I, yeah she was a dear, dear buddy of mine. Where we had all of our conversations—we’re in a dressing room now—um, it was always in dressing rooms.
MM: We sat, you know, when uh, when we were in the same town, we would always get together. And then you know 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, you know, she was adorable.
JM: And she called you the greatest white chick singer, didn’t she?
MM: Well, people - it was taken, it's 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 um uh Sassy—Sarah Vaughan—and Carmen, you know, Carmen McRae.
JM: Carmen McRae.
MM: And then the greatest white singer is Marilyn, you know, she would say it like that.
JM: Ooh. That’s so special.
MM: Yeah, it was very special, and then we wound up recording on either, uh I've got a picture of us on either side of a mic which is, I cherish that. And um uh -
JM: Ooo. Do you remember what you sang?
MM: Step to the Rear, yeah, we were doing Step to the Rear.
JM: Step to the Rear.
[Marilyn Maye - "Step to the Rear"]
JM: I wonder how—I mean 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.
MM: That was my second husband.
MM: Yeah. So that's why I wound up in Kansas City with him.
JM: Was there a moment where you're like, honey, we 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.
MM: I just, you know, working and and uh we had a daughter and I just, I was working. I was singing with bands on the weekend and, and teaching. He was a dancer.
MM And I taught the singing and he taught, to kids, you know, from eight to 18. And um we had dance recitals and and I would, I had this darling baby that I was raising and working every day and -
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, were you a saver? Were you a helper?
MM: Didn’t I think I could, could -
MM: - didn't I think I could make him quit drinking? Couldn’t I just uh, 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.
MM: He passed away from it. Yeah.
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.
MM: Oh no.
JM: I was like, why am I so good at this, or bad?
MM: Did, did your dad drink?
MM: No, my mother or dad didn't at all.
JM: Did you - when you had your guys that were charming and and alcoholic, did you feel a challenge in, in tying them down or did you -
MM: It was just fun to kiss and hug.
JM: You - 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, and um, 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.
JM: Oh wow.
MM: 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, you know and um -
JM: Did you kick him to the curb or was it an amicable parting?
MM: Um, I just went away. I just, we just both went away, we just went away, uh.
JM: It reminds me of the Ethel Merman thing, her marriage to Ernest Borgnine.
MM: What was it?
JM: 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, I, yes, I can say that about, about the first one. The second one was this dancer, you know, we were creative together and making a living together. And um, so it was a production. Then the third one was there again, a - a great pianist. That's what, my talent was what draw me to him and you know same thing, uh his great talent, I loved him for that. And um, and we had such great musical rapport.
JM: You know we've both sometimes been attracted to maybe wonderful but wrong guys, maybe not wrong as much as you know, there’s - there’s sometimes patterns of behavior. I get bored with people who haven't had problems sometimes, you know. Um did you find that you learned from those experiences? I mean was there, did you have, were there men in your life that were like, okay this is the kind of person I need and this is actually working. Did you get to a point, or did you -
MM: I don’t know. I would become obsessed. (Laughs)
MM: I was kind of obsessed and I was more obsessed with, with my last one. 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,
MM: And just awful. He was just bad.
JM: I love that.
MM: Both sides.
MM: After I would perform, oh, he was so in love with me after I'd perform. And then I, one time I said, do you love - do you love me or do you love Marilyn Maye, you know? And he said, well, how can I separate the two? Which 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, and it was a hideaway, you know, and we'd go there, and that was - but I'm sure he took, because he too was, was like my dad maybe in that respect. And I would leave town and I knew he was with somebody, you know. I'd just, I would find out, you know, just terrible, just terrible.
JM: Was that in Kansas City or New York?
MM: So I think it was about a 10 year on and off in Kansas City, about a ten year thing on and off. But, um, I was just nuts. I don't know that I was so in love with him, but I was nuts about him.
JM: Yeah. Did you want a committed thing with him or did, were you, you knew it wasn’t possible?
MM: I don’t know. He proposed to me one time. He had done a terrible thing uh one weekend, and so now we're having dinner a a week later and he said, and he pulls out this beautiful ring and proposed to me. And I said, he said, "Now we won't say anything more about the past." This was his condition, right when he's handing me the ring.
JM: He was like paying you off?
MM: Uh well no, he was proposing and saying, you know, we won't talk about that anymore, you know. And I said, "Well, okay, um that's fine. But, but some"—of course I can't keep my mouth shut, you know so—"but 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, you know, 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, right? And it’s so beautiful.
JM: Why did you want to take it off?
MM: Well, because we, he said, give me the ring, you know, he said uh if if I have to have, if we have to talk about last weekend, forget it, you know.
MM: So I go to the ladies' room, and get -
JM: Some soap.
MM: - water and soap and get the ring off and say, "Here," you know, so.
JM: "Take back your mink."
MM: Take back. Yeah. Mmhmm. Mmhmm.
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" and um, and -
JM: The disco song?
MM: - and uh yeah, 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, you know, 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 and tune in." He said, you are? Oh he was, "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.
[Marilyn Maye - "I Will Survive"]
Hey everyone, this is Anabel Bacon, and I’m one of the producers here at Death, Sex & Money. So, Marilyn Maye had a pretty epic way of getting over her meaningful love affair when it ended. But most of us don’t get the chance to sing Gloria Gaynor songs to our exes on national television.
So when that’s not an option, how do you deal with heartbreak? That’s the question we put to all of you a couple of years ago, and your answers turned into one of our all-time favorite episodes about breaking up.
How do you cut someone out of your life who is a part of you?
I feel like no one talks about this.
I called his mom "Mom."
And then, one day, he said he was leaving the band.
It really hurt. I just never really got the closure that I wanted.
Breakups are personal.
Yep. We’ve all been there. To hear how other listeners got through it, just text the word “BREAKUP” to the number 70101 and we’ll send you a link to the show. And as long as you’re listening back to other episodes, don’t miss the one where John Cameron Mitchell was a guest. He told us more about his own experience of loving someone struggling with alcoholism...
JM: I didn't have it in my family but I realized I was good at taking care of and wanting to save. The problem with it was also that I never had to face my own problems which were very deep seeded too about intimacy and trust because his problems always seemed bigger.
It’s a really good conversation. To hear it, just text the word “JOHN” to 70101.
On the next episode, the maternity leave lineup continues. Writers Damon Young and Kiese Laymon talk together about basketball, body image, and why earning more can feel like a blessing and a curse.
DAMON YOUNG: I definitely think about death more. I think about, like, just, terrible calamities, disease. I think about -
KIESE LAYMON: Since you, since you started making money…
DY: Since I started making money, since I have a family, I’m like in a constant state of like perpetual state of just, of just hoping bad shit doesn’t happen.
KL: Wow. I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of just assuming it is gonna.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m John Cameron Mitchell.
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. As musical tastes shifted in the '60s and '70s, Marilyn found her talents less in demand. You know, 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 - they're - they're the ones that love the lyric and they, I think live it and the sensitivity and, and uh, maybe because of what they had to endure or not.
MM: Uh, 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 and so when I, when I go, I feel a kind of a catharsis. I let go. I - I'm always crying at your show and always feeling better -
MM: Oh, it’s that bad?
JM: Good crying.
MM: Oh good cry.
[Marilyn Maye - "Autumn Leaves"]
JM: 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 uh pianist for 20 years, Mark Franklin, Mark um was one of the early AIDS cases.
JM: Very early.
MM: And 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 uh, we laughed on planes, you know, we’d - we’d have food fights on planes and the, and the attendant would come by and say, "Are you kids having a good time?" (Laughs) He’d put the whipped cream on my nose and I would just not act like anything happened and then I would crumble up the crackers in his lap and, you know, that kind of stuff. We played, you know, so he was my, um like my child and, and um a terrible thing. For 20 years he was, was with me and um, um it was, you know it was it was terrible to lose him, just terrible.
JM: Did he go fast?
MM: He died at 39. Uh, well pneumonia and you know,
MM: and it was just awful. And, so I had so many friends, so many close close friends that I lost and um it just seemed to go on and on and on.
JM: Have you had any major health issues?
MM: Um, no. I, I’d never been in a hospital until for some reason I got kidney stones and then I went to the the -
JM: You weren't drinking enough water.
MM: - emergency and then they, then I got sepsis.
JM: Oh, from the hospital.
MM: And I went in the hospital and I, yeah. Uh huh, from the hospital. But six days in intensive care and then -
MM: - maybe another week or so in the hospital. Then they said, well you need rehab, you know, so I went to this, this home and, and I was doing rehab and 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 -
JM: - in a community of declining people.
MM: Yeah. Well my mother was in a, be- before that, my mother was in a nursing home for, 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, what, what is the wonderful part of it is that the music you can bring and they -
JM: Yes, oh my gosh. They respond.
MM: - they, 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 uh, is a little bit non-responsive sometimes now. She's happy, you know 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.
JM: That’s the last thing you forget is a song.
MM: Yes. Isn't that interesting?
JM: The faces of people you love.
MM: Uh huh, uh huh.
JM: And then the songs.
MM: Uh huh.
[Marilyn Maye - "What A Wonderful World"]
JM: Dealing with, you know in my fifties, dealing with parents like who, in a way who become your, your children at that time -
JM: - you know, in their later years.
JM: I tell you it's, it's as expensive as sending a kid to Harvard with no financial aid to - with her care right now.
MM: Tell me. I know.
JM: But she has great caregivers that she lives with. Because we took her out of the retirement assisted living -
MM: Did you? Yeah.
JM: - thing because it was just a bunch of people staring at a TV.
MM: Yeah, yeah.
JM: My mom's health, physical health is pretty good, but it's, you know, the mind has changed. Do your, do you have plans about, you know, when you, when you, later on -
MM: I can't think about that.
JM: Yeah, do you know what environment you want be in?
MM: Do you know what, do you know what you want to do?
JM: So for myself, I don't know, I, some of my friends think that we're going to pool our money together and and buy a place um, and have, you know, our young friends take care of us.
MM: But do you think they'll show up when you really need that?
JM: Well, I, I like this idea of kind of getting a few friends of the same age and making plans to be in the same place. As you know -
MM: See I don’t know very many people my age. That's the bad thing.
JM: Yeah that’s the thing, you have to -
MM: They’ve - they’ve - they’ve gone. The ones that would have done that are are already gone.
JM: Yeah. I mean, this is my, my dream thing. It's like to be in a kind of like bed and breakfast, you know, near the end.
MM: And then do you want to be, how do you, how do you want to -
JM: Oh, I don't care. I mean, I was, 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 that.
JM: You know. Cremation seems fine.
MM: Oh God no. 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 mm. One of my dearest friends, she was like my soul sister. We kind of looked alike. And uh her name was Betty Holloway and she was a darling, darling woman. And so her sister knew how much that I loved her and they wanted me to sing for the funeral and I said of course I would. But, but then she always wore lashes and um, her sister called me and said, Marilyn, will you put her lashes on? Because the, the, um -
JM: The heterosexual undertakers just -
MM: Didn't know how, didn't know how to do it. And I said, oh my gosh honey, yes of course I will and I did, you know.
JM: Was that scary?
MM: Well just, you know. Yeah, because I loved her so that, you know it was difficult, yeah.
JM: A lot of tears. Yeah.
MM: So I don't - no, not a, I don’t know that I cried. I don't cry very much. I cried so much during my, you know, I think I'm out of that now.
JM: You cried out?
MM: (Laughs) Yeah I think maybe.
JM: All those men?
MM: I laugh a lot now.
That’s singer Marilyn Maye. If you’ve never seen her perform, you're truly missing out. It was a life-changing experience, really, to discover her. Find her tour schedule at Marilyn Maye (that’s Maye with an e) dot com.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. The team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
Special thanks to Joanna Solataroff and Stephanie Joyce for their help on this episode. And special thanks to 54 Below.
You can find me, John Cameron Mitchell, in the new Hulu series Shrill, and on stage around the country performing songs and stories of Hedwig in my “Origin of Love” tour. Plus, look out for my upcoming musical podcast series, called Anthem, starring myself, Glenn Close, Cynthia Erivo, Patti LuPone, Denis O'Hare, and the South African singer Nakhane.
And as always, you can find Death, Sex & Money on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @deathsexmoney.
MM: You know, I've got seven nights and then I'm out of a job this week.
JM: At least we're in the same tribe.
MM: What is that? Gypsies, tramps and thieves?
JM: Which one are you?
JM: Good answer. If you were a thief, you'd be richer.
MM: (Laughs) Right.
I’m John Cameron Mitchell, and this is Death, Sex & Money, from WNYC.