Entertaining Facts About Ethel Merman, The First Lady Of Musicals

Claire Ng

The world has seen plenty of talented divas, but few of them had a voice like Ethel Merman. Famous for being a vocal powerhouse, she also gained infamy for her brash and bold personality. Out of all the actresses balancing Broadway and Hollywood, Ethel was the most unapologetic and ruthless of them all—and it led her straight to her heartbreaking end.


1. Her Birth Date Is A Mystery

Ethel Merman was born on January 16, 1908—but throughout her life, the outspoken actress had another story to tell.  In fact, Ethel wholeheartedly believed that 1912 was her actual birth year. Weirder still, there’s no evidence to verify her claim at all. However, considering her stunning eccentricities, this was just par for the course for Ethel Merman.

2. She Had A Lot Of Faith

Ethel’s beginnings starkly contrasted the rambunctious reputation she’d one day earn. Religion was a major part of her childhood. Raised as an Episcopalian, Ethel had a schedule that revolved around religious activities. She attended church on Sunday mornings, Sunday school, afternoon prayer meetings, and children’s study groups in the evening.

But while she learned to be a prim and proper young lady—she didn’t exactly grow into one.

3. She Had A Way With Words

Throughout her career, Ethel Merman was known for her vulgar humor. Yup, she adored cursing. Her brash, inappropriate vocabulary ran red-hot, but not everybody appreciated her shameless swearing. During rehearsal for her guest appearance on The Loretta Young Show, Ethel let her mouth run wild in front of the show’s host—and really put her foot in it.

4. She Was Scandalous

You see, Loretta Young was a devout Catholic, so, when Ethel let her tongue fly free, it scandalized her.  Determined to put a stop to such bad behavior, Young told her, “Come on, Ethel. You know my rules. That’ll cost you a dollar.” In response, Ethel had some choice words for her, sparking a heated argument. But, of course, her uncouthness didn’t stop there.

5. She Humiliated Herself

Ethel loved dirty jokes. She had a liking for telling them just so she could see how people responded to them. It was a dangerous line to toe, and, unfortunately, her jokes often rubbed people the wrong way. Even her good friends didn’t always find her humor palatable, sometimes considered her more cringeworthy than funny. Ouch. But while Ethel lacked delicacy, she made up for it in an astonishing way.

6. She Started Young

From an early age, music was the river of Ethel’s life, buoying her up and carrying her straight to her destiny. As a young girl, she performed at local army camps. On her days off, she eagerly perused her local music stores, her eyes drinking it all in. Then came the vaudeville shows her parents took her to see. In those flashy performances, Ethel saw something to aspire to.

She began to imitate the singing styles of the vaudeville stars at home—but, in doing so, encountered one huge problem.

7. She Had A Voice Like No Other

Ethel’s inability to sing like anybody else was perhaps a sign of things to come. No matter how hard she tried to sound like her favorite vaudeville stars, she had an incredibly difficult time imitating them. The reason? She couldn’t hide her strong, mezzo-soprano voice. What’s more? Her clear articulation and pitch also added to its uniqueness.

But luckily, this curse was actually a blessing in disguise.

8. She Had A Good Set of Lungs

Ethel Merman’s powerhouse vocals not only became her trademark but also gave her a fitting nickname. She earned the moniker “Old Yeller” due to her ability to belt show tunes. Her powerful voice was so loud that it reached the nosebleed section of theaters. In those days, stage performers didn’t use microphones, so it was a great feat on her part. But that wasn’t the most impressive part.

9. She Was A Natural

Usually, musical stars undergo years of strenuous training—but not Ethel. In fact, she never received any formal vocal training whatsoever. Ethel was self-taught, and that made her a naturally gifted singer. But her immense talent didn’t mean things came easy. In the beginning, stardom just seemed like a fanciful dream. And while she struggled to get by with her singing chops alone, Ethel had no choice but to scrape at the bottom of the barrel.

10. She Pulled Double Duty

Like many hopefuls, Ethel supported herself with a run-of-the-mill day job. Early in her career, she worked as a stenographer and then became a personal secretary to Caleb Bragg, the co-inventor of the Bragg-Kliesrath brake. In fact, she never stopped working. At night, she sang at private parties and nightclubs as she carved herself a path into show business.

Ethel juggled multiple jobs like a pro—but there was a high price to pay for it.

11. Her Day Job Had Perks

Ethel spent her days as a secretary dreaming about stardom—literally. Her singing gigs at night meant she didn’t get much shuteye. So, she learned to take advantage of her boss’ many long trips away from the office to make sure she got the crucial beauty sleep she needed. After all, appearances are important for a budding starlet.

Ethel toiled away, night and day, in the name of fame—but she soon realized that she needed to make a monumental change.

12. Her Name Was A Mouthful

Ethel decided that she needed to get a proper stage name—one that would actually fit on a signboard. You see, she felt her real name, Ethel Zimmerman, was too long. At first, she toyed with using “Gardner” or “Hunter,” but her father was furious at the thought of her replacing the family name. As a compromise, she took the “zim” out of Zimmerman and became…Ethel Merman.

With a more memorable name, she was ready to take on the world.

13. She Quit Her Day Job

With her new name in tow, Ethel was raring to go. During one of her earlier engagements, she made a life-changing connection. She met an agent, Lou Irwin, who introduced her to Archie Mayo, the film director at Warner Bros. After successfully auditioning for Mayo, she accepted his offer of a six-month movie contract, which allowed her to quit her day job once and for all.

Ethel finally had her foot in the door, but her restlessness eventually got the better of her.

14. She Was Impatient

After signing with Warner Brothers, Ethel’s career found itself stuck in limbo. Week after week passed, and Ethel still hadn’t been offered any roles. Finally, the ambitious (and impatient) actress had enough of waiting and told Irwin she wanted him to terminate her contract. It was an unwise course of action—but in a stunning twist of fate, her predicament turned into a golden opportunity.

15. Her Agent Flipped The Script

Little did Ethel know, her contract issue was actually a blessing in disguise. Instead of canceling Ethel’s contract with Warner Bros., Irwin did better: He managed to get Merman a contract with more favorable terms. The new deal allowed Ethel to perform in clubs and stay on the studio’s roster. Merman’s career prospects looked better than ever, but just as she settled into her new life—tragedy struck.

16. Her Career Was In Danger

Just as Ethel Merman began climbing the ladder, she faced a health crisis that almost ended things before they began. Unfortunately, she needed to have her tonsils removed. The procedure frightened Ethel to no end as she feared that it would forever change her voice. After the tense operation, the actress could only hope that her vocal cords made it through unscathed.

17. She Took A Chance

Luckily for Ethel, the tonsillectomy was a success. Even better? It actually helped her voice become stronger than ever before. Now, at the top of her game, Ethel was in the prime position for a breakthrough—and what a breakthrough she got. After several successful theater shows, she caught the eye of a very important producer.

18. She Impressed Important People

After several successful theater shows, Ethel wiggled her way into the favor of theatre producer, Vinton Freedley. After attending one of her performances, he asked her to audition for a role in the upcoming musical, Girl Crazy. But that’s not all. When the writers, George and Ira Gershwin, heard her sing, they immediately hired her for the role of a café singer, Kate Fothergill.

Winning the role marked a major milestone in Ethel’s career—but it was so much more than just a stepping stone.

19. She Finally Took The Stage

While she was no stranger to live performances, Ethel had never professionally acted in a Broadway production…until now. It was the moment she’d worked so hard for—a dream come true. She made her spectacular stage debut on October 14, 1930, at the Alvin Theatre. It was a huge success with the musical hit earning a run of a whopping 272 shows.

For Ethel, there was nowhere to go but up.

20. She Was An Original Act

Ethel Merman’s performance made audiences take notice. On opening night, she instantly became an up-and-coming newcomer to watch. It was hard to ignore her talent with critics celebrating Ethel’s unique singing style and strong vocal abilities. The New Yorker described her as being “imitative of no one.” Wave after wave of praises crashed into her—but the actress’ reaction to her newfound success was downright shocking.

21. She Was Unimpressed

Surprisingly, Ethel Merman didn’t think much of the glowing acclaim. Although she received positive reviews, she didn’t pay them any attention. In fact, she reacted with indifference. Her cool response led George Gershwin to ask her mother, “Have you ever seen a person so unconcerned as Ethel?” Regardless of Merman’s perplexing reaction, there was no stopping her now.

Once she conquered the stage, she set her sights on another horizon—Hollywood.

22. She Had Too Much On Her Plate

Ethel’s success on the stage rolled over into her movie career. While she was performing in Girl Crazy, Paramount capitalized on her burgeoning reputation as a formidable singer and cast her in 10 short musical movies. At the same time, she continued to do live shows. After Girl Crazy’s run finished, she and her parents went on a much-deserved vacation. However, it was brutally short-lived.

23. She Answered A Cry For Help

As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Ethel was an in-demand singer. As soon as she reached her vacation destination, an interruption pierced her leisure time. Plagued by problems, the latest production of George White’s Scandals wasn’t doing well, and George White appealed to Ethel to help save it. Ethel agreed to join the show, but she had a special request of her own.

24. She Was Worth A Pretty Penny

Ethel Merman didn’t think twice about making George White jump through some serious hoops. Simply put, the man had to cough up some major dough. During that time, Ethel was still under a contract with Vinton Freedley. To hire her without legal ramifications, White had to pay Freedley a fee of $10,000 ON TOP OF Ethel’s weekly pay of $1,500.

Her magical touch worked because the revue had a lengthy run, including 202 shows on Broadway. Even so, her talent had its limits.

25. There Was Something In The Water

In the early 1930s, Ethel Merman stumbled over a bump in the road. Chicago just wasn’t a good fit for the actress. During her short stay in the Windy City, Ethel claimed she experienced some irritation in her throat. The culprit? According to her, it was the chlorine in the city’s water supply. There’s no explanation for why she thought it was the water. But whatever the case was, Ethel cut short her tour engagement and returned to New York City.

Unfortunately, the bad omens just kept coming.

26. Stumbling In Hollywood

Eventually, Ethel Merman made a return to Hollywood. Although her stage career was blossoming, her movie career was still in its infancy. She joined the production of We’re Not Dressing in a supporting role. Although Ethel was part of a star-studded cast, which included Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard, it was not an enjoyable experience for her. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

27.  She Received An Unpleasant Surprise

Ethel’s displeasure only grew, festering until she received the worst news of all. At the New York premiere, she discovered that one of her musical scenes in We’re Not Dressing had been completely cut from the film. If that wasn’t bad enough, this awful revelation occurred in front of all her friends and family. Although she tried to let this betrayal roll off her back, Ethel’s qualms with Hollywood had only just begun.

28. She Was A Beloved Tough Girl

Merman’s next Broadway show, Anything Goes, proved that Broadway was a completely different beast from Hollywood. On stage, she was the show’s darling. Unlike anywhere else, the actress’ tough-girl persona was beloved and celebrated. In fact, Anything Goes was so successful that Ethel thought she could successfully bring it to Hollywood. She was so, so wrong.

29. She Was An Afterthought

Despite her well-received performance on Broadway, Ethel wasn’t automatically a shoo-in for the movie. Initially, Bing Crosby, one of the stars, pushed for his wife to be cast in the role that Ethel had played—that of Reno Sweeney. It was only after Crosby’s wife dropped out that Ethel won the part. The struggle was, perhaps, a warning for the actress.

30. She Wasn’t The Star Of The Show

In a way, Ethel lost when she won the role. Again, she had a bad filming experience with a production that starred Bing Crosby. Although she was the co-star, Crosby stole the spotlight. Not only did she lose her power, but Ethel also had to contend with the changes made to the script. Ultimately, the movie was a disaster, finishing above budget and behind time. But that wasn’t the worst part.

Critics also panned Ethel for her inability to replicate her stage presence on the big screen. Yikes!

31. She Didn’t Give Up

After struggling to replicate her stage success in movies, Ethel finally had a breakthrough. In 1938, she starred in two of the year’s biggest hits: Happy Landing and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. As well, her stage career continued to do well with two more successful collaborations with Cole Porter: DuBarry Was a Lady and Panama Hattie. However, during the latter’s run, Ethel Merman unveiled her shocking dark side.

32. Her Claws Came Out

There’s no doubt that Ethel was ambitious. Her aspiration sparked rumors about the intense lengths she went to remain at the top. Allegedly, she was terribly jealous of her Panama Hattie castmate, Betty Hutton, and pushed to have Hutton’s songs cut from the show on opening night. Other reports, however, claim the producer made the decision based on Hutton’s style.

Of course, this wasn’t the only controversy involving Ethel.

33. She Had A Secret Lover

For some time, Ethel was in a secret relationship. Her Romeo was Stork Club owner and ex-bootlegger, Sherman Billingsley. And even more scandalous? He was married. However, despite this little snag, the two love birds seemed very much in love. Billingsley would often send a bottle of champagne to Ethel’s dressing room after every performance.

This gesture, though, was tame compared to the egregious ways they showed their love for each other.

34. They Made People Turn Red

Ethel’s affair with Billingsley was passionate, and it made people blush right down to their toes. They often spent nights alone in his rooms at the Stork Club. As a result, the staff had little choice but to serve food and drinks at inconvenient times. On one disturbing occasion, Billingsley’s daughter pried Ethel’s hand from her father’s knee, the actress’ nails leaving scratch marks on him.

But as time passed, Ethel tired of sneaking around like a dirty secret.

35. She Gave Him An Ultimatum

Tired of being the sidepiece, Ethel decided that Billingsley needed to make a decision. So, she gave him an ultimatum: He had to choose between her and his wife. To motivate him towards choosing her, she included a monetary incentive of $500,000, which was a fortune in those days. But unfortunately for Ethel, money couldn’t entice Billingsley to leave his wife and children.

And just like that, the fervent romance went up in flames.

36. She Rebounded Hard

In the wake of her ruined love affair, Ethel made an impulsive decision—and it ended in disaster. Soon after Panama Hattie opened, she married one of her castmate’s agents, William Smith. But almost immediately after marrying Smith, regret hit her like a pound of bricks. On her wedding night, she realized it was all “a dreadful mistake.”

Two months later, she filed for a hasty divorce and listed desertion as the reason. But despite her horrifying track record, Ethel wasn’t ready to give up on love.

37. She Was Unlucky In Love

Ethel Merman didn’t learn her lesson and rebounded again. Soon after her divorce from William Smith, Ethel met and married Robert D. Levitt. At first, this seemed like “happily ever after”—and the couple even welcomed two children. But it was doomed to a horrifying end. Sadly, Levitt was a dangerous drinker, and his vices only led to heartbreak.

38. She Became A Single Mother

In 1952, Ethel had no choice but to admit that her marriage was over. Not only did her husband struggle with addiction, but he also had some severe behavioral issues. In fact, six years after Ethel walked away from him, Levitt’s personal demons became too much for him. Sadly, he took his own life in 1958, making Ethel Merman a single mother.

39. She Took A Dramatic Turn

For a long time, Ethel Merman was famous for her roles in musical comedies. So, in 1944, she decided to change things up by taking on the titular role in the dramatic musical, Sadie Thompson. It was an opportunity for Ethel to show her range, but the role proved to be trickier than expected. During the early stages of rehearsals, she found herself facing challenges she had never encountered before.

40. She Made A Few Changes

The difficulty Ethel faced on set was new territory for her. She found it hard to memorize the lyrics, blaming lyricist Howard Dietz for using foreign and complicated words. So, she had her then-husband, Robert D. Levitt, who worked for the New York Journal-American, tweak the lyrics. Furious, Dietz gave her an ultimatum: sing the original lyrics or get out. Ethel Merman chose the latter.

41. She Has An Iconic Song

When one door closes, another one opens. In 1945, Ethel accepted the role of Annie Oakley in the musical, Annie Get Your Gun. It became her most famous role and one that, even today, is a key part of her legacy. Written by Irving Berlin, the musical was a huge success with a run of 1,147 shows that lasted almost three years. But that wasn’t the most important part.

Out of the musical’s score came Ethel Merman’s signature song, There’s No Business Like Show Business—a song that followed her throughout her career, pushing her into a new decade and a new round of milestones.

42. She Collected Gold

In 1950, Ethel Merman made a smart move. She joined the cast of Call Me Madam—and it led her straight to a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Oh, but the glittering achievements didn’t end there. Three years later, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress when she reprised the role for the film adaptation. However, it wasn’t just her performance that caught everyone’s attention.

43. Nobody Crossed Her

Ethel Merman’s feistiness was well documented. For instance, her stand-in recalled a story of how Ethel displayed said feistiness during a performance of Call Me Madam. While she was singing, an intoxicated audience member kept hollering at her, to the irritation of Ethel herself. Just as she reached the song’s end, however, she suddenly stopped—and did the unthinkable.

44. She Threw Him Out

In lieu of the rude interruptions, Ethel Merman stalked off the stage and made a beeline for the perpetrator. She physically grabbed him out of his seat and threw him out of the theater and into the streets herself. Then, she immediately returned to the stage and finished the song without missing a beat. The lesson? Don’t interrupt the diva, Ms. Merman.

45. She Obeyed Her Husband

In 1953, Ethel Merman married for the third time. Her third husband was Robert Six, a Continental Airlines executive. Surprisingly, Ethel chose to become a housewife after she married him. Six, however, wasn’t happy with her decision. He wanted her to resume her career in hopes that her celebrity would be good promotion for the airline. So, he pushed Ethel to take the starring role in Happy Hunting. It was anything but a grand comeback.

46. Her Return Was Rough

Ethel’s return to the stage wasn’t an easy one. From the beginning, she argued with the composers. The drama spilled over to arguments with her co-star, Fernando Lamas, and his wife, who was often at the rehearsals. A few months after the show opened, she demanded to take out two of her least favorite songs and use songs written by a friend.

When the musical’s run ended, Ethel felt utterly relieved. Little did she know, another betrayal lay waiting for her in the shadows.

47. She Faced Betrayal

Although Ethel reached a personal high with her next role as Rose Hovick in Gypsy, her personal life hit another devastating low. She discovered that her husband, Robert Six entertained a torrid affair behind her back. Once again, she had another divorce on her hands. However, this wasn’t the only betrayal darkening her doorstep.

48. She Trusted Him Entirely

Ethel’s magnificent performance in Gypsy stirred up some serious interest. Mervyn LeRoy, who helmed the movie version of the musical, saw many shows during its stage run and promised Ethel she would be cast in the movie. Ethel placed her trust in LeRoy and believed wholeheartedly that she had the role in the bag. However, before the end of the production’s run, she received some shocking news.

49. Her Greatest Disappointment

To her horror, Ethel Merman learned that she was not cast in the film adaptation of Gypsy. Instead, Rosalind Russell, a popular movie actress, won the role due to bankability and a background campaign. In contrast, Ethel had never had a solid movie career. Of the rejection, Merman said it was “the greatest professional disappointment of my life.” However, this wasn’t the only slap in the face she endured.

50. She Got Played Again

Still coping with the rejection, Ethel Merman joined the road tour of Gypsy. During one of the shows in LA, LeRoy saw her backstage to deliver news that Russell had fallen ill. He assured her the studio was going to cast her in the movie after all. With her hopes soaring high, she once again believed LeRoy and gave him the best seats for his friends and industry associates.

Unfortunately, LeRoy had played her for a fool. She did not get the part.

51. She Had A Hollywood Marriage

Ethel Merman’s last marriage made Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage seem like an eternity. On June 27, 1964, she married actor Ernest Borgnine. However, the marriage quickly unraveled a mere 11 days later. Both parties filed for divorce separately with counterclaims of extreme cruelty. Borgnine claimed Ethel was jealous of his popularity—but, at the end of the day, Ethel had the greatest vengeance of all.

52. She Told It Like It Was

In her autobiography, Ethel paid tribute to her failed marriage in a special way. She especially titled a chapter, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine,” and it consisted of a single blank page. Despite her history of broken hearts, the actress maintained her sense of humor when discussing her many failed romances: “We all make mistakes. That’s why they put rubbers on pencils, and that’s what I did. I made a few lulus!”

53. She Couldn’t Speak

During the last two decades of her life, Ethel continued to perform. But as she entered her later years, it became increasingly obvious that something was horribly wrong. The actress seemed to have trouble with her memory, and sometimes, even speaking was a struggle. However, her behavior concerned her friends the most. Ethel had become more erratic than ever before—and it led straight to a disturbing climax.

54. She Collapsed

Ethel Merman was LA-bound, ready to participate in the 55th Academy Awards—but she never made it to her destination. While getting ready to go, she collapsed. Rushed to the hospital, Ethel faced her mortality for the first time. The doctors believed that she’d had a stroke—but the final diagnosis was more terrifying than she’d ever imagined.

55. She Became Unrecognizable

As it turns out, Ethel suffered from stage four brain cancer, and sadly, the tumor was inoperable. Doctors gave the beloved actress only eight and a half months to live—and her rapid decline was the most heartbreaking part of all. Once vivacious and beautiful, poor Ethel Merman lost all of her hair, her face swelling beyond recognition. Her days were numbered—but her family and manager concealed the brutal nature of her illness from the outside world.

56. She Had A Private Passing

Until the very end, Ethel Merman strove to keep her personal life safely tucked behind closed doors. Her son Robert Jr. even stated, “Mom truly appreciated [her fans’] presence and their applause. But you shouldn’t attempt to be personal—she drew lines, and she could cut you off.” And so, her loved ones treated her pending demise in the way she would have wanted.

Sadly, Ethel Merman’s extraordinary life came to a quiet end on February 15, 1984, after a 10-month battle with the disease. In memory of their stage queen, all Broadway theaters dimmed their lights at 9 pm.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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