One of the most interesting books to have come my way recently is a memoir by Tony Cointreau, entitled Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa … and Me – and if the title sounds extraordinary, the book is even more so. “How many people,” reads the blurb, “can count among their closest friends Ethel Merman (the Queen of Broadway) [and] Mother Teresa (beatified by the Vatican in October 2003) ….?”.
Tony Cointreau – and the name is likely to have rung a bell – is an heir of the French liqueur family from Angers in France, producer of the clear, orange-flavoured triple-sec which bears the family name, and in this autobiography, he recounts the story of his life which he describes as “My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta”.
Tony had a somewhat traumatic childhood. Conceived shortly before his mother was forced to flee the Nazi invasion of France with his elder brother and their nanny, he was born after their arrival in New York. His mother, however, was “emotionally remote”, his brother turned out to be a bully, the Swiss nanny was “cold and unprotective” and he had to endure the advances of a schoolteacher with paedophiliac tendencies. All these experiences left him with the belief that the only way to be loved is to be perfect, and it was this belief which led him to a life-long search for love and for a mother figure.
He found both in three women who were to become influential in his life – his “other mothers”, as he called them – Lee Lehman, “a remarkable woman” (the wife of Robert Lehman, chairman of Lehman Brothers), Ethel Merman and Mother Teresa. They were like mothers, he writes, “and the three of them helped to heal the parts of me that had been damaged as a child. Their humor, their support, and their compassion finally gave me the unconditional love I had been seeking my whole life”.
Cointreau admits that the differences between Ethel Merman and Mother Teresa – “the two most important women in my life” – appear to be huge, but there were also similarities. Most people probably don’t know that Merman – despite “her loud voice and brassy persona onstage” – was a very spiritual person, and for years did voluntary work at Roosevelt Hospital, comforting the patients – “something you might have expected from Mother Teresa”. And Mother Teresa, he writes, had a sense of humor which wasn’t too far removed from that of Ethel Merman”.
It’s a fascinating and touching story – written with great warmth and humour – which amply shows that what Tony Cointreau received from both of these “other mothers” he returned as generously as he had received. He and his partner, Jim Russo, were there for Ethel Merman during some of the darkest days of her life, and – following Tony’s successful international singing career – not only did he and Jim visit Mother Teresa’s home for orphaned children in Calcutta on two occasions, but he also spent 12 years caring for destitute men dying of AIDS at Gift of Love, Mother Teresa’s sanctuary in Greenwich Village in New York.
What becomes apparent in this memoir is his realisation that all that really matters in life is a willingness to share even a small part of yourself with others …. and that you don’t have to be perfect to find unconditional love.
For some highly entertaining, and – at times – moving insights into the relationship which Tony and Jim shared with Ethel Merman, watch this interview which was broadcast on Theater Talk.
Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa …. and Me – A Memoir by Tony Cointreau is published by Prospecta Press ISBN 978-1-935212-34-8