Ethel Merman: Review

Reviewed by Nancy Ellegate

Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa…and Me
by Tony Cointreau
Prospecta Press

Reviewed by Nancy Ellegate

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Ethel Merman and Mother Teresa? Both were “other mothers” to Tony Cointreau whose family had made a fortune from the liqueur of the same name. He grew up well-off in New York City, with regular visits to France. But his family was not a happy one and he was subjected to sexual abuse by a teacher at his posh elementary school, abuse kept hidden for years. He does eventually get professional help, spurred by the emotional intensity of his volunteer work at Gift of Love, the residence for men with HIV operated by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order. Readers concerned with HIV will find this the most interesting part of the book. Cointreau writes about the early 1990s, a time before effective treatments. The men he encounters are mostly young and destitute and none will live very long. This period was one of intense controversy and heated activism around HIV, and it would be interesting to know how much Cointreau attended to the debates and frenzy of this era, but this is not the story he wants to tell. Rather, Cointreau offers the reflections of a volunteer in service to the dying. He finds great meaning in peeling potatoes, scrubbing floors, and helping with personal care activities while befriending residents. Cointreau offers several tender recollections of those lost to HIV and of Mother Teresa, whom he meets in New York and later spends time with in Calcutta.

This book is not a typical literary memoir. Cointreau isn’t skilled in the techniques of fiction and too often tells us more than he shows us. However, the work is artfully organized and flows well, with chapters crafted mainly around particular events or figures. Of particular note are memories of Ethel Merman. Cointreau knows her from the time of her triumph in Gypsy to her death and shows us a more spiritual, giving, and complex woman than the confident, brassy singer of popular memory. Interestingly, we learn that Merman herself spent many hours as a volunteer at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. Like the three people noted in its title, Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa and Me is a big-hearted book.

Nancy Ellegate is a sometime book reviewer for A&U.