Interview By Brian Scott Lipton
Tony Cointreau’s life has had enough excitement, drama, and colorful characters to fill up a three-act play, a movie, and probably several miniseries. But for now, people who want to know more about the 73-year-old singer’s unique story will have to turn to his involving memoir, “Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa… and Me,” (Prospecta Press) for which Cointreau recently received an International Book Award.
The book covers everything from his privileged childhood as an heir to the Cointreau liquor fortune to his close relationship with the three most influential women in his life, socialite Lee Lehman, Tony Award winner Ethel Merman, and the saintly Mother Teresa. But as Cointreau admits, he didn’t plan on writing this book while he was living these adventures. It was a much more recent development.
“Every day after I finished work with Mother Teresa, I would talk into a tape recorder for about 30 minutes just to relieve emotions of the day,” he says. “After she died, I pulled out these 40 tapes and listened to them, and I felt something had to done with them. So I had them transcribed. And I started writing just about my work with Mother Teresa, until someone told me that I had to tell how I got there.”
So Cointreau went back to the beginning, and readers will be amazed at the vivid details he recalls about his childhood experiences, both here in America and in France, where he spent many vacations. “I have a kind of computer in my head, which means I have a perfect memory for dialogue whether it happened when I was 6 or 56,” he says. “When I was a child, I was always listening at doors or peeking through keyholes. I was always interested in what was going on with my family – perhaps because it had a lot of intrigue.”
For readers of this website, the chapters devoted to Merman – whom he first met as a teenager after befriending her daughter, Little Ethel – will be the most fascinating. You should read them for yourself, but I did ask Cointreau what most people would find most surprising about Merman. “I think it’s that her spiritual side was so deep. Sometimes, when we were in restaurants, I would say quietly to Ethel, ‘please sing your favorite song,’ and every time, she would sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ ” he says.
“I guess the other thing that surprised people was that there was no sense of entitlement for her stardom. She never realized how much people loved her,” he continues. “On her opening night of ‘Hello Dolly,’ when she lowered the newspaper in that opening scene and people saw her, the audience went bonkers. It was the first and only time she ever lost her concentration on stage.”
When Cointreau decided to become a nightclub singer, Merman encouraged him and continued to do so throughout his career. “She was always a great promoter of my work and would tell everyone what a great singer I was. But she only gave me one piece of advice. “One night she said to me, ‘Tony, take a big breath before your last note.’ I never forgot it,” he says. “When she loved you, she loved you deeply. I still miss her.”