Two years ago, after
Stritch was scheduled to have a conversation about happiness with brain scientist
The night of the performance, Bell took the acerbic actor to the museum and stood in the wings watching as Stritch, leaning on her walker, took a moment to compose herself.
When she heard her name, Stritch walked out on stage with the walker and turned to the audience.
"Tonight we're talking about happiness," she said. "Ten days ago, I had my hip replaced."
With that, Bell describes how Stritch pushed aside her walker and hobbled to her chair unaided, to thunderous applause.
"It was like a master class on how to get an audience in the palm of your hand," Bell says.
Stritch, an Emmy and Tony Award winner, died Thursday at age 89. Bell first met her in 2008 and made monthly visits to see her, first in
When he last saw Stritch two weeks ago, he noticed she had lost weight and was having memory problems.
But when she started recalling her gloried past, she was as sharp as ever.
Bell says on that last visit, they sang together on "The Little Things You Do Together" from "Company" and Bell says she corrected him when he messed up a lyric.
"I loved that," he says. "Even in a wheelchair, this woman brought it on. That's something I will forever cherish."
Bell met Stritch when he interviewed her for "The Sondheim Review," a magazine dedicated to the work of
The visit in early 2009 was classic Stritch.
The indomitable performer showcased her razor sharp wit, her whiskey voice and her no-nonsense attitude in the two-hour program, during which she answered questions from students, reflected on her career and sang songs including her trademark "Ladies Who Lunch" from Sondheim's musical "Company."
"The students knew they were in the presence of a one-of-a-kind performer," he says. "Imagine, the person who made theater history in 'Company' was performing her big song on our campus."
Stritch, whose stage career began in the 1940s, was known for her association with Sondheim and particularly his musical "Company," for which she was nominated for a Tony.
After her visit to DeSales, Stritch told Bell to stop by if he was ever in
"She was delighted that I followed up," he says.
That was the beginning of their friendship, which included walks in
"But mostly it was conversation between two people who liked each other," Bell says. "At least. I think she liked me. She granted me a lot of access."
Realizing what an extraordinary opportunity it was to engage with such a legend, Bell started recording and taking notes during their visits.
He mentioned to her that there has never been a book written about her.
"All great people of theater have something written on them," he told her.
It became a running joke with them. Bell taking notes and Stritch saying "I know what you're doing, but you're not going to do it while I'm alive."
But mainly, he says his visits were just conversations in which she talked about everything from her career and people she worked with to religion, dying and the recent documentary "
"It was very casual," he says. "It was me in chronicle mode. I feel priviliged to have done this. She was an original."
In 2013, Stritch left
He says even though Stritch was in failing health and suffering from diabetes, she would still "hold court around the kitchen table" with a stream of family and friends popping in and out.
And she still took great pleasure in performing.
"Almost all our visits ended with us singing together," Bell says.
Bell says he would one day like to put together a book, similar to "Tuesdays with Morrie" by
"The theater historian in me knows this is something I don't want to slip away," he says. "She was a formidable spirit. She always said 'Everybody's got a sack of rocks, the only thing that matters is what you're going to do with it.' She never sugar-coated life."
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