Ethel Merman had a confidence as rock solid as her powerhouse vocals in musicals such as Hello, Dolly! “If somebody had said to her, ‘You know, you have to go on diet pills,’ she would have been like, ‘Oh, kiss my ass!’” Barbara Geary, the diva’s granddaughter, tells Closer exclusively, noting that Ethel’s early years singing in nightclubs helped to forge her nerves of steel. “As a woman, you get a different kind of experience. You have to really be able to handle yourself. … She just didn’t take any s–t from anybody.”

Behind the Broadway legend’s tough, self-assured exterior was a loving grandma that only Barbara and her brother got to see. “She was probably the happiest when her kids were little,” Barbara notes, referring to Ethel’s son, Robert Jr., and Barbara’s mom, Ethel “Nicole,” who died of an accidental overdose in 1967. Barbara fondly recalls a childhood trip to Saint Martin, during which her grandmother helped her search for butterflies, chameleons and hermit crabs “for hours. … And I remember her kind of getting teary-eyed, saying, ‘Your mother used to do that, too. I miss watching her do that.’”

Barbara, the producing artistic director of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, speculates that her grandfather Robert Levitt — the second of Ethel’s four marriages — was likely the love of the performer’s life. “He was the father of her [only] children,” she explains. “There was a really deep love between them.” But by the time they divorced in 1952, Ethel’s Broadway successes — Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam which won her a Tony in 1951 and a Golden Globe for its film version in 1953 — took a toll. “It was hard for a man to be with a successful woman back in those days,” Barbara notes, adding she thinks Ethel “regretted the breakup of that marriage her whole life.”

The singer threw herself into her work, which is how she dealt with other tough times, like Judy Garland’s tragic overdose in 1969. “I remember coming into her room,” Barbara recalls, “and she was just so sad. She just kept saying, ‘Oh, Judy, what were you thinking?’ It was hard.”

Barbara also recalls sharing intimate early morning chats in Ethel’s big brass bed and tagging along to Lucille Ball’s house, where she played in the pool while the adults sipped cocktails. And when Barbara was older, she cherished weekly phone calls with Ethel. “She would tell me her dirty jokes!”

When Ethel died at 76 in 1984 following a battle with brain cancer, every Broadway theater dimmed its lights in honor of the superstar, though “I always thought of her as Grandma,” Barbara notes, citing the life lessons her grandmother taught her: “To believe in yourself, and that if there’s something that you really want, you can go for it.” Gypsy’s Mama Rose, Ethel’s favorite role, couldn’t have said it any better.