Why Streisand Now?
Just five years after arriving in Manhattan as a seventeen-year-old kid without money or connections, Barbra Streisand was the top-selling female recording artist in America and the star of one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Twenty-two years old, her face graced the covers of Time and Life. That was only the beginning of a career that has marched its band and beat its drum for half a century, but everything Streisand has accomplished in that time can be traced right back to this first half decade of her professional life.
The young Barbra was like nothing the world of entertainment had ever seen. So fresh, so fearless, so unself-conscious—so bursting with desire—that today, even the lady herself seems to cower when confronted with the memory of that young upstart. If Streisand has ever been afraid of anything, I suspect that it might be the burden of living up to that sexy, vulnerable, sensational younger self who gate-crashed her way to fame during the turbulent 1960s, defying old definitions of talent, beauty, and success, harnessing an extraordinary confluence of talent, hard work, and shrewd salesmanship. In these all-important formative years, Streisand first learned how to dazzle, how to connect, and how to get what she wanted.
It was also during these years that she learned—in that less comfortable and far less controllable world offstage—how to love, be loved, and lose love. These were the years that the budding Brooklyn teenager named Barbara Streisand would become both a personality and a person, a time when she got her first inkling of how much the artistic affirmation she craved—and the fame that came with it—would cost.
This book charts Barbra’s climb from her earliest days in Manhattan to her first major triumph, the Broadway musical Funny Girl. After that, her chronicle becomes a very different kind of story: a Cinderella tale after she’s secured prince and palace. (Or at least the palace; princes, for Barbra, weren’t so easy to come by.) My goal has been to understand this early, groundbreaking Barbra, the artist and the woman who, out of need and lack of nurture, transformed herself into a superstar the world loved or loathed, an ambivalence that seemed to mirror the feelings in her own head and heart. I’ve attempted to zoom in as closely as possible on this complicated young woman—not the constructed myth or icon—in order to document how this unlikely kid from Brooklyn turned herself, in just five years’ time, into the biggest star on the planet.
Much of it, of course, was due to her astonishing talent, and to a voice that pianist Glenn Gould called “one of the natural wonders of the age.” Streisand came out of a time when talent still mattered, when the pursuit of greatness, not infamy, was rewarded—a world very different from ours, where Snooki and the Kardashians and drunken “real housewives” grab the lion’s share of media attention. Still, for all her gifts, Streisand wasn’t above merchandizing her fame, and during these first five years, she learned to do so expertly. She would cultivate an eccentric personality to go along with the mellifluous voice, knowing it would be the combination of the two that would keep audiences and interviewers coming back for more.
Yet Streisand’s vaunted ambition remains very different from the lust for notoriety that drives so many of today’s celebrities. Barbra’s determination to reach the big time was never simply an engine to accumulate fans or headlines or even dollars. From the start, she made it clear that she did not wish “to be a star having to sign autographs or being recognized and all that.” Instead, there were much more human reasons. Barbra wanted to make it big so she could demonstrate she had talent and appeal to a father who had never known her, a mother who hadn’t seemed to care, and a world that had thought she was too different to succeed. No surprise, then, that being acknowledged as good would never be enough; Barbra had to be great. And as for paying her dues, she showed little patience: “It was right to the top,” she declared early on, “or nowhere at all.”
Of course, Streisand’s rise has been told before. To say something new and valuable, to put her career into fresh perspective, I have tried to re-create the vanished world of her beginnings. Given my subject’s refusal to speak with biographers, I knew I would need to uncover new, authoritative source materials on my own. Happily, I discovered that there were, in fact, several never-before-used collections that provided exactly the kind of detailed inside information I needed—material that, as I discovered, did not always jibe with the established canon of Streisand’s early years.
I can’t say that I was surprised by this—the written historical record often serves as an important corrective to the faulty human memory—but I was nonetheless struck by how many oft-told tales and assumptions about Streisand’s career turned out to be false. The personal papers of Jerome Robbins, for example, revealed that, contrary to what has always been written, Ray Stark wasn’t opposed to Barbra’s casting in Funny Girl; rather, he was her most ardent champion right from the start. Claims made by Garson Kanin that he had to persuade Stark to hire Streisand were latter-day self-embellishments (something Kanin was very good at ) because the Robbins papers clearly show that Barbra was on the project months before Kanin came on board. Likewise, the papers of Bob Fosse finally flesh out that director’s rather shadowy involvement with the show. Streisand buffs might want to read my notes thoroughly, as I present evidence that debunks many of the famous myths about her career, such as the story of her being fired from a nightclub in Winnipeg.
Also documented for the first time is the prodigious amount of backstage maneuvering and public-relations chicanery that propelled Streisand forward. Her ticket to the top was indisputably her voice, but her great good fortune was to choose a crackerjack team of managers, agents, and publicists who made sure that her voice got heard. This able corps of lieutenants, operating largely unseen and unsung, was led, almost from the start, by Marty Erlichman, second only to the lady herself in engineering her brilliant career. Erlichman understood that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Streisand’s very difference—her unusual looks, her Jewishness, her offbeat manner—could assist her rise, not hinder it. He was able to argue that she was so uniquely talented that her huge fame was simply fated; all they had needed to do to make Barbra a star was wait “for her talent to speak for itself.” As such, her celebrity wasn’t “artificially created,” Erlichman insisted, but something that simply “had to happen.” Such a platitude, of course, obscures all the press releases, publicity gimmicks, and backstage deals that he and his efficient band of foot soldiers waged on their client’s behalf, especially during these crucial first five years.
Yet to acknowledge such clandestine efforts risks undercutting the image of a singularly talented star to whom the world has flocked instinctively and unbidden. Now, thanks to publicists and advocates finally sharing their accounts, another story emerges, and it is every bit as fascinating and compelling as the myths that have long been spun. Here is the chronicle of a girl—so green, so raw, such a diamond in the rough—carried along on a wave of masterful salesmanship to the attention of such influential figures in the world of theater and music as Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Harold Arlen, and Sammy Cahn, who then adopted her, anointed her, and presented her to the world. With such an entrance, Streisand’s acclaim was instant and overwhelming.
None of that diminishes Barbra’s talent or star quality. If she hadn’t been as sensational as her handlers said she was, she would have crashed and burned like so many before her had done. Nor, significantly, should it minimize Streisand’s own role in making it all happen. Styne said she “carried her own spotlight.” Certainly no one knew better than Barbra what worked best for her, and she had little time for false modesty. In fact, Streisand’s very narcissism—a trait that has created a vocal minority of detractors—proved a key ingredient of her success, perhaps as essential as her ample talent and capable assistants. Greatness cannot be achieved, after all, without a corresponding belief in one’s own greatness. That single-minded egoism left some people resentful, however, and others simply perplexed. Rosie O’Donnell, a fervent Streisand devotee, once pressed Barbra on whether she, too, had had idols in her youth. There was a long pause, in which Streisand seemed to struggle with the very concept. “I don’t think so,” she said at last. Of course not: It had always been just her.
For all of Streisand’s self-confidence, there was also the corresponding self-doubt. “That goes so deep,” she admitted—right back to those days in Brooklyn when her mother withheld praise and the girls at Erasmus Hall High School turned up their considerably smaller noses at her. As much as she’d been determined to make it, when success came, it still seemed strange to her. Seeing her name in lights was hard to accept. “Barbra Streisand doesn’t sound like a star,” she told a reporter in 1963.
Since that time, she has made “Barbra Streisand” synonymous with stardom, becoming the bar by which others measure their success. But fifty years earlier, she’d had her own hurdles. There had been Jewish stars before her—Lauren Bacall, Joan Collins, Piper Laurie, Judy Holliday—but none who seemed to announce it quite as forcefully as Streisand did when she walked into a room or onto a stage. There had been stars who had looked different, stars who hadn’t fit conventional expectations of beauty or glamour, but none who had insisted they were beautiful—leading-lady material—as Streisand did. She was fortunate to emerge at a time when the old order was breaking down: Diahann Carroll and Chita Rivera were challenging the white-bread glamour handbook of Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day, and people such as Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Joan Rivers were introducing new voices into the American conversation.
Streisand’s times were, therefore, right for her—but she was also right for her times. Though the critics started out calling her ugly and strange, within five years she had transformed not only their opinion of her, but also their very concept of what was beautiful and what was talented.
That was a lot to accomplish for a young woman barely out of her teens, especially one who had to be great and not merely good. Early on, Streisand learned she could only achieve her goals by taking charge herself; her first album, engineered and orchestrated by others, wasn’t nearly as masterful as her second, on which she exerted more control. That word “control,” however, had “negative implications,” she argued; Streisand preferred to say that she took “artistic responsibility.” Yet sometimes in her quest for the best, she seemed to overshoot and expect perfection, especially from herself. Part of the reason she didn’t have pierced ears, she explained to Oprah Winfrey, was because “each ear is a different length, so how could you possibly put a hole in exactly the same place on different ears?”
But she has always worn this insistence on precision as a badge of pride. “I really don’t like being called a ‘perfectionist’ as if it’s a crime,” she has said. Certainly Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, her earliest examples of auteurship, had been no shrinking violets when it came to taking control over their work. “What is so offensive about a woman doing the same thing?” Streisand has asked. Even her detractors concede she has a point on that score.
Perhaps this accounts for Streisand’s recent prominence on the scene. Suddenly she’s everywhere: celebrated on Glee, collecting awards, invoked in pop-rap songs, top-lining a movie for the first time in sixteen years. I suspect that our renewed fondness, even adoration, of Streisand is evidence of a nostalgia for a time when striving for excellence was at least as important as making a buck, and when originality was prized over focus-grouped packaging. In the early 1960s, Streisand reset the cultural parameters when she walked onstage in Funny Girl and said “Hello, gorgeous” to herself in the mirror—a slender, unusual girl who wouldn’t compromise on appearance, performance, or integrity. Fifty years later, she still matters, and for all the same reasons.
All scenes and events described herein are based on primary sources: interviews, letters, production records, journals, and contemporary news and weather reports. Nothing has been created simply for dramatic sake. Anything within quotation marks comes from interviews or other sources; dialogue is used only when it originates directly from these sources. Attitudes, motivations, and feelings attributed to Streisand or others always come from descriptions given in interviews. Full citations are found in the notes.