Book Review: ‘My Name is Barbra,’ by Barbra Streisand
MY NAME IS BARBRA, by Barbra Streisand
Of course Barbra Streisand’s memoir, 10 years in the making if you don’t count the chapter she scribbled in longhand in the 1990s and then lost, was going to approach “Power Broker” proportions.
For one thing, she is — fits of insecurity notwithstanding — a bona fide power broker: tearing down barriers to and between Broadway, Hollywood, the recording industry and Washington, D.C., like Robert Moses on a demolition bender.
For another, as Streisand writes in “My Name Is Barbra,” a 970-page victory lap past all who ever doubted, diminished or dissed her, with lingering high fives for the many supporters, she does tend to agonize over the editing process.
After adding back material to her version of “A Star Is Born” for Netflix in 2018 — “I think I made it better. But did I? I’m never quite sure”— she fantasized about new, fuller cuts of both “Funny Girl,” which made her a movie star on arrival, and “Yentl,” her debut as director. Planning her wedding to the actor James Brolin in 1998, she tried to winnow down a long list of desserts before deciding “We’ll just have them all … why not?”
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist — though Streisand, 81, has consulted many, played one in “The Prince of Tides” and even incorporated the therapeutic framework into one concert tour — to figure out why she has taken such a big bite out of life. As recounted before in a flotillaofbiographies, none authorized (and at least one tell-all by an early roommate, who was promptly ghosted), she grew up deprived both economically and emotionally in ahousing project in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Instead of a doll she carried a hot-water bottle — “I swear it felt more like a real baby than some cold doll” — for which a sympathetic neighbor knitted a pink hat and sweater.
Such details may be familiar to fans, but for the most part they ring out more resoundingly in Streisand’s chatty, ellipses-strewn telling. She may possess megawatt fame — “a hollow trophy,” she assures us — but between these covers she’s just Bubbe Barbra at a kitchen table, talking about fabrics and fellows who got fresh and “my first fur coat, sold to me as ‘Zorina,’ a.k.a. ‘Alaskan sable,’ but in reality … skunk.”
Her father, an educator from an Orthodox Jewish background, died at 35 after a head injury when Barbara, as they spelled it then, was 15 months old and her brother was 9. (She still has her father’s copy of “Tales From Shakespeare” for children on her bedside table: “Who knows? Maybe he had bought it to read to me.”)
Her mother remarried a man named Kind who was anything but, gave birth to another little girl, and had distinct Madame Rose undertones, crooning into a broomstick microphone and so forth. “Where are my presents?” she screamed at a Christmas gathering in 1964, by which time her older daughter had released the Top 40 hit “People” and appeared thrice in Vogue. “I’m the mother! She’s nothing without me!”
That the film rights to “Gypsy” have slipped from Streisand’s grasp after a prolonged tease seems one of showbiz’s prosecutable crimes. (She even gobbles egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone!) Another: This book, which is adorned with more boldface names than there were sequins on the Arnold Scaasi pantsuit she wore to the Oscars in 1969, has no index. You kind of want to resurrect Spy magazine to make one, as it did for “The Andy Warhol Diaries.”
Little Barbara suffered from undiagnosed tinnitus, possibly a bug God planted in her ear urging her to run the hell away from her family’s dysfunction. She vowed to become a performer after seeing Susan Strasberg, the Method guru Lee’s daughter, in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Cort Theater, later contriving a meeting with Strasberg Sr., who didn’t intimidate her in the slightest. (“He reminded me of my uncle Irving.”)
She also was swooning at the movies near Erasmus Hall High, where she was an honors student; her schoolmate Bobby Fischer, the future chess prodigy, “looked like some sort of deranged pilot from a 1940s movie,” she presciently noted.
Streisand collected mentors who introduced her to books and records, and scratched up the money for classes in acting, pantomiming a chocolate chip and reading from Jean Anouilh’s “Medea”: “Why have you made me a girl?” Though she hates to fly, she longed to escape, and would become an expert criss-crosser of centuries and cultures onscreen.
But it was her shimmery, almost wholly intuitive singing, first at a gay bar and then at the Bon Soir supper club in Greenwich Village, that would first dazzle the public. She found the spotlight “warm and comforting,” quickly lopped off that second “a” from her first name, and reminds us now that the second “s” in Streisand is soft, telephoning Tim Cook to get the pronunciation corrected on Siri.
The author salts “My Name Is Barbra,” the title recycled from her 1965 TV special that itself cribbed the name of a Leonard Bernstein song, with Yiddishisms: tchotchkes (she likes pig ones); gonif, or thief (her ex-boyfriend Jon Peters); fakakta (what her then-agent David Begelman called the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story that was the basis for “Yentl”).
Then there are the generous dollops of chutzpah. Besides sassing Strasberg, she somehow managed to resist all the advisers who told her to bob her long nose, ditch the thrift-store clothes and choose more standard numbers than, say, Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” with lyrics by Truman Capote.
Nobody put Barbra in a corner. She clashed early with the prickly playwright and director Arthur Laurents, insisting she perform the secretary Miss Marmelstein’s eponymous solo in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” from a swivel chair.“You’re never going to make it, you know,” he snarled at her, though the audience went wild for the sequence. “Never!” (They’d reunite later, on the massively successful picture “The Way We Were.”)
A lot of men seemed to resent her drive. “I have more talent in my farts than you have in your whole body!” Walter Matthau told her on the set of “Hello, Dolly.” Mike Wallace called her “totally self-absorbed” and made her cry on “60 Minutes.”
But many more fell at her feet, including Marlon Brando, who rubbed them. The king of England has sipped Constant Comment from her cup. Pat Conroy, the “Prince of Tides” author, compared her to the goddess Athena. (Athena on Conroy’s dancing: “Boy, he could really fling that tush around!”) Stephen Sondheim rewrote lyrics for her.
Tabulating all the boyfriends and admirers — “I thought we were going to have an affair,” the married Mandy Patinkin tearily implored her during “Yentl,” she writes — might require a second index.
Though she has a reputation for being controlling (basically the definition of being a director), Streisand here stresses, convincingly if somewhat exhaustively, her spontaneity. Contra Ethel Merman, who famously declared herself Miss Bird’s Eye when presented with new lyrics in rehearsals of “Call Me Madam,” she believes “to freeze something is to kill it.”
She wanted to print the words “this is a work in progress” on the back of her 1976 lieder album — Glenn Gould loved it! — an example of her dogged refusal to stay in one lane. “Come to think of it, I should put it on this book, too….”
Future editions, then, might excise some of the long block quotes of praise from her peers, like the one purportedly from Tennessee Williams collected by an interviewer whose veracity was questioned by Helen Shaw in The New Yorker. Not to get too Laurents about it, but Streisand maybe could have used a trusted collaborator, a J.R. Moehringer or even a J.J. Hunsecker, to rein in some indulgences, like long lists of boldface friends at later-career concerts.
There’s something exuberant and glorious, though, about Streisand’s photo dump of self-portraits and party pics. Indeed about this whole dragged-out banquet of a book. You might not have the appetite to linger for the whole thing, but you’ll find something worth a nosh.
There are just so many scintillating Streisands to contemplate over so many years: singer, actress, director, producer, philanthropist, activist, lover, mother, wife, friend, autobiographer. “I would make a very good critic,” she suggests at one point, and as I struggle to put a button on this, all I can reply is: Barbra, be my guest.
MY NAME IS BARBRA | By Barbra Streisand | Viking | 970 pp. | $47