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Book review: Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand by William J Mann

Barbara Streisand in A Mirror Has Two Faces

Barbara Streisand in A Mirror Has Two Faces

  • by JAMES GAVIN
 

A new biography of Barbra Streisand goes over old ground but is also a cautionary tale, of sorts

Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand

By William J Mann

Robson Press, 600pp, £20

Barbra Streisand’s story may be the most triumphant case of revenge in show business history. In the wake of the white-bread, conformist 1950s, Streisand was the ridiculed young misfit whose every move shrieked defiance. Singing in nightclubs and on television, she faced down audiences with her crossed eyes, beaklike nose and thrift-store costumes. Her voice – big, nasal, braying and edged with her native Brooklynese – was seldom pretty, but it was unmistakably hers, and it riveted the ear with its reckless intensity. Torch songs like Cry Me a River and When the Sun Comes Out became roller coasters of psycho-drama, yet she never played the victim; one felt her ferociousness every time she lurched for a high note, then seized it as though she had scaled the Matterhorn. To her fellow outcasts, from unattractive girls to gay men, Streisand, at 21, was a symbol of victory.

By 1964, she had made the covers of Time and Life, and sung on TV with Judy Garland in what looked like a passing of the mantle. Streisand was the golden girl of Columbia Records and the toast of Broadway, in Funny Girl. Two years before, people had called her a “kook”; lately they were proclaiming her beautiful. Her Funny Girl anthem, Don’t Rain on My Parade, is still the battle cry for an endless procession of starstruck girls; when they stand up in piano bars and yowl, “I’ll march my band out, / I’ll beat my drum!’’ in Streisand’s melismatic way, they can pretend that her peculiar success story is theirs, too.

Dozens of books have wrung the Streisand myth dry, none with her cooperation (and all to her annoyance). But the fascination goes on. Now William J. Mann, the author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn and How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, along with several novels, has turned a microscope on Streisand’s formative years. They start in 1960, when she was a teenage usherette and aspiring actress, and end with Funny Girl. Her opening line in that show – “Hello, gorgeous,” spoken to a mirror – gives this book its ironic title.

Predictably, little of the fact and anecdote in Mann’s 600 pages of text is new. But he has pored over previous books (particularly her youthful beau and mentor Barry Dennen’s My Life With Barbra) and hundreds of clippings, done a few dozen interviews, delved deeply into the supporting cast and locales, and written a novelized biography notable for its breadth of detail and fair-mindedness.

Her early life is a writer’s feast. It involves childhood tragedy (the death of her kindly father when Streisand was an infant), emotional neglect (from her mother, Diana, a frustrated singer who rarely gave her a warm word of approval) and outright abuse (by a stepfather who called her ugly). Erasmus Hall High School’s “odd duck” pursued acting with a vengeance, but met mostly snubs.

Singing was her second choice. In the cabarets of Manhattan, which embraced talented weirdos, Streisand found a home. Supportive friends, many of them gay, helped transform her into a Brooklyn Cinderella. Bob Schulenberg, an illustrator, did her makeup in the style of a 1930s movie star, and suggested retro-glam clothes. Dennen, a fledgling actor-comic, went further, schooling her in the great singers and steering her toward several of her best-known songs. He urged her to enter a talent contest at the Lion, a local gay bar – she won – and groomed her for her debut at the Bon Soir, the fabled basement cabaret on West Eighth Street. Romance bloomed: Streisand moved into his Village apartment, where they conducted an unlikely love affair.

Her nightclub appearances marked her as a comer, but the insults didn’t end. The Broadway producer David Merrick initially deemed her “too ugly” for the small comic role of a Jewish secretary in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale; cast in it anyway, she stole the show. And when a starry creative team undertook a musical of the life of Fanny Brice – a self-confessed ugly duckling who had reached the heights – the lyricist, Bob Merrill, still thought Streisand too hard on the eyes. But as her stock rose in the months before the opening, the creators of Funny Girl minimised other actors’ roles and heeded her every demand in order to make the show the Streisand tour de force it became.

At his best, Mann vividly evokes the atmosphere of Streisand’s New York. Entering the Bon Soir, he writes, seemed like “descending into a pit of darkness, for the only light flickering below came from a single shaded bulb over the cash register… People in the club moved as if they were shadows.” Personalities like the Funny Girl producer Ray Stark and the rising actor Elliott Gould – whom she wed in 1963, but quickly overshadowed – come colourfully to life.

Sometimes, alas, the colour is purple, as Mann strains to freshen up the old stories. His fly-on-the-wall (or in-the-air) descriptions can induce eye-rolls: “The sun was just beginning to rise over the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, sending ripples of pink and gold across the calm surface of the water. Barbra came skipping barefoot through the sand of Oak Street Beach, the morning sun reflecting off the majestic skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.” In setting scenes and defining her moods, he employs more weather reports than any book except The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Discussing Streisand’s art, Mann effuses more than analyzes. Her voice was “absolutely exquisite,” he writes; “when she held the notes,” its “sheer power … inspired shivers”. Arguably, however, readers of Hello, Gorgeous won’t need him to conjure her singing up for them.

By opening night of Funny Girl, Streisand’s every dream had come true – and still she wasn’t happy. Success had apparently left her more neurotic, mistrustful and hypersensitive to criticism than ever. Mann takes pains to explain why. Most revealing is something she said in 1964: “I’m not the underdog, the homely kid from Brooklyn they can root for anymore. I’m fair game.” Her old mentors may have had trouble sympathizing. Determined to take credit for everything, she had purged them from her resume and her life. Intimidation and control obsessed her; Mann’s last three chapters are rife with examples. “If she didn’t like ‘the colour of the rug,”’ he writes, “she’d become ‘affected,’ and so the colour had to be changed.” Streisand gained a title that excused even her worst behaviour: “perfectionist.”

Over time, she disowned the ruthless young striver of Hello, Gorgeous, just as surely as Bette Midler tried to exorcise her own early identity: that of the breast-shaking vulgarian who became den mother to a herd of newly liberated gays at the Continental Baths. Now 70 and about to go on tour, Streisand has aged into a queenly figure who receives her fans’ worship yet keeps them at a vast remove. Her onstage spontaneity is long gone. The Barbra legend, it seems, is a scary thing to live up to – making Hello, Gorgeous a cautionary tale about the high cost of getting what you wish for.

Her fans know all about that. In September when she gave a series of concerts in Brooklyn, official ticket prices went for up to $650. Fifty years after enduring so much rejection on her way to the top, Streisand is still making them pay.

 

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