Becoming Barbra Streisand

10.16.2012

By Jeremy Kinser

Biographer William J. Mann discusses the early years of a young girl from Brooklyn who would become the world’s greatest star.

They’re obviously very protective of her. She’s been burned so many times by reporters and previous biographers.
I get it. They’ve spent years promoting this brand and they want to have a certain ownership of it. To share that with someone else would be difficult. It’s fine. I never expected to talk to her or some of the people up close. But getting so many people from the early days goes back to the earlier question about why just focus on those first five years. Because so many of the people I spoke to didn't go on to achieve fame like she did, they were a little more free to talk.

This is the most richly-detailed book I have ever read about her. You even describe the weather on any given day. Did you actually visit all the places she performed?
I did. I think it is kind of important. When she was walking around carrying that cot, I wondered if it was raining. Looking up newspaper forecasts and knowing what it was like on the night Elliot [Gould, Streisand’s first husband] first snuck up to her room and stuff like that was important. What I wanted to do was recreate the time.

I really wanted it to be as if the reader was right there, because all my books are always about context. I think with proper context you understand Barbra or whomever I'm writing about better.

This shouldn’t be surprising, but I can’t recall reading in such detail that it was primarily three gay men [Barry Dennen, Terry Leong, and Bob Schulenberg] who helped her become famous so quickly. Nutshell how each of these men helped her become a star.
Barry kind of took over and helped shape her style and sound, and her stage persona. He introduced her to Mabel Mercer, played Billie Holiday and Judy Garland records for her and so many others. Bob took over in terms of the look, the kind of hair, the makeup, and also to a certain extent the clothes. Terry was her first kind of clothing/costume advisor and would come up with all these great ideas of what she should wear. He introduced her to the whole thrift shop world.

Terry's widower told me that when Terry first started taking Barbra around, she didn't know anything about clothes or fashion designers, but eventually she became very knowledgeable about fashion, and by the end of this book she is being asked by all these great designers to be their model.

Gay men responded to her immediately, but it was not like it is today with Madonna and Lady Gaga stumping for gay rights. Why did gay men identify with her so strongly from the beginning?
Well, it is hard to say exactly. I interviewed so many of the guys who would go to those early shows at the Lion or the Bon Soir, and what I got was there was this sense that she was an outsider, because of her looks, because of her strong Jewish identity, trying to make it in a elegant white bread world. And she seemed to know about heartbreak, even thought at that point she really hadn't had her heart broken in the early days, with Barry she certainly did. And they always kind of rooted for the underdog.

I remember one of them saying when she came out he thought, Oh this girl, she's never gonna make it. She looked like a schlep on the stage. He said, “We loved her even before she started to sing because we thought 'take care of this one' and who's to say. Her stage persona and her look were shaped by gay men. She was almost kind of ready made for gay men to like. Her first triumph was winning that contest in a gay bar.

I wonder if her songs choices were also somewhat responsible because they were often so melodramatic and she brought such emotion to the lyrics.
Absolutely, absolutely. Barry would go over the song choices they'd pick and he'd say “You know with this one she was thinking this” or “I told her to think about this, and project this kind of image and this one.” They were either outrageously campy songs like “Who's Afraid of Big Bad Wolf?” and there was another one that was about someone who's lost a love and doesn't know she will ever find love again. So there was that kind of dramatic, campy quality with some of them, but also real emotional, heart wrenching, 'will I ever find my place in the world' kind of songs.

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