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.

I think Streisand die-hards will appreciate that you haven’t done a hatchet job on her. In your book she emerges as this young woman who is brimming with confidence and an unshakeable belief in her own talent. Even though she tends to move on from people who aren't useful to her she doesn't come across as an egocentric bitch like in some other bios. How did you reconcile all this?
She's very self-centered in many ways. Several people told me that when she was young and just starting out, she would never go to a show to just have fun. She would go to a movie to have fun, but would never just watch someone else sing. That wasn't her fun because she was only interested in her own career. And it wasn't so much jealousy. It was just time wasted, in some ways.

She was defiantly very self-centered, but she was never conceited and she wasn't arrogant. She was demanding, but didn't have a mean bone in her body either. That's what came through to me—that she never carried grudges, she didn't say, “Oh, I want to screw that one over.”

She would get angry at people, but there was nothing vengeful about it, and I don't think so even today. And when you understand her story, growing up and being told by everyone around her, including her mother, that you aren't special enough. And if you get those message when you are very young, you have two choices: You can accept them and feel bad about yourself or you can say, “No, I reject that and I'm going to be great.” Barbra chose the second one. So when you understand that, she's spent her life proving herself, proving that she mattered and I think that becomes a more sympathetic way to see her than some of these biographies [which show] she's so ambitious and grasping. Yeah she was very ambitious, but it wasn't in a mean-spirited way.

It's a very objective portrait and her vulnerability really comes through in your book.
Good, thank you. I wanted it to since that is how I viewed her.

What are some of the myths and bullshit that you had to sort through to get to the truth about her?
Well, part of it is what we were just talking about, that she's just a calculating bitch and she doesn't care about other people and it was just always her, her, her. But the other thing I found that I thought was interesting was the way that she and Marty and all the rest of them shaped the legend for so long so it seemed she just walked into all of these nightclubs or walked into audition for I Can Get It For You Wholesale and just kind of, she didn't care, she threw off her coat, she sang, and they ask her to sing again and, 'Oh I'm too busy, see you later'.

The image was, they wanted to make it seem as her talent was so great, everyone just kind of flocked to her unbidden. And what that leaves out is behind-the-scenes story of all the publicity campaigns and the creation of the “kook,” which was part Barbra and part exaggerated, and really designed to get her that part in Funny Girl and to get her invited back on the PM East or the Tonight Show, or whatever show she was appearing on. She had to sell herself which a legend would never want to admit since in some ways imply that the talent [isn't in] itself. But clearly they had to do both.

Tags: Art & Books
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