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Becoming Barbra Streisand


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

It's a banner year for Barbra Streisand fans with a new album, Release Me, a rare concert tour, and with the upcoming comedy The Guilt Trip (due Christmas day) her first starring role in a movie in 16 years. Another reason for the fabled entertainer's acolytes to rejoice is Hello, Gorgeous ($30, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), William J. Mann's deliriously fascinating and intensively researched chronicle of Streisand's first four years in show business.

Mann, who has written definitive books about other LGBT icons including Katharine Hepburn and William Haines, secured access to previously-sealed private collections and rare interviews with many people close to Streisand during her meteoric, but well-orchestrated, rise to superstardom with the Broadway premiere of Funny Girl. Mann's book creates an indelible portrait of a vulnerable, but headstrong young woman with an unshakable belief in her own talent who within four years of pursuing her unlikely dream of a career in show business would have the world at her feet.

Out: Why did you decide to focus on just the first four years of Streisand's career?
William J. Mann: Because that is what interested me. To be honest, when we first started to put it together, we were going to go up to the Funny Girl film with her winning the Academy Award for best actress and saying, "Hello Gorgeous" to the Oscar. We were going to open with that moment, and then I just began getting so much material that I realized we'd have a 900 page book. I decided this book should just be the unknown girl becoming the famous girl.

In the acknowledgments you thank Barbra for not putting up any road blocks to prevent your writing the book. Who were some of the people who spoke to you who you didn't expect to agree to an interview?
There were a couple people who I didn't expect to talk to at all, but who were very forthcoming. They said they couldn't be on the record as they talked. So I was really surprised at those people who were willing to be as open and as thoughtful about some my questions as they were. I got Cis Corman [Streisand's longtime friend and business partner] on the phone and she was just so surprised I was calling. She said, "No, no, no, I never talk about this," which is fine. I totally understand that. I tried a couple of other people. I tried Marty [Erlichman, Streisand's longtime manager] and wrote him several times [saying] we could help each other here, that I'd be happy to share whatever I found.

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.

Barbra_with_gouldThis 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.

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.

Hello-cover-image_hresIt'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.

Streisand has always considered herself an actress first and a singer second. Why do you think she hasn't acted more?
Though she did prove the critics who said she could never be a leading lady wrong, she could've easily had a career as the leading ladies' wisecracking best friend and would've had more work that way. I would've been interested to see her try to play Juliet, which she always felt she could, or maybe Cleopatra. But I think her personally was so large and it was probably hard to imagine her playing a wide variety of parts even though she believed she could.

What do you consider the quintessential Streisand performance?
It's hard for me to say, since you know I wasn't a fan. I've seen just about everything, I only went back and re-listened and re-watched upon until the end of the '60s. Cause as I said in the beginning, this book is going to cover the television shows and everything. I've seen Color me Barbra and My Name is Barbra [two of Streisand's television specials] numbers of times. Color Me Barbra is so magnetic. In terms of film, Funny Girl really stands the test of time, since it is not about Fanny Brice, it is about a strange creature called Barbra Streisand. I just think that it's so iconic and so compelling, you can't look away. I like Up The Sandbox, and, I can't help it, I'm sappy, I love The Way We Were. I loved that movie so much, and I had a crush on Robert Redford. So I'm still very drawn to that too.

When people tell me they don't get Barbra Streisand, I force them to watch What's Up, Doc?
That's another one. She looks beautiful and she's fun. That period was such a great time in American filmmaking because the fact that someone like Barbra Streisand would be such a big box office draw was just phenomenal.

She's said that she can look at the first page of a biography and tell if the writer has done his research. Has there been any response from her people?
No, nothing. The New York Daily New excerpted it, and of course it was the scene where she finds Barry with another man. They took the one sensational moment out of the book and did that. I have not heard nothing from her, but when a couple Barbra websites tried to promote the book, they got calls from Marty Erlichman, who said it's not an authorized book and to take it down. Even though the websites aren't authorized, I can understand they might be frozen out from press releases and things like that. I didn't blame them for doing that. Though I think it was interesting that even though the book's generally sympathetic treatment of her, there was that kind of reaction. She didn't close any doors for me, but I'm not surprised by the fact that there is a "no finger will be lifted to help the book" either.

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