Hello, Gorgeous -- Becoming Barbra Streisand: An Unauthorized Biography of the Early Years, by William J. Mann
I thought that I knew most highlights of Barbra Streisand's life and career, but after reading William J. Mann's new biography, Hello, Gorgeous -- Becoming Barbra Streisand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I realized that I knew almost nothing of the inner events of those early years except what I had personally observed and read. Mann, the author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, and a work on Elizabeth Taylor, has done a remarkable job of exhuming every single detail (yes, every one) of the years from the winter of 1960 to the spring of 1964, from when the frail young 17-year old girl (with teen-age acne) came from working at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn to sleeping on friends' couches in Manhattan while auditioning for acting jobs, to reaching the pinnacle of fame and success four years later with the opening of Funny Girl.
He has exhaustingly tracked down everyone who knew her then, when she was still Barbra, reading every article, column mention and collection of letters and memoirs in every archive, including the private diaries of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. He pieced together an astonishing account of the girl whose fierce drive for success, and accompanying earthshaking talent, achieved it all... but not without paying an enduring price herself and to the people around her.
Barbra at 17 when she first came to Manhattan. Photo courtesy of publisher.
My Huffington readers may recall that I first met Barbra in the summer of 1963 when my best friend at the time, a lawyer-turned-business manager named Marty Bregman, brought her to my apartment/office at 50 Central Park West (at 65th street) to show her what apartments in that building looked like.
"Elliott (Gould) and I are living in a tiny walk-up on Third Avenue over a fish restaurant," she told me. "I want to move to a nicer place here on the west side." We chatted about both being brought up in Brooklyn, and she told me she had graduated from Erasmus High while I mentioned Midwood High, a basketball rival a mile away. I told her that Marty and I had seen her on opening night at the Bon Soir night club a year or so ago. She subsequently rented a duplex up the avenue at the Alden on 96th street. The last time I personally talked to Barbra was about a year ago, at a small screening, when she said that the film which I had produced with the Kopelsons, Night of the Juggler, starring her husband, James Brolin, was "the best film he had ever done." Last night I spent an hour or more on YouTube watching video clips of her recent concerts at Brooklyn's new Barclay Center, especially those depicting her duet with her son Jason Gould.
Barbra duets with son Jason in Las Vegas last weekend. Photo courtesy of Kathy Hao.
Barbra and Elliott Gould on their way to Emmys in 1962. Photo courtesy of the publisher.
The opening chapters of the book depict her behind-the-scenes relationship with several gay and bi guys who were instrumental in taking the unusual-looking waif with no money and connections and making her into a 'kooky' character with a distinct look and appeal. She would go on in four short years to becoming the nation's top-selling female recording artist and the star of one of Broadway's biggest hits, while disassociating herself from these same guys, Barry and Bob, who helped bring her there (one of whom, Barry, was her also her first lover). Her twisted relationship with her mother, Diana, is explored in depth... from bringing her daughter chicken soup to the Village so she would have something to eat, to the pride she took in her daughter's Broadway success but was never able to express to her.
The book details how Funny Girl was slowly altered by Fosse and Robbins from a Fanny Brice bio into a star-making vehicle for Streisand. It just so happens that the genius lyricist for that show, Bob Merrill, some 15 years later wrote my Universal film, W.C. Fields & Me (Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine) and my Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett). He became my closest buddy until his untimely death and often discussed those troubling days when the show was being formulated, admitting that he was a fierce critic of Barbra until it opened. He once said that she tried to cut the two best songs, "People" and "Don't Rain On My Parade," just days before the opening. Bob and composer Jule Styne fortunately stood firm. I was in business on a film project years later with the show's producer, Ray Stark, who loved Asian food and women in equal measure.
Barbra gets Pres. Kennedy's autograph after singing at event in 1963. Photo courtesy of the publisher.
Barbra sings with Judy Garland on latter's TV show in 1963. Photo courtesy of the publisher.
Barbra with Funny Girl co-star (and secret lover) Sydney Chaplin during rehearsals. Photo courtesy of the publisher.
In his introduction, Mann says:
If Streisand has ever been afraid of anything, I suspect it has been the burden of living up to that sexy, vulnerable, sensational younger self who gate-crahsed her way to fame during the turbulent 1960s, defying old definitions of talent, beauty, and success by harnessing an extraordinary confluence of talent, hard work and shrewd salesmanship.
The author takes us into her early nightclub gigs at the Bon Soir, where she opened for Phyllis Diller on Sept. 9, 1960 wearing a pair of 35 cent shoes. He details her first trip to Hollywood, and an accurate depiction of her secret love affair with co-star Sydney Chaplin during the rehearsals of Funny Girl (they were both married to others). We learn of the television appearance with the aging Judy Garland, both singing "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," and we meet the canny marketing team which helped bring the uber-talented client to the heights of stardom. Her press agent, Lee Solters, was my first boss... at $25 a week.
Her long-time manager, Marty Erlichman, lived right next door to me for years on Hutton Drive off Benedict Canyon, so we became casual friends. Her powerful agents, Freddie Fields and David Begelman, were entwined with my life for many years. I marked the book where Barbra gives a famous interview to The Saturday Evening Post (remember that magazine?) and said, "They tell me that I'll win everything eventually... the Emmy for TV, the Grammy for records, the Tony on Broadway, and the Oscar for movies... and I guess a lot of those things will happen to me. I kind of feel they will." And they did. When it came to forecasting her career, the funny girl had it right. At 22, she was on the covers of TIME and LIFE in the same week.
Barbra with Funny Girl's songwriters Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Photo courtesy of the publisher
I was struck by one thing reading this tome: Despite her unquestioned tough-skinned drive to achieve unparalled fame, she was surprisingly vulnerable in love. I see Elliott Gould around town a lot these days, and he seems relaxed and happy with life. But herein we see in detail the young, gangly actor who co-starred with Barbra in her first Broadway vehicle, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and won her heart. Nice guy out of his depth with a force of nature. After their split, he went on to stardom with Mash and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The book ends with a chapter recounting her successes after Funny Girl, from Yentl to The Way We Were. In 1996, at a dinner party thrown by songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman, she met my friend, James Brolin, and two years later they married. Brolin, a truly terrific and laid-back guy, seems to have helped make today's 70-year-old woman into a more relaxed and contemplative person.
Barbra was triumphant when Funny Girl opened on Broadway. Photo courtesy of the publisher.
This remarkable book details for the first time when the newness and difference of Barbra Streisand changed everything and rewrote all the rules. We see illuminated the youngster-cum-woman turned, finally, into icon. It pays tribute to one of the world's most beloved performers, and I strongly suggest you go to Amazon and order a copy. You will stay up all night as I did reading it with fascination and a growing understanding of what it took to make her a star.
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