Meta Barbra

By Alexander C. KafkaApril 22, 2016

Meta Barbra

Barbra Streisand by Neal Gabler


Past the art patron and design maven. Past the political activist, donor, and fundraiser. Past the amusingly cartoonish Guilt Tripper and mother Focker. Past the luxe-arena diva, Glee’s Rachel Berry adulation-emulation, and the “buttah” tongued SNL Streisand Golem. Past the manipulative wiles of Mirror. Past the crazed (or is she?) patient of Nuts and the earnest therapist of Tides. Past the tour de force soul search Yentl. Past the event-picture buzz of The Way We Were. Past the wry Owl and the Pussycat and screwball Whats Up, Doc? Past the cordially kooky ’60s and ’70s TV talk and variety show engine. Past the forced Funny Lady and the breakout Funny Girl.

Now slow down. Past the careful My Name Is and People cabaret commodification. Easy now.

Yeah, here. Stop here. 1963.

The Barbra Streisand Album. What a weird, wonderful thing that is. Have you listened to it in a while? Have you ever? It’ll tell you a lot. About how awkward and ostensibly ugly can flip inside out into graceful and beautiful. About how the cabaret intimate is faithfully transmitted through the vinyl universal. About how the ambitious actress and singular singer intertwine in alternately symbiotic and self-sabotaging ways. About how the self-consciously Other becomes Art Object. And about why people tend to love Barbra Streisand or hate her or both at the same time depending on the day and the project and the era and the mood.

Because she forces you to. Never mind the silky smooth, polished Back to Broadway icon of 1993. The album of three decades before, colorfully and quirkily arranged by Peter Matz, has Streisand on her first LP outing, demonstrating her versatility: the bitter “Cry Me a River,” the novel “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” the moony-eyed “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” the delirious “Much More,” the dreamy but wary “A Sleepin’ Bee,” the anxious “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and so on. In a manner already slightly tapered and smoothed even by The Second Barbra Streisand Album, released the same year, she sacrifices an inch of accuracy for a yard of affect. She inhales between phrases so desperately the song’s a sport. The payoff is huge, but so is the risk. Because she’s not performing for you. She’s in a codependent relationship with you; it’s all about her, but it’s not pure narcissism because it’s all about you too. With an enunciation that veers between Brooklyn and high tea, she urges you to console her, flatter her, love her, revile her, pity her, rein her in, let her loose. You become, from one second to the next, part of the act, whether you like it or not. Some people thrill to that. Others recoil.

But anyway, how’d it happen? Why’d she need it? Why did we? How did it become so powerful? How did it charm and enrage so many? And how did it, over half a century, dramatically influence what it means to be Jewish, to be a woman, to be an entertainer, to be beautiful?

Those are the questions Neal Gabler seeks to answer in his trim, insightful Streisand meta-biography. And if Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Emmy, Peabody, and the rest of the polished, postured gang haven’t already persuaded you that she’s had the enormous influence Gabler claims, his careful reading of her career will. In the celebrity and showbiz minutiae that understandably populate full-length Streisand bios, what may get lost is how Streisand turned her liabilities as a woman at the time — her middle-class, Brooklyn-Jewish mannerisms, speech, and looks; her kooky and sometimes volatile temperament; her brazen cultural and business ambitions — into assets through sheer talent and force of will. That and a sense of how Streisand’s career trajectory was foreshadowed even in her earliest Village gigs are the value added in Gabler’s clever decoding.

More often than not, Gabler’s the guy buried chin deep in the archives fleshing out the intricate details of golden era movie moguls, Disney, or Winchell. But he’s experienced too in the panoramic view, having written, in Life: The Movie, about how we’ve pounded reality into a flat, formulaic reel of entertainment diversion. In this Streisand study, Gabler as biographer and as cultural analyst complement each other in describing how a life and a society catalyzed each other in astonishing ways. He weaves this big-picture interpretation from the travails of journalists and biographers before him: Lawrence Grobel, Tom Santopietro, James Spada, and many others. Gabler didn’t talk to Streisand for the book. Part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, which refracts rather than reveals its subjects, this is a savvy dossier, a “book-length biographical essay,” Gabler calls it, not a salacious spill all.

To state the obvious, if Streisand weren’t incredibly talented, the personality, in or out of scare quotes, would not have mattered much. She had a voice that classical pianist Glenn Gould called “one of the natural wonders of the age” and that composer and producer Quincy Jones called a “Stradivarius.”

There were bitter psychic wounds, though. She was discouraged by her mother from pursuing show business because she was too ugly — an assessment confirmed in too many auditions in which she was passed over. There was also yearning. Yearning for a reputed and perhaps dimly recalled doting dad who died when she was a baby, replaced by an abusive, calculating stepfather; for a home where beatings from her grandfather weren’t a threat and where there were toys more engaging than the hot-water bottle she treated as a doll; for friends who wouldn’t make fun of her scrawny physique, her slightly crossed eyes, or her nose; for a confidant who would see through her defensive standoffishness; for a lover who would want her as a woman and not as an art project, fashion experiment, or status symbol.

Fold the hurt and longing into the talent and the result was a beguiling chanteuse of French regret (remember Je mappelle Barbra, 1966?) laced with Yankee savvy.

Yes, it seems ludicrous in hindsight that her looks, her grace, and that voice could be seen as anything but extraordinary. But that’s the point. That’s what half a century of awakenings, restylings, repackaging, and reconsideration can do for (and to) a Brooklyn gal. And as Gabler explores, we witnessed those makeovers and participated in those reconsiderations; we saw and read Streisand herself, in scores of TV appearances and magazine interviews, explaining and reacting to them. There was this feedback loop of expectations and revelations, as though we were all part of a natural experiment, which only reinforced further the codependency between artist and audience inherent in her artistic approach.

We cycled with her, in her life and/or her art, through her periods as vulnerable Village cabaret oddball, breakout Broadway baby, peppery comedienne, Jewish girl next door, earthy counterpart to preppy matinee idols (Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal), Semitic butterfly fluttering around reckless, wild men (think Peters, Kris Kristofferson), salve to tortured artists (think Nick Nolte), lover in waiting to befuddled Jeff Bridges. Then there she was, reaching back to her Brooklyn yeshiva roots, the flame in an Orthodox love triangle (Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving). And so on.

Each transformation — hey, she’s sexy now; hey, she’s scholarly now; hey, she’s somber and astute now; hey, she’s pious now; hey, she’s a comedic crackpot now; hey, she’s androgynous now; hey, she’s a producer and director now! — dared us to believe. To re-believe. As we might, to a lesser extent, with any actor. She was, as always, nothing without us. We were far less without her. Asked to commit again and again, we did, gladly, and often at damned hefty ticket prices too ($1,500, please, for that 2012 Barclays Center concert, and, oh yeah, there’s a $75 service fee with that).

It was passionate and maddening, because it was never enough. It never could be. That’s the nature of childhood trauma beamed endlessly back at a complicit and fascinated world. That’s why she was the un-Sinatra. He was the cool commentator on his own cordially dissolute past. She was the red-hot agitator trapped in her neurotically striving, frantically seeking present.

What about Streisand’s talismanic status as secular saint to gays, Jews, and other odd ducks aspiring to American swanhood? Streisand as icon, Gabler explains, wasn’t retroactive to her success but integral to it from her earliest Village club appearances. Her early trio of mentors — fashion designer Terry Leong, actor Barry Dennen, and illustrator Bob Schulenberg — were all gay (though Dennen was closeted at the time), and were, according to Gabler:

attracted to Barbra both for her sense of estrangement and for her willingness to be outré. In a way, Barbra became their Galatea: Leong for fashion, Schulenberg for makeup, and Dennen for general taste. But she was also, as she would later be for her audiences, a vicarious vessel for their challenge to society. Barbra was their “point girl” — the spear that kept attacking and that couldn’t be blunted.

She was bizarrely and frighteningly dismissive of her singing talents and only wanted to act. But she warmed to suggestions, like Dennen’s, to weave the strands together, to think of a song like Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” as “a three-act play — moving from a young girl experiencing love for the first time […] to a middle-aged woman reminiscing to her daughter about that first love […] to a grandmother sharing the secrets of love with her granddaughter.”

At the same time, this fashioning of Streisand wouldn’t have worked had she not already been, in the words of photographer and designer Cecil Beaton, “a self-willed creation.” By the time the 18-year-old sang in a talent show at the Lion, she was, Gabler writes, “already formed.” She performed “in a purple ostrich-feathered boudoir jacket over a dress of lilac and purple that Leong had found in a thrift shop — a variation on the strangeness she had cultivated in high school.” When she finished, “there was ‘utter silence,’” Dennen recalled. “And then suddenly the whole room crashed into applause, an eruption of yells and whistles, ear-shattering stomping and screaming.”

Within a few weeks, people lined up outside the club to see her. Streisand — this adolescent starving for everything but talent and determination — was already a legend.


Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland.

LARB Contributor

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland. A senior editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he previously worked as a reporter and editor for Newsday and other newspapers, and as senior press officer for the Brookings Institution. He has written about books and the arts for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, The Chicago Tribune, DC Theatre Scene, Oxford American, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He has also written three screenplays — Specimen Days, Dali, and Contents Under Pressure — and adapted Specimen Days, about the later years of Walt Whitman, for the stage.


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