“My Name Is Barbra,” Reviewed: Streisand’s Mother of All Memoirs

Seventy years ago, before she was galactically famous, before she dropped an “a” from her first name, before she was a Broadway ingénue, before her nose bump was aspirational, before she changed the way people hear the word “butter,” before she was a macher or a mogul or a decorated matron of the arts, Barbra Streisand was, by her own admission, “very annoying to be around.” She was born impatient and convinced of her potential—the basic ingredients of celebrity, and of an exquisitely obnoxious child. When Streisand was growing up in Brooklyn, in the nineteen-forties, she used to crawl onto the fire escape of her shabby apartment building and conduct philosophical debates with her best friend, Rosyln Arenstein, who was a staunch atheist. One day, Streisand told Arenstein that she was going to prove the existence of God. She pointed at a man on the street and said that, if she prayed hard enough, he would step off the curb. Within seconds, he obliged. “I had two thoughts at that moment,” Streisand writes in her hulking new memoir, “My Name Is Barbra” (Viking). “One: Whew, that was lucky! And two: There is a God, and I just got Him to do what I wanted by praying. I guess that’s when I began to believe in the power of the will.”

Streisand was always willful. She was not always lucky. Her father, a gentle academic named Emanuel, died from seizure complications when she was a year old. Her mother, Diana, could be cruel and strangely absent, particularly after she married Louis Kind, a man who seemed to resent Streisand’s existence. “I was like a wild child, a kind of animal,” Streisand writes. “There was no routine and no rules.” She shoplifted and stole Kind’s cigarettes, which she smoked on the roof. She developed chronic tinnitus, possibly because of stress, and kept the ringing in her ears a secret for years. “I long for silence,” she writes. But, despite these challenges, Streisand also knew that she was in possession of something rare. She could sing, naturally and effortlessly, with a broad, sunny tone and cataract force. Streisand took exactly one singing lesson and never learned how to read music. She simply accepted herself as gifted, with the same conviction that made her believe she could speak to God.

Because Streisand’s instrument was innate, she also found it rather boring. She joined the Choral Club at Erasmus Hall High School, in Flatbush, but what she really wanted to be was an actress. She would often go to the Astor Theatre, next door to Erasmus, to watch films by Akira Kurosawa, and to the Kings Theatre to see melodramas starring Deborah Kerr and Marlon Brando. (The great motif of this book, besides fame, is snacks, and Streisand is particularly nostalgic about Good & Plenty candy, which she likens to “eating jewelry” in the theatre.) In English class, she produced book reports on Stanislavsky’s “My Life in Art” and “An Actor Prepares.” She also got a job at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where she watched a production of the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s “Purple Dust.” She learned a lead role and proclaimed herself an understudy—though nobody had asked her to do this—and would greet the stagehands with “Top o’ the mornin’ to you, boys!” in an Irish accent. (“Again,” she writes, “annoying to be around.”)

Streisand was obsessed with acting because she saw it as a form that allowed for spontaneity and change. She was dismayed to learn, in a class that she took at fourteen, about the concept of blocking, in which an actor is expected to repeat her motions every time she runs through a scene. “You mean you have to move in exactly the same way, to the same spots?” she asked her teacher. “Why?” (Soon after, she quit the class.) Throughout her career, she balked at the idea that self-expression should be stable or reproducible. One reason that Streisand leaned into her musical prowess—she graduated high school at sixteen, moved to Manhattan, and soon started performing in a gay bar and a night club—was that concert audiences loved her elasticity. To this day, she prefers to sing a song differently each time.

The great paradox of Streisand’s career, then, is that as a person she has been nearly impervious to change. “No matter who you are,” she writes, “you can only eat one pastrami sandwich at a time.” Her point is that fame is a “hollow trophy”; she still thinks of herself, at eighty-one, as the “skinny marink” from Brooklyn. This assertion is tough to take from a woman who could, if she wanted, have every pastrami sandwich in New York delivered to her Malibu estate on a private jet, but I’m inclined to believe her. Streisand has spent her career, which spans fifty-plus albums, more than a dozen movies in starring roles, three films as a director, and a bushel of awards (an honorary EGOT, along with three Peabodys, eleven Golden Globes, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom), trying to protect the person she always was: a girl who, somehow, knew how to trust herself.

Trust is a big theme in “My Name Is Barbra,” and perhaps its reason for existing. Streisand didn’t want to write this book, she insists in the introduction. She’s really a very private person. She would far prefer to spend her retirement—she’s done performing, she swears—eating coffee ice cream with her husband and snuggling with her three dogs (two of whom, her fans know, are clones of her late Coton de Tulear, Sammie). But, after decades of being in the public eye, she writes, there’s so much untruth about her, and she can’t trust anyone else to correct it. In the book’s first pages, she tells a story about having dinner with her “dear friend,” the cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, who says that he was out with a doctor friend who’d heard that Streisand was “a bitch.” When Bartkowiak told his friend that no, “in fact, she’s a very nice person,” the friend was unfazed. “No she isn’t,” the doctor argued. “She’s a bitch. I read it in a magazine.” “That’s the power of the printed word,” Streisand concludes, which is both an excellent punch line and a surprisingly succinct explanation for the next thousand pages.

“My Name Is Barbra” is, to be precise, nine hundred and ninety-two pages long. Streisand will have not only the last word; she will have the most words, and also the most true ones. “I’ve seen how strongly people are moved by the truth when they recognize it in a performance,” she writes. “There’s no place for lies in art.” As an exercise in exhausting, ecstatic performance, the book is undeniably moving—it does not, even for a moment, read as false. One of the many rumors surrounding its creation was that Streisand, unlike most celebrities of her stature, refused to use a ghostwriter. Her editor at Viking, Rick Kot, confirmed this to me, saying that Streisand—who often writes in longhand, in soft pencil—produced every word. (She did, however, consult her personal archivist to help jog her memories.)

Streisand’s chatty, discursive presence hums on every page. She’s especially fond of ellipses and parentheticals, which give her the freedom to plow ahead with abandon and the permission to scoop up stray details as she remembers them. Take this passage from about a third of the way through the book, about an encounter with Marlon Brando:

I remember him telling me about a room he was once in with a woman, and how the sheer white curtains were softly billowing in the breeze as they made love. That’s the kind of sense memory you can use as an actor . . . just think of those curtains, and all the feelings of that moment come back to you. He told me that he never really got along with Anna Magnani when they were making The Fugitive Kind. I couldn’t believe it. I thought she was so extraordinary as an actress, and assumed he would adore her. Apparently she was attracted to him (and I could understand why) but he wasn’t attracted to her.

About three hours into the conversation, he looked into my eyes and said, “I’d like to fuck you.”

I was taken aback. “That sounds awful,” I said.

After a moment of thought, he said, “Okay. Then I’d like to go to a museum with you.”

“Now that’s very romantic. I’d like that.” He’d hit on a fantasy of mine . . . to walk through a museum with someone I was very attracted to and look at great art . . . exploring it together.

Frankly, I find this riveting, partly because of the danger in the prose. Streisand often seems just about to swerve into nonsense, then steers herself back to the point. For fans of her music, this is familiar terrain. What makes Streisand one of the greatest song interpreters of all time is her essential unpredictability. She never thinks her way through a song; instead, she acts her way home, note by note, half step by half step, as if feeling her way out of a cave with those long, gleaming-beige fingernails.

Streisand’s most recent album, “Live at the Bon Soir,” from 2022, is technically her fifty-seventh, though it was meant to be her first. She recorded it during three consecutive nights in November, 1962, when she was just twenty years old and still living in a railroad apartment above a fried-fish restaurant on Third Avenue. The idea was to capture the garrulous energy of Streisand’s cabaret act, which was one of the hottest tickets in town. Streisand had started performing at the Bon Soir, a piano bar in Greenwich Village, in 1960. Her repertoire, entirely self-selected, included both a flamboyant rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” in which she would huff and puff and bring the house down, and the Depression-era standard “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which she slowed from an up-tempo ditty to a poignant dirge. By the spring of 1962, the bar was paying her twenty-five hundred dollars—or twenty-five thousand today—for a two-week residency.

At first, Streisand sang at the Bon Soir because she couldn’t find work as an actress. But, even after she booked her first Broadway role at nineteen, as a put-upon secretary in the musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” she kept moonlighting at the club. The Bon Soir was her turf, the place where she could have full creative power—a striking contrast, she writes, to her experience in “Wholesale.” During rehearsals for that show, she fought regularly with the director, Arthur Laurents, who believed Streisand to be punky and “undisciplined.” (During her audition, she stuck chewing gum on the bottom of her chair while she sang.) The two argued endlessly about Streisand’s big number, “Miss Marmelstein.” She wanted to sing it in a rolling chair, pushing herself around the stage with her toes. Laurents hated the idea. The song fell flat during tryouts, and Streisand kept pleading. “I had tried my best to do it Arthur’s way,” she writes. “But I’ve never been good at faking. It had to be real for me in some way. And it wasn’t.” Finally, she writes, Laurents relented. Streisand killed it—standing ovation. She thought Laurents would be pleased, but, the next day, he screamed at her in front of the cast until she cried. In that moment, she writes, she learned that her intuition would always be threatening to those who wanted to control it: “That’s the way it is going to be for me. I will do that to people. I will make them angry.

Streisand’s chutzpah is part of her lore—she’s the girl who sassed back, “a street kid who was not going to take any shit.” But, inside the Bon Soir, she radiated a softer, stranger presence, which even then felt out of step with the times. The early sixties were all about doo-wop and surf rock; Streisand liked quirky show tunes, children’s playground songs, and schmaltzy jazz standards. When everyone else was wearing boxy suits and geometric dresses, Streisand showed up to her sets in flouncy, quaint ensembles that she’d extracted from thrift stores. (She liked to collect Victorian blouses and flapper shoes.) When putting her set together, she thought about the three-act structure, comic timing. During one of her signature songs, Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” about a girl holding an insect in her palm and pining for love, Streisand began in falsetto: no vibrato, choir-boy pure. As the song went on, she brought musculature to her tone, flipping between her head voice and her chest voice, building to a full-on belt. “I liked it because it was a song you could act,” she writes. “It told a story. Emotionally, you could go from A to B to C, and that intrigued me.”

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