Review of ‘Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand’ by William J. Mann

  • Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 1:28 a.m.

“Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” by William J. Mann; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($30)

Among the more startling revelations in William J. Mann’s engrossing chronicle of Barbra Streisand’s ascent to superstardom emerges in one of the book’s photos. It’s a childhood picture showing Streisand, as its caption notes, “with friends outside their Brooklyn tenements.” It doesn’t say how old she is, but it doesn’t matter. She’s already carrying the face that millions would soon recognize as belonging to no one but her. And her expression, as she leans on a bicycle, is a mesmerizing blend of self-possession and pugnacity that all but says aloud, “Whether you like me or not, I am going to rule your world. So why don’t you just save us both some time and get out of my way already.”

What startles about this photo isn’t just Streisand’s precocious magnetism, but how much at odds it seems with Mann’s portrait of a smart, sensitive young girl who was anything but completely self-assured, even in the years to come, when her conquests were within her grasp. And yet, as made clear throughout “Hello, Gorgeous,” Streisand managed to use all the things that made her seem nervous, ungainly, abrasive and unconventional as assets in her meteoric rise to the top. It was a willful act of self-invention, as unlikely as any in show-business history.

The title of “Hello, Gorgeous” is taken from Streisand’s opening line in “Funny Girl,” the 1964 Broadway musical whose tumultuous production and galvanic success make up the book’s climax. Its narrative begins four years earlier as a 17-year-old Barbara Joan Streisand – it’ll be a little while before she drops that second “a” in her first name – is taking acting lessons in Manhattan, which, despite its relative proximity to Brooklyn, seems to her light-years from her mother Diana’s apartment where, “even when nothing was cooking on the stove, the place reeked of kale,” Mann writes. Diana, carrying thwarted dreams of singing opera, had a strained, somewhat distant relationship with her eldest daughter, who “never wanted advice, Diana felt, only approval.” She was the first of many skeptics who doubted that slender, brash Barbara Joan had what it took to become a successful actress.

And it was as an actress, not a singer, that Streisand wanted to be taken seriously, despite her prodigal gifts as a vocalist. (“She could speak at length about Chekhov and Shakespeare and “Euripides,” Mann writes. “But about music she was largely ignorant, except for some classical works and pop singer Joni James.”) A young actor named Barry Dennen, who became her first lover despite his preference for men, encouraged her to see the art of singing as yet another means of dramatic storytelling. She starts collecting prizes in singing contests, club gigs and, by the summer of 1960, has dropped that aforementioned “a” to become “the only Barbra in the world.”

Through interviews with Dennen and such friends of Streisand’s from those early 1960s years as the late comedian Phyllis Diller, vocalist (and “Funny Girl” understudy) Lainie Kazan and actress Kaye Ballard, Mann assembles an origin story that is vividly detailed, yet judicious in tone, even when he recounts the rapture audiences felt upon first contact with that “euphonious voice.” (Streisand herself didn’t cooperate with Mann, but he thanks her “for not throwing up any roadblocks.”)

Mann’s reporting adds much to what’s already known about her early appearances on television, including her rambling, sometimes acrimonious run-ins with Mike Wallace on his local New York talk show as well as her noteworthy guest shots on the Judy Garland and Garry Moore variety shows (where she first reinvented the old New Deal rouser, “Happy Days Are Here Again” as a bittersweet mood piece).

The other high spots are thoroughly covered: Her showstopping turn in 1962’s “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” whose star Elliott Gould would become her first husband; her groundbreaking Columbia albums; and the rocky road to “Funny Girl,” where she faced down the skeptics (at times, herself included) who doubted she could triumph.

It helped to have a team of publicists and marketers willing to sell Streisand as “uniquely self-made”– in other words, by letting Barbra be Barbra, unfurling her carefully calculated eccentricities and self-deprecating bravado. (“If I’d known the place was going to be so crowded,” she told a glittering Hollywood nightclub audience, “I’d have had my nose fixed.”) All of which could have only happened in the 1960s, when everything seemed possible, and even a kid from Brooklyn could rise to rule her world before she’d turned 23.

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