How do you begin to explain to a generation downloading the likes of Swedish House Mafia, Rihanna, and the Dead Hormones why Barbra Streisand still matters? It's a tough job, but author William J. Mann rises to the challenge admirably with his new book, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand. It's not a traditional full-length biography, but instead an engaging chronicle of Streisand's meteoric rise during her first four years in show business. Hello, Gorgeous explores how the poor but resourceful girl from Brooklyn made the quantum leap from playing a moth in an off-Broadway playlet to headlining her own Broadway musical, Funny Girl, which often seemed to deliberately mirror Streisand's own Cinderella story. On the way up, she was advised to change her look, drop her "cockamamie songs," and shed her "angry woman attitude," but her success was as much a testament to her talent as it was to remaining true to herself.
In the early '60s, Streisand—unusually gifted, fiercely ambitious, and barely out of her teens—was regularly captivating audiences in Greenwich Village nightclubs like the Blue Angel and the Bon Soir. In these "little joints," as Streisand called them, she would apply her crystalline voice to such far out selections as Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking)" and "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf?"
While Streisand considered singing in supper clubs "a floozy job," it was in venues like this that the newcomer not only assembled her offbeat repertoire, but pieced together the carefully crafted part beatnik, part princess persona that would win her almost as much attention as her way with a song. The alluring combination of elegance and earthiness would impress even the most seasoned show business veterans, who marveled at Streisand's ability to be soulful one moment, wringing all of the pathos out of Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee," and outlandish the next, breaking up her audiences with an off the wall Latvian folk song concerning a Tahitian girl with an especially fortuitous astigmatism in her left eye.
As with Mann's previous books on other iconic figures like Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, there are plenty of atmospheric details that make the history seem more immediate: "The temperatures were mild on Thursday, November 16, but the skies had turned a solid slate gray, pregnant with rain...." But the author's real skill lies in using all of that research to burrow into the psyche of an inspired misfit—one who was determined to be heard in an era dominated by the likes of Annette Funicello, Eydie Gorme, and the Singing Nun.
Devoid of Hepburn's Bryn Mawr breeding or Taylor's cosmetic perfection, Streisand worked overtime to manufacture her own exotic mystique. The Playbill bio for her first Broadway show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, informed theatergoers that the refugee from Flatbush was "born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon." Early press coverage tended to present Streisand as a cross between Fanny Brice and Joan of Arc (while Streisand didn't hear voices, she claimed that her tinnitus endowed her with "supersonic hearing"). The rising star excelled at self-promotion and her super-kook persona proved to be a journalist's dream. When she wasn't extolling the virtues of Zen Buddhism or launching into a tirade against milk, her publicity team let it be known that this walking Modigliani had made it all on her own.
"In selling Barbra Streisand to the public, it was important that the product be marketed as uniquely self-made," Mann writes. But young Barbra had been ably assisted during her climb to the top. Like Judy Garland before her, Streisand was not only revered by gay men, but at least partially molded by them. The author finally gives credit to several unsung intimates who had a hand in fashioning the legend: mentor Barry Dennen, who co-starred with Streisand in an off-Broadway oddity entitled The Insect Comedy, encouraged her theatrical ambitions and provided a crash course in musical theater history; the late designer Terry Leong helped Streisand create her eye-popping "thrift shop couture" from castoffs rescued from Third Avenue boutiques; artist Bob Schulenberg refined Streisand's über-glam look. All three supporters found an exemplary muse in Streisand. In merging their erudite knowledge with her cutting edge performance style, Mann writes, "they'd been able to evoke the glamour of the past while making it all seem fresh and new."
Meticulously researched and genuinely engrossing, Hello, Gorgeous offers one of the most sympathetic portraits of Streisand to emerge from the stockpile of books that have been written about "The Greatest Star." While Mann acknowledges Streisand's tendency toward self-absorption and explores her habit of discarding associates when they ceased to be helpful to her, this is by no means the Mecha-Streisand of South Park or the fire-breathing diva found in the pages of Christopher Anderson's vituperative 2006 bio Barbra: The Way She Is.
In Mann's take, Streisand's legendary bravado masks a deep vulnerability. The fatherless girl from Nostrand Avenue may have had an unwavering belief in her own talent, but her self-esteem was regularly pummeled by those unaccustomed to a performer who didn't fit the wholesome Doris Day prototype. In reviewing one of Streisand's early engagements, a thoughtless Variety critic even went so far as to suggest that "a little corrective schnoz bob might be an element to be considered." Taking all of that into account, the image of a determined but basically homeless Streisand lugging around paper shopping bags brimming over with dog-eared sheet music, cloche hats, and costume jewelry in case she would be called on to audition somewhere is undeniably poignant. Though it wasn't long after her transient days that the girl who had been branded "too strange," "too Jewish," and "too special for records," was the toast of Broadway and the top-selling female recording artist in the country. And she did it with her own clothes, her own songs, and her own nose. This is why Barbra Streisand is gorgeous and why she still matters more than ever.
William J. Mann's Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand will be released on October 9 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To purchase it, click here.