October 9, 2000
Barbra Streisand: the Farewell Interview
She’ll perform live no more, but the Voice is singing a happy new tune about life’s simple pleasures and the love of a good man
By Todd Gold
She knows how to make an entrance – and an exit. Last week, Barbra Streisand, 58, gave two concerts in Los Angeles, followed by another paid in New York, billed as her farewell to public performance. She has said this before but always with the disclaimer “probably.” This time, Streisand means it. After her September 28 show at Madison Square Garden, that’s it. Finit. The live stage portion of her spectacular 40-year career will be a misty, water-colored memory.
Why? Since she married actor James Brolin, who has introduced her to life’s simple pleasures, Streisand’s priorities have changed. Her worries have ebbed. There’s nothing left to prove. Nowadays, her energy is mainly poured into her personal life, politics and a passion for living. “She’s more comfortable in her own skin,” says close friend and songwriter Marilyn Bergman. “She’s just happy – happier than she’s ever been.”
Streisand’s job was apparent during one two-hour show in Los Angeles. There were only hints at the storied stage fright that has limited her to just two tours over the years. Instead, she was relaxed. “Hi, Goldie,” she said to pal Goldie Hawn between songs on opening night at the Staples Center, where tickets ranged from $150 to $2,500. She also waved to Sidney Poitier and thanked John Travolta for flying in from a movie set in Oregon. Jack Nicholson, Elizabeth Taylor, Dustin Hoffman and the cast of Will & Grace applauded her the next night. At one point, Streisand – in a copper-colored outfit she designed herself – kicked off her high heels and kibitzed with Taylor about bidding adieu to the stage. “I’m tired of putting on high heels, and I don’t want to get dressed up anymore,” she said. “I want to stay at home and eat. We’re eaters, right, Liz?”
The event was classic Streisand. Highlights came from Broadway (“Second Hand Rose”), films (“Evergreen”), her vast repertoire of standards (“Cry Me A River”) and signature numbers (“Happy Days Are Here Again” and the closer, “People”). “This is going well,” she remarked at one point. “So why am I retiring?” Later, when Brolin’s photo flashed on the big screen above the stage, Streisand quipped, “Hello, gorgeous,” then blew a kiss to her husband of two years who sat front and center. “She was almost childlike in the fun she was having,” said Neil Diamond. “I couldn’t tell if it was because she was happy in her personal life or because she had only three concerts left.” Both. Before leaving the stage, Streisand made it clear she’s content with her decision. “These concerts are special,” she explained. “But we all have to move on in our lives. Time goes by fast, and as you get older it goes by faster.” Following her L.A. shows, Streisand discussed her milestone concerts, her future and her thoughts about the November election in an exclusive interview with US weekly.
Let’s start with the question all your fans are asking: Why are you saying goodbye to performing in public? I love conceptualizing a new show. I love thinking out how to present it to an audience. I love designing my outfits and the look of the show. But I don’t like doing it. If I could just conceive it and have someone else do it, that would be great! I want to take time to enjoy my life … you know, sleep late in the morning. I need to be creative. We’re about to build a farmhouse-barn, and that takes as much time and energy as making a movie.
This doesn’t mean you’re retiring, does it? No. There are many things I’m still going to do – direct movies, produce television shows, act, write and record. Maybe I’ll write a book on decorating or gardening. You know, I’ve worked since I was 11. I started baby-sitting and then worked in a Chinese restaurant doing takeout orders when I was 12.
Frank Sinatra also announced his retirement while in his fifties, then came back to sing again. Might your fans hope you’ll change your mind? I don’t intend to put on a show like this anymore. That’s why we taped it for television on New Year’s Eve. It’ll be shown early next year. Originally when I agreed to do this show, Marty Erlichman, my manager for more than 30 years, was hoping that I would do it all over the world. The travel-bug side of me actually thought about that. In fact, when the show was announced, I said publicly that I might consider performing in places Jim and I wanted to visit. That’s why we went to Australia earlier this year. I would have loved to have performed in Mexico, in Paris, Italy, Spain, Canada, Boston, Texas, Oregon … in the middle of the United States, the South … everywhere. Jim and I love to travel. But I just can’t do it.
Won’t you miss it? Maybe just a little? Sure, there may be certain things I’ll miss. But I won’t miss walking around on stage for two and a half hours in high heels.
Actually, you never toured much: once in 1966 and once in 1994. Why so infrequently? Is it perfectionism? Stage fright? Live performing is not about perfection. It’s about being in the moment, which I like. And it’s wonderful to feel the people. But it was a real challenge for me to get past my stage fright. I still count songs – like, “I have only 16 left in the first act” or “Now 12.”
You sort of joked about that stage fright in the show I saw. I did get past the fear that paralyzes. I’m proud of that.
What do you remember from any of your early singing engagements – for instance, the Bon Soir nightclub in New York, where you played in 1961? I loved singing at the Bon Soir. I had to sing only eight songs. My first job outside New York City was Detroit, and I have some wonderful memories. There were people there who cared about me and fed me. I never forget people who feed me. Bernie Moray was a guy who owned a furniture store and gave me upholstery fabric – burgundy damask – to make the dress I designed for my first appearance on television. I started designing my own outfits when I was 17. And my first airplane flight was from Detroit back to New York for The Jack Paar Show. Orson Bean was the guest host, and he was in the audience for one of my final concerts in Los Angeles. A lot of memories from my career were in those audiences.
What stands out from your 1966 tour? I cut it short for a wonderful reason: I was pregnant. I loved being pregnant. It was the most creative time of my life and I resented having to work. I just wanted to enjoy that miraculous experience.
I’m detecting a theme here – a conflict between work and leisure time. Maybe there’s always been a tug of war between my live performances and my sheer enjoyment of life. When I was on Broadway in 1963 and was finally making some money, I would go out shopping with my friend Cis [Corman] to buy things I never could afford before. Except, after a day of shopping, Cis would go home and rest and I had to go to work. I thought, What is this? There’s something very strange here. I always felt that life came first.
You had just gotten married the last time we spoke. How has your life evolved since marrying Jim? Now that I’m happily married, I want to live life with the person I love. As I mentioned, Jim and I love to travel. We love boats and long car trips. We just drove back from Calgary, where Jim was making a movie. It took us seven days, nine hours a day, staying in those little bed-and-breakfasts. We like to eat on the road, mostly in the car. We rented a minivan in Canada. A friend sent us a newspaper article from Calgary that said we had been seen driving a huge motor home pulling a Mercedes behind it. That’s what they printed; that’s what people believe, I suppose. But our enjoyments are pretty much what other people treasure. Very simple ones. Our minivan was filled with books and tapes and food.
I bet people along the way were surprised to see the two of you. Most people don’t say anything. They’re not sure it’s really us. I also made my hair red so I wouldn’t be so recognizable. Some people don’t know how lucky they are to be anonymous. It’s a great gift.
As long as you mentioned one rumor, let me ask about another. Ever since you got married, there’s been talk about you and Jim wanting to adopt a baby. It’s just an invented story, rehashed by a rag. I read that I’m giving up public performances because we’re adopting a baby. Can you believe that? Alter kockers [Yiddish for “old codgers”] like us! It’s not true.
In your show the other night, you almost started talking about politics, but you held back. It wasn’t the proper forum.
So let’s talk a little politics now. When did you first become active? It was in the late 1960s. At the beginning of my career, I campaigned for New York Mayor John Lindsay – who, by the way, was a moderate Republican – and I’ve been an activist ever since. Also, one of the early political moments that stands out in my mind is when I campaigned with Bella Abzug on a flatbed truck in New York to support her run for Congress [in 1970]. Bella was such a strong model for political activism and opened many doors for women in politics. And she won! That experience had a real effect on me, showing me how powerful celebrity could be as a force for change.
Who have been the big influences in your political life? I’ve been a great admirer of the heroes of the 60’s – John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. Great men who challenged the status quo. Nelson Mandela has also inspired me with his ability to maintain courage and grace despite all he has seen and experienced.
Do you ever worry that your politics will turn off your fans? No, I don’t even think about that. My art is a reflection of who I am, so it’s impossible to separate one from the other.
When and why did you feel obliged to become political? I’ve always been pained by things that are unjust. I’ve always felt sympathetic to those most vulnerable – minorities, women, children – and I’ve tried to help them in whatever way I can. Maybe it’s because as a woman and a Jew I identified with minorities and felt like one myself. I came from a religious home where we were always taught to give to charity even though we were very poor ourselves.
You’ve gotten to know the Clintons quite well. Briefly, what’s your impression of them? The president is witty and engaging, with a brilliant intellect and a genuine love for people. Hillary has a sharp intellect and the uncanny ability to explain even the most complicated thoughts in a way that can be easily understood.
I take it you’re supporting her run for the Senate? Yes. I’m excited about the prospect of her being a senator. She certainly could have settled into a very lucrative career but instead decided to get involved in this grueling campaign for one of the most difficult – and the most important – Senate seats in the country. I have no doubt that as a senator she’ll continue working for the rights of those without a voice, in the tradition of great leaders like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert F. Kennedy.
Why are you backing Al Gore in the election? If ever anyone was prepare and qualified to be president, Al Gore is. He has spent 25 years of his life in public service, as a representative, senator and vice-president. He has an astounding command of the issues and a wealth of experience to draw upon. He understands intimately how the government functions, and he’s a strong leader. He’s also articulate, well-informed and knows how to get the job done, particularly with the issues that concern me – health-care reform, increased spending for public education, sane gun control laws, environmental protection, campaign-finance reform …
Why not Bush? He has only six years of experience in public service and no experience in national office. And look at what he’s done in that time: Under his leadership, the state of Texas ranks first in toxic air pollution, first in water pollution, first in total residents without health insurance, first in number of gun shows, first in executions. Most importantly, he took the largest surplus in Texas history and turned it into a budget shortfall by giving a massive tax cut to the wealthy at the expense of the most vulnerable. I recently saw him standing behind a lectern with a slogan stolen from the Children’s Defense Fund: “Leave no child behind.” This is the same man whose tax cut for the rich took away school-lunch programs from those same children in Texas. Bush accuses Gore of saying anything to get elected. But in fact, it’s George W. Bush who will say anything to get elected – and say it in poor English.
Your passion is obvious. Why do you believe this election is so important? For many reasons, but as I said in a recent speech, the first three reasons to vote for Al Gore are the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court. Our whole way of life is at stake when you consider that the next president will probably make three or even four appointments during his term. I shudder when I think of how a more conservative court could put at risk all the things we hold dear, from our civil rights to women’s reproductive rights. I, for one, don’t want to return to the days before Roe v. Wade, when women had no control over their bodies. George W. has said that his models for judicial appointments are the ultraconservative Justices [Clarence] Thomas and [Antonin] Scalia. In my opinion, that would be disastrous.
What are your thoughts about the vice-president and Senator Lieberman’s criticisms of Hollywood? I think they’re right when they focus their criticism on irresponsible marketing to children. However, around the world they watch the same movies and television we see here and listen to the same music, yet they don’t have the same rates of violence. The difference is access to guns. I also believe that violence begins at home, with the experiences children have as they grow up. Society needs to pay more attention to the way we parent our children. By the way, I think it’s great – and not hypocritical – that we can contribute to and yet disagree with the candidates we support. We support them because of their stands on key social issues and not for anything we might get in return.
I heard that you are going to devote your time and energy to the campaign after finishing your concerts. True? I’ll do what I can to help. This interview is part of it.
Have you ever considered running for office? Some people confuse political passion with political ambition. I don’t see myself running for office. And, like I told you, I’m trying to cut down on my work, not take on more.
Is there significance to you holding your last two shows in New York? New York is my home, regardless of where my house is. I was born in New York. My career started in New York. It just feels right to end my live performing in New York.
Several times you’ve mentioned your love of food. When you’re done, how will you and Jim celebrate? After my L.A. concerts, I ate about 10 profiteroles, three slices of lemon-meringue pie and lots of cheese and crackers. The next day, I had Chinese sweet-and-sour chicken for lunch and tamales for dinner … can’t wait till after New York.
BURT BACHARACH We were both playing in Vegas the first time we met. We played some tennis together then. She wasn’t so great at tennis. Soon after, I had the audacity and nerve to sing “Close to You” with her at the piano on television. It was a great moment for me. There are not many truly identifiable singers who touch your heart, but she’s one. She has great range. Nobody sounds like her when she’s up that high, with that kind of clarity and purity. You can tell right away it’s her. You can’t say that about many singers.
PHYLLIS DILLER In 1961, we shared a dressing room at the Bon Soir club in Greenwich Village. It was the size of a pea pod and usually you could smell fear in there. But she wasn’t a big nervous – at least not that I noticed. I admit, I was unimpressed when I first met her. She was so young. She said hello, and that was it. She told me her shoes were antique and they cost her 35 cents. But then she went out and did her numbers and when she hit about the third note, every hair on my body stood up. It was unbelievable. She opened with “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” and I thought, Oh, my God, what a fabulous choice. She also sang Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” which really showed off that voice. It was scary. I knew she was going places. At the end of the week, I said to her, “I know it’s bold to say this but don’t you ever cut your nose.” I knew lousy, insensitive agents would come along and say, “Hey, baby, do this, do that.” Now everyone takes credit for telling her not to get a nose job, but I had her first.
DYAN CANNON I remember it was the mid-1960s, and I was starring in the touring company of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. I think we were in Philadelphia. It was a Saturday night, and some of the gypsies from the chorus said, “We heard this girl last night and you’ve got to come with us to hear her.” I was tired, but they insisted I go with them. We drove about an hour outside of town. Some funky, smoky club. This was way before anyone had heard of Barbra Streisand. Then she came, picked up the mike, and after three notes I stood on my chair and started to scream. I knew that night she was going to be a star.
VINCE GILL I dueted with her on the song “If You Ever Leave Me” on her last album. I’ve worked on hundreds of other people’s records as a session musician and singer. Usually it doesn’t make me nervous. But this time it did, just because she’s so great. We recorded at David Foster’s studio in Malibu. I did all my work in the morning. Barbra was supposed to come in around four or five to check things out, but we went to dinner instead. So it prolonged the trauma. What was she going to think? After dinner, we headed back to the studio, and she sat at the board, listening. I was on the couch sweating bullets. After my first verse, she leaned over to David and asked “What did he say? I couldn’t understand the words.” David told her to keep listening. So it played, and you could see her ears perk up. But she wouldn’t say anything. Then it finished, and she turned around and looked at me without saying anything for a minute. Finally, she smiled and said, “You’re pretty damn good.” That felt great.
NEIL DIAMOND Barbra represents a standard most of us try to achieve. You can’t help but admire her and try to work as hard as she does. Before I knew her and before we worked together, se was just a beautiful voice on a record. But when we made “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” I realized she’s an inspiring person to work with. I was lucky to have the opportunity.
MARVIN HAMLISCH Before I met her, I heard her sing “A Sleepin’ Bee” and thought it was incredible. Then I was the rehearsal pianist when she started Funny Girl on Broadway. My first impression was that she could be very funny. She talks fast, and she moves around a lot. But then comes that voice in capital letters, and everything stops. You just go, “Oh, my God.” When you’re working on something with Barbra, it’s all or nothing. She’s used to perfection. People adore her because with all her brilliance as an artist, there’s also something else. She’s gutsy. Some people complain about things she says politically, because she’s not a politician. But she represents ideas a lot of people have. When you’re with her, people shout out, “Barbra! Barbra! Barbra!” – not “Miss Streisand!” She’s been such a part of their lives in so many ways, they feel they’re on a first-name basis.
ORSON BEAN I met Barbra when she was 18 and singing at a place in Greenwich Village. When I guest-hosted The Jack Paar Show, I got them to fly her in from a club she was playing in Detroit. She was a nervous wreck. But then when she started singing – “A Sleepin’ Bee” – it was like God singing through her. She got a standing ovation, which doesn’t happen on TV. It was an incredible moment. Then she sat down, if I recall correctly, between Phyllis Diller and Gore Vidal. A few weeks later, I had her on again. That was about the extent of it. But I felt like for a while I became a father figure to her. I remember sitting with her one night and far into the morning talking her out of going to a plastic surgeon to get a nose job. She was thinking of getting one and I told her she was beautiful. I said, “Don’t do it. God has given you this voice and this nose. You can’t have one without the other.”
MARILYN & ALAN BERGMAN Alan: She starts to sing, and Marilyn starts to cry. Marilyn: We didn’t hear her sing any of our lyrics until we wrote “The Way We Were” for her. Alan: When you finish writing something, you hear it in your head, so to speak. You can imagine what it will sound like. And she’s always better than what’s in my head.
Reported by Irene Zutell