Special Home Town Report: Barbra Streisand
Motion Picture Magazine
By Carmel Berman
Twenty years ago, on Brooklyn's Pulaski Street, no one paid much attention to the lonely little girl who used to play in front of her grandfather's tailor shop. She was small and shy and somewhat sad. She and her mother and older brother had moved into the neighborhood after her father had died, when she was only 15 months old. The little girl's grandparents loved the children and did their best to make a happy home for them, but somehow—perhaps because she was such a sensitive child—she didn't feel it was quite right. Something very important was obviously missing. Her mother had to go to work each day, and there simply wasn't any daddy to come home each evening and swing her high in his arms.
Pulaski Street, 20 years ago, was a pleasant middle-class neighborhood of small apartment buildings and rows of connected brownstones. Today, most of the middle-class tenants have moved away, and none of the people who live there really remember the little girl who played—so quietly alone—in their midst. But there isn't a single person on Pulaski Street today who doesn't know—BARBRA STREISAND.
“Barbra Streisand,” exclaimed Mrs. Eloise White, who runs a cleaning store on Pulaski Street, “I don't know her, but I know her singing! She's great!”
“Barbra Streisand,” said Doctor Sam X. Fankuchen, Pulaski Street's physician for more than 20 years, “sure, I could have given her a shot, or taken care of her when she was a little kid. Most of the people on this street brought their kids to me—too many of them to remember. But I know who she is now—a girl with a great voice.”
Harry Hammer, the doctor's assistant, hadn't known that Barbra once lived on Pulaski Street, but he was please to learn about it, because as he said, “I have her records and I love her singing. What's my favorite song? All of them! I love anything that Barbra sings!”
They love Barbra on Pulaski Street these days, even though they don't remember her. And she certainly is remembered on Newkirk Avenue, in Brooklyn's Flatbush section. Barbra and Sheldon Streisand moved to Newkirk Avenue with their mother when Mrs. Streisand married Louis Kind, an automobile dealer. Barbra's mother was undoubtedly hoping that her children would be happier having a father to complete their home. But for Barbra, a stepfather could never take the place of her real one. And, perhaps as a result of this, the little girl who went to P.S. 89 on Newkirk Avenue remained something of at loner.
When a child is sensitive and shy, other children often get the impression that she’s high- hatting them. As a former eighth grade classmate, Mrs. Phyllis Zack, says today, “I never liked Barbra. I thought she was a snob. But you know, she wanted to be an actress even then, and she was good, too. I remember once, some of the kids wanted to set up a surprise for a teacher they liked, so Barbra pretended to faint while she was in another room. The teacher was called, and he ran to her side, and while he was out of the room the kids put this present on his desk. Barbra had him convinced all the time, too.”
Mrs. Dorothy Sultan, the retired principal of P.S. 89, has her own memories of Barbra as a child, “She was a quiet child,” she recalls, “who liked to sing, and did sing in assembly. I knew she had as sense of humor, but she never really displayed it—she didn’t or couldn’t project herself. At the time, I thought she was an average child—one who didn’t really make her presence felt. I really don't think she had an awareness of her own blooming future.” But Barbra, who not too many years after grade school fought for her successful career, had probably been unable, or unwilling to express her real hopes and desires to her schoolmates and teachers. Perhaps she was afraid they would laugh at her, or ridicule her. And anyone with so high a degree of sensitivity and determination tends to build a tight shell against discouragement of any sort.
Today, Public School 89 serves as the office of School District 22, and everyone presently employed there knows that Barbra used to walk those very halls each day as a young student. Coincidentally, Barbra’s mother, Diana Kind, once worked at P.S. 89 as a school secretary. According to Mrs. Sylvia Lindenbaum, who is currently employed there, “I worked with Diana Kind, and she’s a charming woman. She worked with us for two or three weeks before she ever mentioned she was Barbra’s mother.”
Mrs. Lindenbaum, and Mrs. Esther Lascher and Mrs. Ruth Freeman, who also work in the District 22 offices, told MOTION PICTURE that Mrs. Kind made a small party for the district staff when Barbra married Elliott Gould. Mrs. Kind always seemed able to express the warmth she felt towards her Brooklyn neighbors, a warmth that Barbra didn’t seem to share—possibly because her neighbors didn’t recognize and encourage her as the truly gifted, talented person she believed (and later proved) herself to be. Even today, a neighbor who once lived in the same apartment building as the Kinds, was hard put to describe Barbra. “Sure I knew her. She was just an ordinary kid—just like any other—no different.”
After graduating from P.S. 89, Barbra went on to Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Here, her teachers seemed to recognize that she was different, but just how different, or in what directions her talent lay they really couldn’t tell.
As Mrs. Catherine Dorney, who has taught at Erasmus for 25 years, explained, “I didn’t know her personally but, of course, many of the teachers did. And not too many years ago Barbra wrote an article in which she said how unhappy she had been here at Erasmus. After that article came out, the principal called a faculty meeting, and we all discussed it. We wondered what we could have done wrong to make Barbra—or any child—so unhappy in our school.”
The concern and the love for Barbra were always there, but unfortunately, it was the sort of concern that seemed bent on thwarting her desires for a show business career. Barbra was faced with constant opposition, leading to rebellious frustration.
Today, Mrs. Kind is divorced from her husband, and lives with Barbra’s half-sister Rosalyn, in a New York City apartment. She candidly admits that she never wanted her older daughter to go into show business. “Barbra’s father had been a teacher, so I thought she’d go to college. It upset me completely when she decided not to. After that, I thought that maybe it would be a good idea for her to become a secretary—something with security.
“But Barbra always knew what she wanted to do. In a way, Barbra is fulﬁlling an old dream of mine. I wanted to be a singer when I was a kid, but in my family, my father wouldn’t hear of it—although he occasionally sang as a substitute cantor in our temple. It was my frustration, too—not becoming a singer. But I was very shy—much too shy to push. Barbra was shy, too, but her desires were stronger than her shyness.” Mrs. Kind smiled. “It’s nice to think that dreams can be handed on, isn’t it?”
Barbra’s willpower and faith in her own talents persuaded her to leave home after she graduated from high school. She moved in to New York City, and went to work doing anything and everything in Greenwich Village’s Cherry Lane Theater—ushering, taking tickets, handing out programs. It seemed that Barbra was willing to take part in any task—no matter how menial—connected with show business, and she simply could not get enough of it.
Barbra’s career moved with rocket-like speed from the time she hit New York. She won an amateur contest at The Lion in Greenwich V illage, and from there went on to a singing job at the Bon Soir, for a muniﬁcent salary of $108 per week.
Her mother continued to worry about her. She manifested her concern by bringing pots of chicken soup to her apartment, and hearty chicken sandwiches backstage.
But Sheldon Streisand, who is eight years older than Barbra, felt compelled to keep the family off his sister’s back.
“My mother and our uncles and aunts would call me and say, ‘Shelly do something!’ But I never questioned Barbra. I admired her spunk, and I thought she should be left alone—allowed to do what she wanted. Barbra’s the same today as she was when we were kids. She was always mischievous, experimental and curious. I'll never forget the time she squeezed the paints out of my oil paint set! And I had saved up $1.75 for that set!”
Sheldon Streisand, who today is chairman of the board of the advertising agency of Streisand, Zuch & Freedman, remembers that when they were growing up, he and Barbra had a typical older brother-younger sister relationship. “She was my kid sister and a pest. I had to baby-sit for her, and then she was always tagging after me and my friends. But we had a lot of fun together, too. One of our biggest kicks was watching TV while eating sliced raw onion on white bread that had been spread with chicken fat.
“After Barbra moved to New York, I got her a job for two weeks at this agency where I was working. The regular switchboard operator was away on vacation and Barbra was supposed to take her place. Well, for those two weeks none of us could get a call either in or out. Barbra was so bored with the work that she’d talk in these made-up foreign languages to everyone who called.
“The agency’s offices were in the Plaza Hotel, and once I took Barbra to lunch. We had to walk through the lobby—Barbra, in her caracul coat, sneakers and stockings with gaping holes in the back.” But except for the holey stockings, both Sheldon and Diana Kind feel that Barbra’s thrift shop Victorian styles seem to have started a trend in many of today's fashions.
“She picked up a beaded vest in a thrift shop,” Mrs. Kind says, “and aren't beaded vests the big thing today? Barbra always had very strong opinions and desires, and not everything I said was agreeable to her. I agreed with her that interesting clothes were important, but many times I felt her clothes were too different—too way-out.”
Mrs. Kind leafed through one of the ﬁve scrapbooks she keeps about her famous daughter, and she pointed out a picture of Barbra in a fur suit, “You can see she’s got good taste,” she said, “and she’s certainly gone from thrift shop rags to riches. That’s better than going in the other direction.”
While Barbra was singing in various night clubs, she had a three room walk-up apartment above Oscar’s, a fish restaurant on New York City’s Third Avenue. Oscar Karp, the owner of the restaurant and the building, remembers Barbra as a “. . . nice girl, not a nitwit, an all-American girl. She never bothered anyone. No, I never heard her practicing. She was a good girl—a hell of a nice girl. She didn’t drink or smoke, and there weren't any wild orgies going on in her apartment.
“I always liked Barbra. She laughed and was always happy. I wish I had a daughter like her.”
MOTION PICTURE asked Mr. Karp if he wanted a daughter like Barbra because of her talent. “Nah!” he exclaimed. “What do I know about talent? Show me a piece of fish—I know about ﬁsh. But I like Barbra because she was always a nice girl.”
From her stint at the Bon Soir, Barbra moved on to the Blue Angel where she was spotted by writer Arthur Laurents who had her audition for I Can Get It For You Wholesale. The rest of the tale is show business history. Barbra was a hit at the age of 19, and there was nowhere for her to go but up.
Jerome Weidman, author of the novel I Can Get It For You Wholesale, on which the musical was based, knew that Barbra would be a star. The show, explained Weidman, opened in Philadelphia to mixed reviews. The next day the director assembled the entire cast at the theater and when Weidman arrived, he heard the director give Barbra a terrible bawling out. As Jerome Weidman described it: “I do not know, therefore, if Miss Streisand had done anything special on this particular occasion to annoy the director, or whether the cold rage with which he was addressing her was due to nothing more than the tension under which we were all living, plus our heroine’s by-now-established talent for sabotaging any attempt at organization.”
Weidman said that his heart went out to Barbra, as “the director’s words went hurtling towards her like venom-tipped darts.”
After the tirade was over and the rest of the cast and the director had left, Weidman went over to the pitiful girl, whose head was still bowed.
“Barbra,” Weidman mumbled, “I’m sorry, kid.”
At that, Barbra’s head came up and, to Weidman’s surprise, she looked puzzled and not at all upset or tearful.
“Listen, Jerry,” she said . . . and it was only then that he saw what she had been so busy with all during the director’s tirade—the floor plan of her new apartment. “I got this new apartment . . . and it’s real nice, you know, but the damn fireplace, it’s all the way over here on this wall so where the hell would you put the studio couch, huh?”
Weidman realized, then, that while his heart had been bleeding for Barbra, she had not been one little bit upset. From that moment on, Weidman knew Barbra would make it, and not, as he said, “only because she has genius. But because she possesses one other ingredient necessary to stardom . . . she is made of copper tubing.”
From just a feature part in Wholesale, Barbra went on to play the lead in the play, Funny Girl. Barbra’s mother’s voice still trembles with emotion when she describes her feelings at the Philadelphia opening of Funny Girl.
“Rosalyn and I had seats in the first row center—seats anyone would have loved. But I was so nervous before the show—I seemed to feel everything that I knew Barbra was going through. I was so overwhelmed that I just couldn’t sit still. I had to leave my first row seat, and stand in the back of the theater. As I heard Barbra singing, I got emotional. She was so terrific it upset my balance—my feelings just welled up in me. I felt fearful for her and excited and proud —all at the same time.”
While acting in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Barbra fell in love with, and married the male lead of the show, Elliott Gould. Today, Barbra and Elliott live in an antique-ﬁlled duplex apartment facing New York's Central Park. Their little son, Jason Emanuel, who was born in 1966, travels with Barbra to movie locations, and with Barbra and Elliott to Hollywood where they sublet a house.
The apartment on Central Park West and the Hollywood house seem a million light years away from that tiny apartment that smelled of fish, but the doorman of the apartment building speaks just as glowingly of Barbra as did Oscar Karp.
Why then, has Barbra had so many brick-bats and unkind comments thrown at her?
“Did you hear what Walter Matthau said to Barbra Streisand when they were filming Dolly? He really told her off!”
“To know Barbra Streisand is not necessarily to love her.”
“Ever since Barbra Streisand’s gotten to be a super-star, she’s also gotten to be super-impossible!”
These statements—coming from Barbra’s colleagues as well as the general public have been occurring more and more frequently, especially since the 26-year-old singer’s phenomenal success in Funny Girl. Has Barbra deserved all the nasty remarks made about her? And why does she seem to turn people off even when she’s not actually performing? According to her manager, Marty Erlichmann [sic]:
“When Barbra first started out and not too many people knew about her, it was hip to like her. Now that she’s a success, it’s hip to knock her. Barbra is a black or white character—she’s not dull gray. You either love her, or you hate her.
“But Barbra hasn't changed. She’s no different today than she was when I first heard her at the Bon Soir. She’s extremely honest, and she communicates with a lot of people. When she performs, you can smell the sweat and the honesty—the gumption and the strength.”
Barbra’s brother Sheldon agrees with her manager. “My sister is down-to-earth, but she’s also extremely sensitive. She wants to give of her talent, but she also wants her privacy. I guess she breaks rules, because she’s an individual—not a puppet.”
Maybe we’d better let Barbra’s mother have the last word: “I know Barbra usually wants her own way, and I know she’s criticized a lot for that. But anything she does can be overlooked, because in the long run, you know what? She’s generally correct.”
[ top of page ]