Good Housekeeping Magazine
The Private World of Barbra Streisand
The funny little girl from Brooklyn has made it oh-so-big in movies, TV and onstage. But she'd rather talk any day about two-year-old Jason and Sadie, the poodle, than dwell on her own fantastic success.
by Nora Ephron
The house she is renting in Beverly Hills, California, is one of those funny Spanish houses, covered with tile and gingerbread, nestled in hills full of bougainvillea, and chock full of the things she loves: a freezer jammed with coffee ice cream, a glass case of her art nouveau objects, a picture of her son sitting naked in the swimming pool, a box of chocolate-covered pretzels. Upstairs, Jason, who is two years old and chews gum, was taking a nap. His mother was downstairs in the living room, curled up on the couch while the hot sun dappled off the backyard pool. She was talking about the problems she was facing in raising her child. This is Barbra Streisand, superkook, I kept telling myself. This is the girl who used to drift about in antique shoes and feather boas. . .who used to drive her Bentley up to Ninth Avenue in New York to buy hot-pastrami sandwiches that dripped grease all over the leather upholstery.. . who identified herself in her first theater-program biography as having been born in Madagascar, raised in Rangoon and educated at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Any minute now, I told myself, she will get up, drape some ostrich feathers around her neck, and begin to swing from the hall chandelier. Barbra Streisand is a kook, isn't she? As a matter of fact, she's not. Or if she is, there was no sign of it on the recent afternoon I spent with her. For one thing, she wasn't wearing anything the least bit bizarre: she appeared in cocoa pants, a beige silk overblouse, and a beige-and-brown scarf demurely knotted around her neck. What's more, she didn't look anything like an amiable anteater, or a seasick ferret, or a furious hamster—as she has been described—but rather more like a painting by Modigliani—elongated, elegant. And we actually sat around and talked about such zany things as motherhood. And Dresden china. And dieting. And the price of cooperative apartments in New York. And the teenage years when Barbra Streisand was so skinny and shapeless she used to stuff socks into her brassiere and toilet paper around her hips. "What's she like?" my husband asked me when I got home after seeing her, expecting, I'm sure, something kooky.
"You won't believe this," I said, "but she's this perfectly normal girl who happens to be a movie star."
"I don't believe it," said my husband.
But it's true. Barbra Streisand, who is twenty-six years old and a recording star, stage star, television star and movie star, would much rather talk about the almond duck she is having for dinner than the film she has just completed (Ernest Lehman's Hello, Dolly!) or the film she is about to begin shooting (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Barbra Streisand, who has a cook, a nanny for Jason, a personal maid and a private secretary, gets car sick in the backs of limousines (for no apparent reason), and refused to hire a chauffeur while she was appearing on Broadway because it cost her twelve dollars a week less to take taxicabs. Barbra Streisand is truly delighted at the critical response to her performance as Fanny Brice in the film Funny Girl but she appears unable to imagine that anyone would contemplate giving an Academy Award to a kid who comes from Brooklyn.
"Did you see that prophet on the Mike Douglas Show?" her press agent asked her during our interview. "No," said Barbra. "He predicted you'd win the Oscar." "I can't take that seriously," she said. "He's never been wrong," the agent persisted. "I'll be his first mistake."
In fact, when you get right down to it, Barbra Streisand, who is, along with Julie Andrews, one of the biggest stars to emerge in the last ten years, would like most of all to spend the afternoon talking about Jason. Jason Emmanuel Gould, that is, who was born at the tail end of 1966 to Miss Streisand and her husband, actor Elliott Gould. Jason is a long, skinny, talkative child who sounds exactly like his mother and looks exactly like his father. Barbra can talk about Jason for hours on end. She will tell you that she checked into New York's Mount Sinai Hospital to give birth under the pseudonym of Angelina Scarangella; that Jason cried before the umbilical cord was cut; that he eats raw mushrooms, swallows his chewing gum, and puts the tape-recorder speaker into his mouth. Naturally, she thinks he is a genius. "I was just talking to Rosalind Russell for fifteen minutes," said the press agent. "For two minutes we talked business. Guess what the other thirteen minutes were about?"
"Jason," said Barbra, laughing. And without bothering to explain why her friend, Roz Russell, was as preoccupied with her son as she was, Barbra was off again on the subject of what Jason has to say about grapefruit ("O000000, sour") and how Jason always says okay with a question mark after it ("Okay?"). She beamed. She glowed. She turned serious. "You really see at this age that every mistake you make has an imprint on your child," she said. "It's a terrible responsibility, but a very exciting one." Thoughtfully, she explained in what ways she was raising Jason that were different from her own upbringing. "I would never lie to him," she said. "And if I make a commitment to him, I have to follow through. My mother would be about to take me to the movies and something else would come up and we wouldn't go. That's terribly unfair to a child, and if you do it often, he'll never believe you. I never force Jason to eat, and he really enjoys his food. My mother always forced me—I was a pathetically skinny kid and I used to go to health camps and have tonics. Those camps were the most horrible experiences of my life. I'd get there, they'd dump me in the bathtub, and then put me into uniform. I hated it. From that time on, I always got allergies in the summer any time I went to the country. They were psychological in origin, of course.
"Another thing about Jason," she continued, "is that I will always encourage him to do what he wants to do. My mother never encouraged me." She paused. "And yet, if she had, I never would have ended up doing what I am doing. I suppose it turned out better for the world than for me. Subconsciously, I'm always trying to please my mother, which it happens I can never do. It's very difficult. I suppose you have to rely on the inborn nature of the child. I don't know what I would have been like if I had had a normal childhood with a living father. Maybe I would have had the same drives. Jason has a mother who works. Who's to say whether that's bad or good? At least he'll have some respect for me as a human being. At least he'll realize his mother is a person. Then it won't be so devastating when he finds a flaw. It won't be so terrible when he finds out his parents are just as fallible as anyone else." How Barbra acquired an image as a kook is not really too difficult to understand. Seven years ago, when the blue-gray-eyed girl burst out of Brooklyn, with a bump on her nose and a spectacular voice in her throat, the press fell in love with her. She was graphic. "Success," she said once, "is having ten honeydew melons and eating only the top half of each one." She was uncommonly frank. "When I sing," she said, "people shut up. What can I tell you?" She was occasionally hilariously inarticulate. "Creativity is a part of perversion, like a thing that goes inward for emotion, not responsibly, because intellect is bad for what I do. Know what I mean?" She patronized thrift shops and rhapsodized over stuffed baked potatoes. "But," says Barbra, "I was never that kooky. It was all very logical. When I first sang, I wore a brocade vest I'd bought in a thrift shop, and people looked at me like I was a nut. Was it really kooky? I never did it for effect. I only did it because I got the most for my money in thrift shops. But when people started saying, `You've gotta go see this girl who sings in nutty clothes,' I immediately changed. I never wore those clothes again. I was a singer and I wanted them to watch me sing."
But about two years ago, when she went to Hollywood to make her first film, Funny Girl, the gossip columnists declared war on Barbra Streisand mostly on the theory that what was up must be brought down. The kooky image was replaced by one that was a good deal more harmful in its inaccuracy: it painted her as a snobbish, stingy, monstrous movie star. "Don't believe anything you read about me," Barbra said once. By the time I got to California to see her, I had come to believe she was right. I had spoken at length with her friends and colleagues, and according to them, Barbra was shy, not snobbish; lavishly generous, not stingy; an obsessive perfectionist, not a monster. Yes, they admitted, she was often late. Yes, they admitted, she did have difficulty palling around with the crew and making little jokes with them. "She's never read Dale Carnegie," said one of her associates, referring to Carnegie's book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. But none of these failings explained why the press seemed so determined to lynch her. "I don't know what it is about her that antagonizes people, but I suspect it's jealousy," said Actress Kay Medford, who worked with her in Funny Girl. "When I read some of the stories about her, I feel like a mother tiger."
Had success spoiled Barbra Streisand? Or changed Barbra Streisand? Or done anything at all to Barbra Streisand? No, said her friends. And her personal manager, Marty Erlichman, told a story to prove the point.
"A while ago," he said, "I made a deal for Barbra. She has a dog named Sadie, and I got an offer from a dog-food company to do a picture book on Sadie, along with a record of two dog songs by Barbra. It would have taken her two hours to do and they were going to pay her $120,000 for it. I called her up and told her. `Barbra,' I said, `next Tuesday, if you come into Columbia Studios from two to four in the afternoon, you can pick up $120,000.' `I can't do it,' she said. `I'm going to the movies that day.' She hung up. A half hour later, she called back very upset. She had just bought a lot of presents, and she had found out from a jeweler that she could have gotten each of them for four dollars less somewhere else. All in all, the difference came to sixty-four dollars. I couldn't believe it. `You're talking about saving sixty-four dollars,' I said, `and I just told you where you could make $120,000!' " `Marty,' she said to me. `I understand sixty-four dollars.' "
And what about Barbra Streisand's feud with Walter Matthau? Didn't that prove she was a monster? Not according to what I heard. People who worked on Hello, Dolly! insisted that Matthau was to blame for the difficulty. "It's a very simple story," said a friend of mine who was there. "She's twenty-six years old and she's the biggest star in town. Can you imagine how a big spoiled crybaby like Matthau reacts to playing second fiddle to that?"
I didn't even have to imagine it. I knew. Matthau reportedly became so upset he went to complain to Richard Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox. "Do I need a heart attack?" asked Matthau. "Do I need an ulcer?" Zanuck listened politely, until Matthau finished whining. "I'd like to help you out," he replied, "but the film is not called Hello, Walter."
Nevertheless, the press has persisted in casting Streisand as the heavy and Matthau as the poor put-upon creature. All of which has made Barbra Streisand understandably reticent about giving interviews, and thoroughly paranoid about the press. "If I were to fight back at the misquotes, and the out-and-out lies that are said about me, I'd never get any work done," she said. "I don't want to be thought of as some kind of crazy, mad star who reverts to the Twenties in terms of temperament. Do you know that one writer said on television that I threw candy wrappers over my shoulder while he was interviewing me? Even in my worst days in Brooklyn, I never threw candy wrappers over my shoulder." The days in Brooklyn are well behind Barbra Streisand today. She is still penny-wise and pound-foolish, but her clothes are from Arnold Scaasi, not the thrift shops that line Manhattan's Second Avenue. In the old days, she used to carry all her belongings around town in a satchel and sleep wherever there was an extra bed; today, in addition to the rented house in Beverly Hills (which belongs to comedy writer George Axelrod), she has a New York apartment on Central Park West—a large apartment, mind you, but not quite large enough for a family of three, the domestic staff and crates of Barbra's cranberry glass. "We wanted to break into the apartment next door," said Barbra, "but the manager of the building wouldn't let us break through a wall. It would have ended up that my son was living in a different apartment from us! Can you imagine him growing up and trying to explain that to his analyst?" When she returns to New York after completing On a Clear Day, Barbra plans to plunge into finding a new apartment. She had looked in the fall, found one she loved in an exclusive New York cooperative, and was turned down by the owner-residents of the building, who rule on applicants. "It's an unbelievable experience to be discriminated against," she said. "I guess it was a combination of our being Jewish and being in show business. I was once asked if I'd ever been discriminated against, and I said, 'No, I've never applied to a country club.' But that was before this happened. You know, the board didn't even give me an interview. They apparently think theatrical people are noisy. Let me tell you, it's the society people who are swinging from the chandeliers. We happen to live very quiet, conservative lives. We hardly ever entertain. It's ironic. Now that I have the money to buy an apartment, I might have to live in Los Angeles because they won't have me in New York."
Barbra's life is quiet and conservative —dull, in fact, by show-business standards. When she is working, she spends most of her day on the set, comes home to son and (until recently) husband (who has just completed one film, and can currently be seen in another, The Night They Raided Minsky's). After dinner, she spends much of the night on the telephone talking to colleagues about the next day on the set.
The Gould marriage has had its shaky moments—what with long separations due to career conflicts. In February, the couple was reported to be seeking a legal separation. Most of their friends are willing to speculate on the cause of the difficulty. Said one friend: "Obviously there's the problem of her being more successful than he is. In addition, Barbra is so obsessed with her work that she sometimes forgets about the other things in her life." Even during less stormy times, the Goulds were seldom seen at nightclubs or discotheques, preferring to spend their evenings at home. She loves to poke around antique shops; she takes lessons in French; and she exercises once a day as part of a somewhat futile weight-watching regimen. "It's impossible for me to diet," she said. "Absolutely impossible. If It weren't for my exercise teacher, I don't know what I'd look like. There's nothing that can make me stop eating. I'm fine at breakfast. I'm fine at lunch. But then I get this terrific urge and the most important thing in my life becomes coffee ice cream with cream topping." She laughed. "The cream topping is dietetic.
"I have to lose ten pounds. After all, here I am in the movies." She grinned and repeated herself, as if she couldn't quite believe it. "I'm in the movies. What kind of vanity is this? I'm in the movies. If I weren't, it wouldn't matter. But here I am. I had three double chins in Dolly. I kept telling people it was because Dolly should be statuesque, but it was a cop-out because I couldn't diet. Of course, you can't see my double chins in the movie. It's a trick I learned from Elizabeth Taylor's cameraman. He told me if you hold the cameras up high and shoot down, you don't see the double chins."
Diets. Double chins. Apartment hunting. And, as the afternoon wore on, there was talk of Sadie, the poodle. And natural childbirth. And the broken-down Bentley. And how to order two egg rolls in Cantonese. And the lady who makes the best spaghetti sauce in the borough of Brooklyn. As I said, she's this perfectly normal girl who happens to be a movie star. You'll have to find your kooks somewhere else.
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