“I Was an Ugly Duckling”

Coronet Magazine

March 1964

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By Barbra Streisand
As told to Dixie Dean Harris

I guess in many respects my life parallels Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Ugly Duckling.” Like the duckling, I was teased because I was “different.” I was a loner—not lonely, understand, but just alone. I wasn’t like all the others, and I suppose it bothered me a bit then. But now I wonder if being a little different didn’t really help me.

In an age and an art that worships beauty, I’m managing pretty well so far in show business. I got the lead in “Funny Girl,” the musical based on the life of Fanny Brice. I’ve got two record albums that I’m very pleased to see near the top of the weekly show biz polls of best sellers. When it was announced last summer that I would do a concert in San Francisco, the entire house sold out—before a date had been set! And when I sang my “Miss Marmelstein” number in Broadway’s “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” it was called a show-stopper.

What really surprises some people—me, too, sometimes—is that I managed to get into show business at all. I knew a casting director during my pre-Broadway days who tried to interest a few agents in me. [Note: Eddie Blum of the Rodgers and Hammerstein casting office] But after I'd go around to see them, they’d all say the same thing to him: “That funny girl, are you out of your mind?”

So I’m no Suzanne Pleshette. I’ve got pretty eyes, though, and long lashes. But who notices, with my nose? Jerome Weidman, the author of “Wholesale,” described the first time he saw me—or some of me. He told me that when I walked on-stage to audition all he could see was an enormous fur coat, a pair of shapely legs in very dirty tennis sneakers and a pile of brillo-like hair. He said the entire contraption was being tugged forward across the stage by a short leash, which on closer inspection proved to be my nose.

But I haven’t worried too much about my nose since the opening of “Wholesale.” I really had a good case of first-night jitters. I was so nervous I asked one of the show’s backers if he thought I should do something about my nose. “If you do,” he answered, “you won’t be Barbra Streisand anymore.”

That clinched it: No nose job. Because most of all I want to be true to myself. Really, people should be left to be themselves, instead of everyone trying to change everyone else. For what?

For instance, I remember the sneers when I wore long black stockings before they became fashionable all over the country. That still burns me. So if I wore black tights it was to keep warm. I didn’t wear them to look bohemian. I never stayed in Greenwich Village. Never hung out in coffee shops. Ridiculous—people sitting around, doing nothing. I never had any friends there. I stayed home and read.

Maybe I do look a little odd sometimes, because I wear bulky fur coats, enormous boots and floppy hats. But New York winters drive me to any and all extremes in trying to keep warm. I hate cold weather.

Some people think my taste in clothes is eccentric. I really don’t know why they laugh at my clothes. They’re right out of the pages of top fashion magazines. True, some of the magazines date back 30 or 40 years. But I love clothes from the late ’20s and ’30s. I’m crazy about those old velvets and beaded shoes and long feather boas.

I like thrift shops. I have the greatest collection of old clothes. I paid from $3.50 to $7.50 for them. I once found a Fabiani in one shop. It doesn’t matter to me that somebody else wore them first.

And there’s another reason why I shop in thrift stores, even though I can afford department stores now. The salespeople in department stores are so mean, a haughty bunch. In thrift shops, nobody’s mean.

If that makes me sound like a worried kid from Brooklyn, well, that’s what I was for my first 19 years. I was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn on April 24, 1942. (That’s Taurus, by the way, and Taurus people exist on their will power.) My father was an English and psychology teacher. He died when I was 15 months old, and my mother remarried when I was 8.

I was one homely kid—the kind that looks absolutely ridiculous with a ribbon in her hair. I yearned for glamour then, and I’d go look for it in the movies. My mother used to hate it when I went to the movies, because I was grouchy for days after. But after seeing all the beautiful things in movies, coming back to where we lived used to depress me. We weren’t poor poor, but we didn’t have anything. Not even a Victrola.

I never got into Manhattan even until I was 14, when I saw my first Broadway play. It was “The Diary of Anne Frank.” But I was sitting way up in the balcony. I was very disappointed. It was a sad play and the setting was so dreary. It was drab compared to the movies.

I’ve always tried to avoid what was drab or ordinary—I mean things like being born in Brooklyn can get to seem so commonplace. I really love Brooklyn, but I played a good trick once on theatergoers and the editors of Playbill. Very straight-faced, I said I was born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon and educated at Erasmus High. My press agent said nobody would believe such a phony line, but I said so what? I told him I’m sick and tired of being born in Brooklyn. I had the same kind of problem with my name. Every day, listening to that ‘a’ in the middle of Barbara, who needs it? Two ‘a’s are plenty. For 19 years I had three ‘a’s and enough is enough. Now I’m Barbra.

After I graduated from Erasmus High School—with a 93 average and a Spanish medal—I moved into Manhattan. I got a job as a clerk and I started taking drama lessons. For a while I was going to three different coaches at once.

I didn’t want any of them to know I was studying with the others, so I took the name Angelina Scarangella part of the time to throw them off the track. I had it printed on match covers.

My first break sounds like something out of a movie plot. I was flat broke and I entered a singing contest in a Greenwich Village bar. And I won. A few weeks later I was singing for $108 in a little Village nightclub called the Bon Soir. That led to television appearances. On one, I confounded Mike Wallace by launching into a tirade against milk. My really first appearance on a New York stage was in an off-Broadway revue called “An Evening With Harry Stoones.” It was October 21, 1961. I had two songs to sing, a blues one and a comic thing. And that show was well named—it turned out to be just an evening. It opened and closed the same night. And then came my big break in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”

As Miss Marmelstein, I sang about the trials of an unloved and unnoticed secretary—but in reality I felt far from unloved and/ or unnoticed. For one thing, both the critics and the audience showed their approval. And so did Elliot Gould, the play’s leading man.

Elliot is a lovely human being, very compassionate and sweet. He’s been in show business since he was a kid. He’s big, tall and handsome—six three and 190 pounds. And now he’s my husband. It’s funny, in the play I was the homely secretary and in real life the sort of left-out duckling. But meeting Elliot is like a happy ending. We found each other in “Wholesale.” Sure, for me the play was a high spot in my career, but meeting Elliot was a lot more important to me. Here I was, a girl from Brooklyn who never had guys chasing me, never went steady, and a loner. And then the handsome leading man falls in love with me and marries me! It’s terrific! Actually my marriage is a very personal thing to me. Although we’re very much in show biz, our marriage I’d like to think of as a private thing.

Now we live on Central Park West in a large penthouse duplex that once belonged to Lorenz Hart. We don’t have much furniture yet, but so far we’ve bought an Elizabeth four-poster, a dentist’s cabinet—we use it for gloves—some spool cabinets, a theater exit sign and some odds and ends. It has an elegant stairway, so I can make an entrance, and a 55-foot terrace that’s larger than the living room.

When I’m not working, I like to sleep, read and eat. I could sleep 15 hours, but usually sleep nine. Eight is okay, but anything less than that makes me grouchy. Food is important, too. I even think of success in terms of food. Success is like having a baked potato come out of the oven just right. Not raw and not overdone. Or, perhaps, a full Chinese meal. I’m devoted to complicated Chinese dishes. Maybe it’s because I grew up on hearty but pretty dull European-style cooking.

I used to baby-sit for a Chinese couple in Brooklyn when I was a kid. They had a restaurant and they taught me to enjoy Chinese dishes. I often go to Chinatown late at night to eat. You can get wonderful white hot breads filled with shrimp at the little coffee shops there.

But really, success is more than having perfectly cooked baked potatoes. It’s having a $12,000 fur coat instead of a $15 hand-me-down from a thrift shop. It’s getting a $15,000 weekly night club salary instead of $108 a week. It’s being accepted for what I am, kooky clothes and all, and it’s having top American fashion designers like Norman Norell and Bill Blass make a fuss over me.

I have an awful stomach that pops in and out and I like to be comfortable when I sing. That’s why I wear a lot of Empire dresses. You don’t have to wear all those underthings to hold you in. Bill Blass loves my stomach. He said he’d like to design some clothes around it.

And success is being listed in the Encyclopedia Brittanica Yearbook, and having all kinds of admirers. Hollywood’s Sidney Skolsky writes about me in his daily column. Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and George Abbot tell me they’re devoted. Writer Robert Ruark called me “the hottest thing to hit entertainment fields since Lena Horne erupted.”

But the most important thing that ever happened to me was meeting President Kennedy. The late President invited me to sing at the White House and he stopped to chat after the show. He actually asked me to autograph his album. I told him I wanted a souvenir, too, either the Rose Room or his autograph. I got his autograph.

My singing style and voice have been compared to just about every top female singer. One TV critic went so far as to call me the “American Piaf.” Yet I don’t think of myself as being a singer, but rather an actress who sings. There’s a world of difference. I approach a song as an actress approaches a part. I try to move people when I sing. I try to make little pictures for them which they can feel and visualize. There’s no trick in getting up in front of an audience and closing your eyes and singing. That’s easy. But to get up there and keep your eyes open and look at your audience and make them feel what you want them to feel—well, that’s hard.

Besides acting out my songs, I’m blessed with a big voice. I can skip from whimsies like “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” to a serious rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That arrangement, incidentally, came about accidentally when I was practicing it for a TV show. The conductor had me “take it slow” a few times to get the feel of the song. And something happened. I really felt that song. It’s a lament for all the tired, disillusioned, hopeful people in the world.

You know, maybe not being a beauty explains my success. Maybe being the girl that guys never looked at twice, and when I sing about that— about being like an invisible woman—people feel like protecting me.

When I was on tour, I noticed the audience reaction in a dozen different cities. It was always the same. When I came on stage, people laughed. But when I begin to sing, the audience changes somehow. They’re with me. It’s as if they’d like to say they’re sorry they laughed at me.

I guess it would be easier to describe what I feel about my looks and my career if I used somebody else’s words. One evening, New York reporter Jimmy Breslin dropped in on an early rehearsal of “Funny Girl.” The stage was bare. Old wooden chairs were the only props. The cast and stagehands were dressed in ordinary work clothes. Breslin later wrote: “Then this girl’s voice began to come off this bare stage and it started to reach around the empty theater. Then there was this sort of growl in Barbra Streisand’s voice and now you didn’t notice the bare stage or the chairs or the guy carrying the ladder. It didn’t matter where you were. She is that kind of singer.”

When a performer gets that kind of reaction she knows that every bit of hard work was worth it. And I’m ready and willing to keep right on working hard. I want a big career. I want lots of money. I want Broadway—and all the etceteras that go with it.

When I’m good, when I’m pleased with my performance, I feel powerful. I forget about being an ugly duckling. I feel—well, why not—I feel like a swan. Maybe that’s it—Brooklyn’s ugly duckling and Broadway’s beautiful swan.


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