"I'm trying to recover the person who had no fear, who went away to summer stock when she was fourteen, who slept in offices and an empty piano studio on a $12.95 cot. I'm trying to recover Barbara Joan Strelsand, the person that I was before I took the a out of my name"
BY ELIZABETH KAYE
Everyone was staring at the couple in the luncheonette of the Malibu drugstore with that in-spite-of-themselves, on-again, off-again look with which people view celebrities and corpses. The couple seemed not to notice and possibly they didn't, for they were obviously absorbed in their milk shakes, their hamburgers and each other. They sat side by side in the black plastic booth, holding hands and laughing. And the people watching them began to smile, too, as if they were somehow glad that these two people who had, in a sense, both concocted themselves, had managed to find each other. Then they got up, still holding hands, and walked through a door into the flat California winter sun: a woman named Barbra in a flowered dress, who had once spelled her name with another a, and Jon, the bearded man in the hippie shirt, whose name used to be John.
I had never seen Barbra Streisand before, and seeing her that day left me with the impression that she was a woman who wanted to make up for the fact that her youth had been worked away, who wanted to compensate now for the early drive and ambition that had turned her into a grown-up before she had had time to be a girl.
As it turned out, this was true, though only partly, for complicated people are not well-defined by a single, facile definition. Part of Barbra Streisand is indeed Cinderella, who worked too hard to have any fun, but there is another part of her that, until a short while ago, resembled Peter Pan, who refused to ever grow up. In fact, until very recently she was a complete dichotomy, professionally one thing and personally something else: the hard worker of great self-expectation who would perform like a grown-up on the set all day, but who inside was, in many ways, still like the adolescent child who, years ago, used to climb into bed with a bunch of fan magazines and a pint of coffee ice cream.
The working side of her grew up fast because it had to. Her personal side was left largely unattended. "There wasn't time for everything," she told me. "Something had to go, and it was my self that went." Barbra Streisand was a superstar when she was just out of her teens, and thus a personality before she had had a chance to become a person. If her career was to be phenomenal, its caliber and scope unlike that of any star who came before her, then the price it exacted would be enormous, too. And two years ago, 12 years after it had all started, she found that it was necessary now to close the gap between what she was and the glittering facts on her resume. Having achieved professionally even more than she thought was achievable, Barbra Streisand decided it was time to shake hands with herself. "What I'm trying to do," she told me simply, "is recover from success. Who I'm trying to recover is the person who wasn't afraid, who had no time for fear, the person who went away to summer stock when she was fourteen, who moved away from home at sixteen, who lived in offices, an empty piano studio, with a twelve dollar and ninety-five cent Whelan's cot under her arm. In other words, what I'm trying to recover is Barbara Joan Streisand, the person I was before I took the a out of my name.''
There has never been another success quite like it. In 1961 Barbra Streisand entered a talent contest at a New York City club called The Lion and won. Two years later she accepted the Grammy Award as the year's Best Female Vocalist, an award she would win the next two years as well. In 1963 Cue Magazine named her "Entertainer the the Year," and the following year she was nominated for a Tony Award for her stage portrayal of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. In 1965 she won an Emmy for the television special My Name Is Barbra, and four years later received an Academy Award for her film performance in Funny Girl. (''Hello, gorgeous," she said to the Oscar as it was placed in her hands.) In 1970 she was given a special Tony Award, "On Stage Hall of Fame Award," a category that did not exist until it was invented for her. Thus, in less than ten years she had done something that no other performer before her or since has ever been able to do: She had become the recipient of every major award in the entertainment field. She was 25 years old.
You would probably expect her to be taller. As it happens, she is only five feet five, and today she seems even smaller as she walks through a huge wooden door of her new and spectacular home, wearing almost flat shoes, a maroon V-neck sweater and dungarees with little red flowers appliqued on them. Her streaky blond hair hangs straight and long; Barbra Streisand is in what she calls a "no makeup me'' phase, which is her way of saying that she is trying to be herself. She has been exhaustively described as both ugly and beautiful. "When I was younger,'' she says now, "it was very confusing to hear one day that I had such beautiful blue eyes and the next day that my eyes were crossed and was I going to get them fixed. I have a face like that, you know what I mean? I look a lot of different ways, and I like that now, I enjoy it in myself. I used to feel really nuts, schizophrenic: One day I'd feel very regal and self-contained, like a queen, and the next day I'd be like a clumsy thirteen-year-old. But lately what I've been accepting is that I'm really all of those things." And, in defiance of previous description, I find a strange adjective occurring to me, for nowhere had I ever heard it mentioned that Barbra Streisand is cute.
But that is the word I am thinking of, and also fragile, and also tiny, a sense that is heightened as we settle into the huge, soft fur rugs that are spread on the outsize mattresses that serve as the living-room couch in her home. We prop up some of the dozens of antique pillows behind us and start talking about Life with a quick, confiding intimacy that I haven't experienced in the last 15 years, ever since I got too old to go to slumber parties.
Barbra Streisand is now 32 years old and has lived with Jon Peters for more than a year in his dreamlike, open house, with enormous yellow flowers blooming around the door, guarded only by a huge, sleeping dog. "It's a mixture of rough, male wood," she points out, "and also very feminine glass and china things, an exact combining of my taste and style and Jon's." The blend is exotic, eccentric. Logic tells you that it should not work, yet it does. For example, the bathroom has a natural-stone bathtub, a natural-stone wall and a heavy wooden counter with green-and-pink crystal, flower-filled vase resting on it. The sink is set into the counter, and it and all the fixtures are pink-rose-covered white china. It is, like so many other Streisand ventures, a highly successful breaking of other peoples' rules.
The bedrooms and study are separate from the rest of the house, which is really just one utterly enormous room with huge, beamed ceilings about three stories high. A fairy-tale, hideaway place, with small, intimate touches, such as on the inside of her closet door where she has hung her collection of antique fans and bags that were bought in New York many years ago, before she was Barbra the Star.
Geographically, this house is not all that far from the Beverly Hills house she lived in before and still owns. But the distance between them extends a a million psychic miles and provides the first evidence that Barbra is a woman who is changing. The Beverly Hills house ("my so-called mansion"), with its huge front gate to keep people out, is formal, obligatorily elegant in the very best movie-star style. "It was never really me," she says, "and I never really liked living in it, so I just fixed it up a little, not much.
There are two rooms in that house she gave real attention to. Both are pieces of design. She is addicted to home decoration and, like a little girl playing house with real toys, collects endless, wonderful Art Nouveau pieces and keeps exhaustive furniture files. "I love being surrounded by beauty if I can have it," she says, and so it is no surprise that the rooms she has "done" are crafted with such minute care that in each one even the candy matches: red-hots and black licorice in the red-black-and-gray Art Deco projection room; pink and green flower-shape mints in what she calls "my little girl's dream of a powder room." Anything that Barbra touches inevitable shows her hand, yet that house clearly has more style than warmth; the most personal clues to her to be found there are thumbtacked to a kitchen wall and indicate that she likes having pizza delivered and that a "Mr. Gould" is frequently called, meaning, of course, Elliott Gould, her former husband and her eight-year-old-son Jason's father.
Barbra and Elliott met early in 1962, during auditions of the Broadway musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale. He was a star; she had a small part that would make her famous, Miss Marmelstein. The show closed in December and they were married shortly after. It was a time when Barbra was on her way farther and still farther up and Elliott seemed to be going not much of anywhere. Later, of course, his breaks would come, but it would be too late by then, for the marriage ended in 1969 and Elliott's triumph, M*A*S*H, did not come until a year later. I ask if they are friends today. She answers "yes," in a tone that indicates two things: (1) that she means it, and (2) that the subject is closed.
Now their son, Jason, seems to jump into the living room of the new and very personal home, a small, thin little boy with a bright open face.
Barbra invites him to join us at the long dining table where we have moved to have tea, laced with fancy sugars, hers mint, mine lemon, that she and Jason made. She offers him some whipped cream and pumpkin bread. "Nope," he says, and goes zipping out of the room, having first extracted a promise that when the lady, who is me, finally leaves, he will get to play a game with his mother. "I'm really beginning to enjoy my son," Jason's mother says. "He's got a great sense of humor and he's at such a terrific age. I love watching him learn how to read and write. Jon is really great with him, too; he does all kinds of things with him and teaches him how not to be afraid. I wish I'd had someone to teach me that when I was Jason's age."
Had that person existed, however, she would likely still be Barbara with all three a's, for it was fear as much as it was anything else that gave her the determination to reshuffle the hand that life had dealt her, to grow her fingernails long as a way of saying No to her mother's dream that she would someday take typing and become a secretary. "I was terrified that all there was to life was what I had," she says, "and I knew that it just couldn't be that way, because it wasn't enough. When you feel like that, you're really driven to work, and that's about all you do, and then you discover one day that you're a famous person and that isn't enough, either. I mean, you can't hug that."
And, much later, Barbra would see her work commitment as having also been a work obsession that conveniently, as obsessions tend to do, had blotted all other considerations flatly out. "It was a wonderful way of avoiding myself," she says. "You work all day, and then come home and fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. No time for thinking, no time to talk. That's that. But sooner or later your demons come back and haunt you and I found that very frightening." Barbra Streisand was now 29 years old and living in an endless mansion, a long way from Brooklyn and the living-room cot she used to sleep on, living here with a stranger who happened to be herself. "I was afraid to find out who I was," she says, "because I was afraid I wouldn't like it, and afraid I couldn't change it. There were things about myself I already knew I didn't like, it just seemed easier to ignore the rest. It's like when I was a kid and started reading I thought, My God, there's so much to learn, so you know what I did? I stopped reading."
But Barbra was to find out that even famous people are subject to the human rule that ignoring problems does not make them go away. And when she made the decision to look into herself, it was not, I think, either because she is noble or high-minded but simply because the price of not knowing herself had become exorbitant, a dubious luxury she could no longer afford. "I got so tired of the same destructive patterns," she says, "I was putting up defensive walls, relationships were difficult for me. I was so full of fantasy about other people that I turned off anyone who wasn't perfect. What I didn't realize then was how hard it is to accept imperfection in others until you can accept it in yourself. And I just got so tired of my mishegoss, my craziness, and when you're that tired of something you change. I believe in the will. I always have. Anyone can change anything. Anyone can become what they want to become. I decided that I want to be happy, that I want to be healthy. I was tired of the pain," she says, and then pauses. "I guess it was a matter of wanting to grow, of wanting to survive."
There is something in people that, at a certain moment in their lives, makes them willing to reevaluate and change; exactly what this thing is is mystical, unchartable. For Barbra it was probably a composite of many things, including the fact that, having achieved so much in the outside world, she really had nowhere to go but in. And there was another thing, a simple, human event: One day she woke up and she was 30.
"That was really something," she says, "because all of a sudden it was very clear to me that I wasn't a kid any more, that the excuses I'd given myself for not growing up just didn't work. I felt I no longer had alternative, I mean, when you're thirty, you're thirty. And you've got to start being responsible. It's too late to be just a little girl any more."
Regular people like me or like you are forced by life into growing up. Superstars, of course, should be forced into it, too, but they are not—not really. There are so many people in Barbra Streisand's life who want something from her, who do not wish to offend her, that she can be reinforced in any role, however childish, that she chooses to play. So it is, I think, very much to her credit that she was willing to take stock of herself and to say that, despite the marvelous outer trappings, she was a very unfinished product and that it was time to do some finishing.
Shortly after she made her decision, she received an invitation that provoked first a crisis and then a breakthrough. "Some friends asked me to go skiing," she remembers, "and I was terrified to go. I knew it meant meeting a lot of people, and I thought there was no possible way that I could learn to ski. But I decided that I had to go, and I went and it was wonderful. I was doing something that I was afraid of doing. I was conquering so many fears. I went up in that chair lift and knew I'd have to get down, and I thought, That's it. I'll have a heart attack. There's too much fresh air up here. But four days later there I was skiing down from the top of the mountain and I was learning so much: what it feels like to fall, that the snow is soft, that you don't get killed, that you survive. It was very exciting for me. I spent that whole year skiing.
"Being an actress," she went on, "shouldn't take up all of your time, but for a long time that's how it was with me. Now what I'm doing is taking all the energy that I put into being a star, a performer, and using it to discover myself. You know, there really is an art and a craft to living, and that's what I'm learning now. And just like I knew that I'd be a star, I know that I'm becoming more and more aware of the intricacies of living, more and more aware of what it is to be alive. Somehow," and there is real pride in her voice, "I have a real sense of what I'm doing today."
During the time I worked on this piece, articles on Barbra Streisand were popping up all over the place, most of them movie-magazine pieces all purporting to tell the true "Truth" about her, which would not be all that easy to do since she hasn't talked to an interviewer in over two years. In fact, it is almost impossible for a writer to see her, and her reluctance is understandable since interviews cannot really help her, but can hurt her, and she has no special need to explain herself to her fans.
It was four months before I was able to reach her; four months in which the first notation on my calendar each morning was "call Monroe Freedman," a man who works for her press-relations firm. Calls to Monroe Freedman came to resemble spiritual rallies, for he would always counsel me along the lines of the truer virtues: Patience, Endurance and Courage. Finally, I became resigned to the notion that the piece, if I were to do it at all, would likely be titled "Barbra Streisand at Fifty." Then one day the telephone rang. It was Monroe Freedman calling me. "I think," he said, "that we are going to have a Happy Ending." He seemed astonished that I was actually going to get to see her, and since this was the man who had been assuring me all these months that, yes, the interview would eventually happen, I found that rather interesting.
Of course I had never dealt with a superstar before and had assumed that the people who save and protect Barbra Streisand from people like me knew her and her preferences well. This illusion was promptly shattered the day Monroe took me out to meet her, and introduced us but first had to introduce himself.
In fact, very few people know Barbra Streisand, but one person does know her very well indeed, which brings us to the matter of Jon.
Jon Peters' name always appears in print these days followed by the pejorative tag of "former hairdresser," which somehow suggests a picture of Peters trudging through life with little to hold on to, or to recommend him, other than his scissors and comb. It is true that he was a hairdresser until very recently; it is also true that he is the owner of three of Los Angeles' most posh and successful hair salons. Peters, who is half Cherokee Indian and half Italian, is the former husband of actress Leslie Ann Warren and father of their seven-year-old son. He is the person whom Barbra calls "the very important man" in her life.
Which, of course, does not qualify him as controversial. But he is, and that is because of the extent of his participation in Barbra's life and, most particularly, in her career. He has just produced her new record album, which has become a Gold Record, grossing more than a million dollars in three months. He is about to produce and direct her new film.
Jon Peters gets a lot of amused and negative press that tends to cast him a role that teeters precariously between Henry Higgins and Svengali. On one hand, he has been rumored to have taken Barbra over, to be creating his own Eliza Doolittle out of a nice Brooklyn Jewish girl. Of course Barbra has often been called something of a barracuda and is supposedly the lady who directs directors; it is therefore hard to imagine her in the somewhat improbable role of shrinking violet. Then there is the scenario in which Peters sees Barbra as his Big Chance, decides he must win her and that the best way to the heart of this dominating lady is to give her what she has always needed and secretly wanted: a good, swift kick in the pants. I do not subscribe to either notion. The sense I had from being with them is that no one here is dominating and no one is submitting but that they are partners, they are equals. The feeling I got is that Barbra Streisand feels that she has finally met her match. "Do you know how wonderful it is," she asked, "for me to be with someone where I'm not the only with an idea about what we should do on Sunday?" And I would imagine that after years of living in a kind of don't -say- yes -until -I- ask- the-question atmosphere, being with an equal must be a vast relief and feel good.
Jon Peters met Barbra Streisand a year and a half ago. "When I first met him I couldn't believe it. I thought, he's treating me like a woman, not like some famous thing." I ask Barbra if it is really all that unusual for someone to treat her that way. She thought for a moment, then answered, "Yes."
"In the beginning he was really crazy, a nut. He took me to a party once and said he wanted to go for a walk with me, then put me on his shoulders and wouldn't let me down. He was so vital, so verbal, really terrific and alive. He's half Cherokee Indian, you know, and not frightened by the sea or the mountains or sharks or things that I'm afraid of. And I like a man who isn't afraid."
When Barbra talks about Jon, her entire persona changes: She seems more connected, more alive herself. Her body relaxes, her hands gesture more; she shines. My guess is that what attracted her to him was that she had not only met someone who was unafraid but was unafraid of her, someone whose energy was able to shatter the quiet, respectful hush that she had lived in and that tends to surround mental patients and movie stars.
"Jon is a real person, not a symbol," she says, "and he has his own taste, his own style. Like, when I first went to his house, I saw this antique lace he'd hung on all the windows, and I thought, How did he know that? I mean, I didn't even know that yet. And then during our courtship—I had a real courtship, you know—he came on the set one day with a beautiful diamond -and -sapphire butterfly, just really my taste, and that's hard to do. And then a week later he gave me this hundred-year-old Indian butterfly and it was just something..." Her voice trails away. "...You know, why he gave me butterflies . . . "
That he gave her butterflies is doubtless why her new album that he produced is called "Butterfly." While I was with her, in fact, she was asked to approve its redesigned cover, and something happened that indicated a bit about the workings of the business relationship between her and Jon. First she inspected it, then approved it, then asked if Jon had seen it yet. Yes, she was told. "What did he say?" "He liked it." "Okay," she said in a tone that indicated that was that. "Good."
"You know," she says now, "I've experienced one part of my career, and I feel now that I'm in another phase. My star started rising in nineteen sixty-four and now it's more than ten years later and watching Jon's star rise is like having the whole thing happen again." And this is something that I had not thought of: that possibly the best part of success is the excitement that occurs before the success is achieved. And Barbra it seems, wants to re experience those days, have those feelings back again in much the same way that people reread books they have loved. Of course, a case can be, and has been, made for the fact that Jon's star is not so much rising as being propped up by Barbra for living with her is obviously a rather neat entre into any of Hollywood's usually closed doors.
"It helps him and hinders him," she says, explaining that it is a classic good- news-bad-news case: true, because of her he can get in anywhere; also true, because of his ease in getting there he has to prove himself "a hundred times more," she says. "I know it's making people angry. It's like when I first came out here and had three film contracts, never having had a screen test, and wouldn't get my nose done or my teeth capped. I got a lot of very bad press, too. People want you to conform, they want you to pay dues. But Jon will either deliver or he won't." And of course what no one is crediting Jon for is the fact that he has given up his own personal success to risk a possible public failure.
"Some TV-news people called the other day," she went on. "They wanted to follow him around, and he said, 'You're treating me like a mini-celebrity. I haven't done anything yet.' He told them, 'When I do this body of work, be a success or a failure, I'll talk to you about it.' He isn't going to capitalize on my publicity. He's kind of embarrassed by it."
Jon walks through the door, a compact man. I had somehow pictured him as being frenetic, but he is not. "Hey, that's great," Barbra says, admiring his new, brightly colored, wraparound jacket made from what looks like an antique Indian blanket. "I thought you'd like it," he says, smiling. Barbra introduces me to Jon and, as if trying to forge a connection between us, tells him, "She's twenty- nine too."
The phone rings, Barbra's agent is calling. "I'll call back later," she tells the housekeeper. "I never could have done that a year ago," she says. "I'm just starting to get a sense of priorities, a real feeling about what's important when."
Jon agrees. "She used to go in forty directions at once and make herself crazy. We're both learning about priorities; how to do as much as we can but do it comfortably."
We sit drinking tea in front of the fire that Jon has set, talking easily about nothing in particular. The conversation shifts to a recent newspaper item about Jon. "It says," Jon laughs, "that a Warner Brothers executive told me I have a Napoleon complex, and I'm supposed to have answered, 'I'm not that short.'"
Calling Peters Napoleon ranks as the highest praise compared with other things, that are being said and written about him, remarks all having to do with the fact that lie, with no film experience at all, is working on a project with Barbra, a remake of A Star Is Born, which she will star in and he will direct and produce. Whether or not Jon is qualified to direct a five-million-dollar film is a question a lot of people have been asking, and I ask it of Barbra, half-expecting that she will not have an answer, but she does.
"I believe in instinct, I believe in imagination, I believe in taste, I believe in the artistic eye," she says. "These are the important ingredients and they're all the things he has. Maybe that's why I'm willing to embark on this adventure. And Jon has a way of seeing me, he knows me as a woman, as a sexual being, and I'm tired of being just Funny Girl, a self-deprecating waif. And he really knows me, has really seen me, like last night when I played my guitar for him. I'm just learning how to play it, and he loved it. He said that because I'm usually so professional it was very touching to see me awkward. You know, my voice gets not too hot because I'm really concentrating on the chords. That's the kind of thing about me no one but Jon knows, and he said that in the film he wants to use that scene: my playing the guitar.
"I realize that the film is a risk," she continued, "but I've always taken risks in my career. People said, 'You've got to sing in Owl and the Pussycat,' and I said, I'm not going to sing, and they said you can't not sing. I said I'm not only going to not sing, I'm going, to not sing in at least four pictures." And now the irritation in her voice is very real. "I'm not going to do just what I'm expected to do. It's no fun for me. I'm not afraid of failure."
Judging from Hollywood gossip, the prospect of a Streisand failure is supremely intriguing to others, however, for she has been so far a professionally confident lady who has enjoyed incredible success, something that is not easily forgiven in women, though always applauded in men. It has, in fact, been the sort of success that has been pardoned only in women like Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe, women who can be admired but at the same time be pitied. And Barbra, whatever she may or may not be, is a strong woman, intensely professional and not pitiable at all.
"There's a lot more to life than work, though," she says, "which is something I used not to know. And right now the most important thing in my life is my family."
Several years ago, speaking from a very different emotional place, Barbra Streisand told an interviewer, "The only true happiness I know is the happiness you can get from a soft baked potato with a nice hard shell," a statement that fascinated me, for it gave away so much of her little-girl-self. I ask her about it now. "Let's face it," the 32-year-old woman says. "The only true happiness is true happiness, like what I have with my family, with Jon. It's really incredible: There's always something to talk about —there's always something more to discover, and don't get me wrong; we have enormous fights, too—but the talking and the fighting help us to grow at such a rapid rate. I'm on him about things I don't like in him and he's on me about what he doesn't like in me, and they're right things not to like, you know what I mean? And it forces us both to change. It's a matter of discipline."
I ask Barbra if she thinks they'll marry. "It's the ultimate commitment, and if it happens, I want to be very ready for it. And this time I'd like to get married in a beautiful antique, white dress; when I married Elliott, it was in Nevada and I wore a cotton suit. It's funny, Jon is very unconventionally conventional, but being with him is making me very normal in a lot of ways.
"It's really a nice feeling, it changes everything. I'm not looking to avoid things any more, to avoid myself, to avoid life. Whether it's good or bad, you know what I mean? It's a matter of facing it all."
And now it has grown dark, and it is time for me to leave. And I realize that the atmosphere is so soothing and soft here that I do not want to go. But we say good-bye at the doorway, and I walk out into the still California night and leave Barbara Joan Streisand in the big wooden house on the edge of the canyon, where the fire is going and the lamps have been lit, where dinner is cooking and the table is set. Where it is warm.