What does Barbra believe in, Anyway? “Repair the World”
May 14, 1993
By Timothy K. Smith
“When I was 19 years old, and they asked me to contribute my bio for the playbill of [‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’] I wrote that l was born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon, and attended the yeshiva in Brooklyn,” Barbra Streisand says. “I didn't want people to read, ‘Streisand, Brooklyn, yeshiva,' and say to themselves. ‘Oh yes, I see who she is.’
Thirty-two years later, Ms. Streisand is struggling with the same kind of problem on a national stage. She has been the most powerful woman in Hollywood for some time now, and lately she has been stepping out to play that role in public. But she has done so at a peculiar moment in the history of celebrity clout. Fresh from a Washington tour that was widely perceived as a victory lap for show-business liberals, she finds herself cast as the presumptive leader of a sort of ﬂying wedge of glamorous nitwits, jetting in from the coast to have their political credentials validated.
A Capital Presence
Holed up in her Manhattan apartment with a stack of books about Thomas Jefferson, Ms. Streisand says, “It's painful to get a bad rap. I think the president is grateful for the help he's gotten from people in show business.”
Ms. Streisand, once a famous recluse, seems to be everywhere all at once. Besides singing at the president's inaugural, she has accompanied him to the annual Gridiron dinner and has stayed overnight at the White House. She has dined with the attorney general, socialized with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and toured the National Archives. She has been honored by the American Civil Liberties Union. She is scheduled to reappear in Vogue magazine after a 25-year interval.
Ms. Streisand is, actually, an interesting symbol, a prominent repudiation of the Reagan-Bush legacy: She is a liberal, Democratic, Jewish member of the “cultural elite.” She is also a self-made woman who has earned a large fortune partly by weaving her activist enthusiasms into her art. Her politics and her cinema are, in fact, becoming indistinguishable: Right now she is working on a film version of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer's play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. She recently picked up an option to make a movie about Lt. Col. Margarethe Cammemeyer, who was forced to resign from the Washington National Guard when she acknowledged that she is a lesbian.
She sang for President Kennedy when she was 19, and for President Johnson five years later. Then, during a concert in New York's Central Park in 1967, she received a death threat, putatively from the Palestine Liberation Organization. She developed a deep case of stage fright, and seldom sang in public for the next 19 years.
Ms. Streisand spent those decades making records and movies, building her dynasty with a natural talent that is, by general Hollywood consensus, scary. She has never practiced scales. Even today, the only maintenance she devotes to her voices to take steamy showers. “It's funny because I always thought my top note was a D, and now I'm hitting an E flat,” she says.
She became rich, acquired a 24-acre estate in Malibu and built five houses on it. “I used to never stop working,” she says. “My secretary used to live in my guest house. All the men in my life have said, ‘Can't you stop working at seven o’clock?’ I never used to understand what they meant.”
She never did have time to go to college, and she takes her education about public affairs where she finds it. She reads a lot, but hardly any fiction. “I went to a dinner party a few years ago, and some friends wanted to introduce me to some eligible bachelors, and instead I sat next to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and he turned me on to the Economist, so now I'm reading that,” she says.
The Chernobyl Reaction
It was politics that ﬁnally coaxed Ms. Streisand back on stage. “It was April 26, 1986,” says Marilyn Bergman, a lyricist (“The Way We Were”) and Ms. Streisand’s close friend. “We were talking about the disaster at Chernobyl. She called me that morning, and she was absolutely horrified at what happened. The question was, ‘What can be done about this?’ And the answer was, ‘The only thing that I know to do about it is to take back the Senate for the Democrats.’ ”
Oblique as that connection might seem, Hollywood Democrats had been seething for a full six years over the popularity of President Reagan, formerly president of the Screen Actors Guild. The fledgling Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, of which Ms. Bergman was a founding member, was planning to raise funds for six Democratic Senatorial candidates in close races. The Chernobyl conversation “became a discussion of what is more frightening: performing in front of an audience, or nuclear annihilation?” Ms. Bergman says.
That September, Ms. Streisand had an amphitheater carved into her lawn, invited Hollywood's aristocracy for an evening performance at $5,000 a couple, sang 17 songs and raised $1.5 million, a sum that made Democratic party professionals gasp. Five of the six senators won their races in November, the Senate reverted to a Democratic majority and the HWPC went on to take its place as one of the preeminent women's political finance organizations, on a par with Emily’s List and the Women’s Campaign Fund.
Emboldened, Ms. Streisand endowed a foundation, formed a board and hired a director to run it. The foundation distributed a total of $714,800 last year to 64 organizations, primarily groups focusing on civil rights, AIDS and the environment.
Ms. Streisand leaves most details of her political philanthropy to the professionals, but occasionally she just hauls off and makes a grant herself. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground and began spilling oil into Prince William Sound, for instance, the tiny public radio station in Valdez, covering the biggest story of its life and feeding on-the-scene reports to other radio stations around the country, quickly overextended itself and ran out of money. Ms. Streisand got wind of the problem and immediately gave the station $5,000, keeping it on the air until it could organize an emergency fund drive.
In the 1980s, when Ms. Streisand began directing and producing movies of her own, she acquired the clout of a Hollywood executive and the leeway to contemplate social issues on screen. She made “Yentl,” a movie about a girl who has to dress as a boy to get an education. Then she made “Nuts,” a movie about a woman who may or may not be mad, because “l wanted to work on child abuse and incest.”
A question she often asks, artistically and politically, is “What happens to us in childhood?” Ms. Streisand says, “We didn’t have much. l slept in the bed with my mother, and my brother slept on a cot. We didn’t have a living room, and I used to hide under the dining mom table a lot.” Her sympathetic bond with President Clinton is rooted in childhood experience: both were young overachievers raised in humble circumstances. “People talk a lot about Clinton losing his father,” she says. “I totally identify with that because I lost my father when l was an infant.”
Ms. Streisand defends the Presidents first 100 days. “I mean, look at all the things he’s done in terms of the family leave act, and the biodiversity treaty,” she says. “And it's really important to me as a woman to have that gag rule lifted” on abortion counseling.
She first met Mr. Clinton at a political event at producer Ted Field’s house in Beverly Hills. By the time of the general election, she had helped to raise about $1 million for the Democratic ticket. So it was no surprise that she was invited to perform at the inaugural festivities, bearing the imprimatur of Hollywood's Democratic establishment.
But then a funny thing happened: Chevy Chase, Sally Field, Richard Dreyfuss, Goldie Hawn and 40% of 1992’s Grammy Award nominees were invited, too. Twelve years of pent-up, liberal, show-business energy spilled into the Potomac as Hollywood swarmed the inaugural. Washington, once described by a wise French diplomat as “an anti-erotic place,” was for the first time in memory stampeded by gorgeous, rich, Democratic, show-business people.
And they kept coming back. Bruce Babbitt briefed a squad of celebrities on the environment. Director Henry Jaglom wrote a letter to the president urging him to end the suffering in Bosnia; it was signed by Robert Altman, Jeff Bridges, Sherry Lansing and 12 other show-business people. Tempers frayed. Cruel aphorisms were dusted off. Washington: “Hollywood is the ATM of Democratic politics.” Hollywood: “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
“I'm feeling a kind of sadness about this,” Ms. Streisand says, alluding to press reports of friction between movie stars and Rhodes scholars. “I mean, I don't understand Bosnia. I wouldn't be so presumptuous.” Of her tour last week, she says, “I only met with Clinton for like five minutes, and it was only to ask him not to cut funding for AIDS research.” Sure, she had dinner with Attorney General Janet Reno. But asked what they talked about, Ms. Streisand says “Lots of things. Women‘s issues. Cooking.”
Ms. Streisand has a new album of Broadway tunes coming out shortly. She will also continue using her voice as a political instrument. “At the yeshiva they taught us tikkun olam; it means to repair the broken pieces of the world,” she says. “I don't know if it's a Jewish thing, or a religious thing, but I feel it.”