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'Hello, Gorgeous': excerpt from Barbra Streisand bio

"Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand" by William Mann

"Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand" by William Mann (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2012) Credit: Handout

"Hello, Gorgeous" by William J. Mann


Winter 1960

For 65 cents you could get a piece of fish, a heaping helping of French fries, a tub of coleslaw and some tartar sauce at the smoky little diner on Broadway just south of Times Square. But since they only had 93 cents and some pocket lint between them, they decided to order one meal and split it, throwing in an additional dime apiece for a couple of glasses of birch beer.

It hadn't escaped Barbara's attention -- few things ever did -- that today, Feb. 5, was her father's birthday. He would have been 52 if he hadn't died when she was 15 months old, and quite possibly, instead of eating greasy fried fish with her friend Carl, she'd have spent this unseasonably warm winter day wandering through the city discussing Chekhov with the man she had come to idolize, a devotee of the Russian playwright, as well as of Shaw and Shakespeare. It was, after all, Chekhov's centennial, and as serious students of the theater, both Barbara and Emanuel Streisand would have been well aware of that fact. She and her father might even have taken in "Three Sisters" that night at the Fourth Street Theater in the East Village -- a production Barbara had been dying to see, but for which she'd been unable to afford a ticket.

Looking up at Carl over their French fries with a sudden, surprising passion, Barbara insisted that everything would have been very different if her father had lived. Certainly she wouldn't have had to spend her nights at the Lunt-Fontanne, ushering giddy housewives from New Jersey to their seats to see Mary Martin warble her way through "The Sound of Music," hiding her face "so nobody would remember" her after she became famous.

Barbara Joan Streisand was 17 years old. She had been living in Manhattan now for almost exactly a year, and she was getting impatient with the pace of her acting career. So far her resumé consisted of summer stock and one play in somebody's attic. But she wasn't anywhere near to giving up. Her grandmother had called her "farbrent" -- Yiddish for "on fire" -- because even as a child Barbara had never been able to accept "no" for an answer. Growing up in Brooklyn in near poverty, she'd existed in a world of her own imagination of "what life should be like." She was driven by "a need to be great," she said, a need that burned in her like the passion of a "preacher" and necessitated getting out of Brooklyn as soon as she could. And so it was that, in January 1959, just weeks after graduating (six months early) from Erasmus Hall High School, Barbara had hopped on the subway and, several stops later, emerged into her new life amid the lights of Times Square. Manhattan, she believed, was "where people really lived."

With the childlike enthusiasm that could, in an instant, melt her usual steely resolve, Barbara looked over at Carl with her wide blue eyes, telling him about her father, the intellectual, the man of culture. Her hands in frenetic motion, her outrageously long fingernails drawing considerable attention, she insisted that her father would have understood her. She missed him "in her bones." All her life, she'd felt she was "missing something," and she had to fill up the empty place he had left.

But, asked about her mother, Barbara fell silent. Crumpling her napkin and tossing it onto her plate, she slid out of the booth, plopped her share of coins onto the table, and trudged out of the restaurant. Carl had to gulp down the last of his birch beer before hurrying after her. Barbara was already out the door and striding down the sidewalk, the fringe of her antique lace shawl swinging as she walked.

Carl Esser knew very little about this strange urchin he'd met just a few weeks before in a Theatre Studio workshop, except that she fascinated him. Sex and romance had nothing to do with the attraction, at least not for him. At 24, Carl was seven years Barbara's senior, and besides, the small girl who was already half a block ahead of him wasn't exactly what most people would call pretty. A layer of heavy pancake makeup covered an angry blush of teenage acne. Her eyes, no matter how cornflower blue, had a tendency to look crossed. Most of all, she had a nose that was likened by some in their acting class to an anteater's snout -- behind Barbara's back, of course. But her breasts were full, her waist was small, and her hips were nicely rounded, making for an odd and rather contradictory package.

Carl knew -- everyone in their acting class knew -- how intensely Barbara wanted to be great. She wanted to be Duse, she said, though she'd never seen Duse act, only read about her in books on theater in her acting teacher's library. That didn't matter. Duse had been a great artist, perhaps the greatest, and that's what Barbara wanted. There were others in the class who claimed they wanted to be great, but what they really wanted was fame and applause. That wasn't what fired Barbara up. She didn't sit around idolizing movie stars or the latest Broadway sensation du jour. She wanted to be remembered for being great, for making art.

Taxicabs bleated their horns as Barbara and Carl crossed Times Square. Policemen blew high-pitched whistles as tiny brand-new Ford Falcons scooted past sleek Chevrolet Impalas with their sweeping tail fins. Steam from the Seventh Avenue subway rose through the grates like fog from an underground river. On every block hung the fragrance of roasting chestnuts, while tourists in fur coats gaped up at the news ticker on The New York Times Building, its 14,800 bulbs spelling out the latest in the U.S.-Soviet space race.

Barbara and Carl headed west on 48th Street. At Barbara's apartment, number 339, the friends bid each other goodbye, and if Barbara was hoping there might be a kiss, she didn't wait for it. It was clear that Carl, like all the others, wasn't interested in her that way. If anyone had asked, she would've insisted it didn't matter. With all her big dreams, she would've said that she didn't have time for romance.

That day, or one very much like it, Barbara walked up the stairs to her apartment to the smell of boiled chicken. On the stove bubbled a pot of her mother's chicken soup. Barbara's roommate, Marilyn, told her that her mother had just walked in, dropped off the soup and left. No message, no note. But the chicken soup, as always, was welcome because that fried fish and coleslaw would last only so long.

Excerpted from "Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand" by William J. Mann. Copyright © 2012 by William J. Mann. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

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