Maybe it’s her grandkids, maybe it’s being 81, but Barbra Streisand is open to new stuff. Take sharing. Well, take sharing herself. “My Name Is Barbra,” her first memoir, is upon us. It’s 970 pages and billows with doubt, anger, ardor, hurt, pride, persuasion, glory and Yiddish. I don’t know that any artist has done more sharing.
And yet, last month, after lunch at her home in Malibu, Calif., Streisand shared something else, a treasure she guards almost as much she’s guarded the details of her life. And that’s dessert. There’s a lot in this book — tales of film and television shoots, clashes and bonds with collaborators, a whole chapter on Don Johnson (it’s short) and another called “Politics,” her unwavering preference for big blends of the masculine and the feminine. But food is so ubiquitous that it’s practically a love of Streisand’s life, especially ice cream.
So when it’s time for dessert at Streisand’s, despite any choice you’re offered, there’s truly only one option. And that’s McConnell’s Brazilian Coffee ice cream. She writes about it with an orgasmic zeal comparable only, perhaps, to her stated zests for Modigliani and Sondheim. How much does Streisand love Brazilian Coffee? In the book, she’s in the middle of a sad story about a dinner with her buddy Marlon Brando at Quincy Jones’s place, when she interrupts herself to rhapsodize over its flavor and reminisce on the lengths she has gone to get some. So I wanted to have what she’s having.
“Okaaayyyy,” Streisand said. She gave her longtime assistant, Renata Buser, a deep, knowing look.
“We’ll trade. You give a good review.”
Panic, panic, panic. Stammer, stammer, stammer.
She was grinning. Buser was smiling.
“I love to laugh right now,” said Streisand, who said she’s been in a funk over the state of the planet.
Buser agreed: “You really needed a laugh.”
But Streisand wasn’t entirely kidding — well, about the good review she was. But not about the ice cream.
See, sometimes, they explained, like two girls talking about an ornate but dire piece of cafeteria gossip, there’s a situation with how available it is. (Basically, McConnell’s sometimes takes Brazilian Coffee off the market, leaving Turkish Coffee and sometimes just … “Coffee.”) When she gets her hands on some, she all but password-protects it. “My husband happens to like Turkish Coffee. Thank God,” Streisand says of the actor James Brolin, her spouse of 25 years. “So he doesn’t take my stash.”
To be clear: They’re not the same?
“Noooo,” Streisand and Buser said together. Streisand was shrugging that “are you serious right now?” shrug: “Turkey is not Brazil.”
It’s goes on like this for another minute until something crucial suddenly occurs to Streisand.
“Are you a fan of coffee ice cream?”
She didn’t have time for this. “We have vanilla.” More kidding. “I’ll give you a scoop — well, how about half a scoop? He’ll have half a scoop. I’ll take the other half.”
Eventually, Buser arrives with a bowl, and I get it.
If Loro Piana made dessert, this is how it would taste, like money. Buser had lodged Streisand’s demiscoop inside a wafer cone just the way she likes. Mine was gone in about 90 seconds. Streisand, though — she made the eating of this ounce of ice cream a discreet aria of bliss. Little nibbles of cone, then one spin around her mouth. Nibble, nibble, spin. I’ve seen one other person make love to a dessert this way, and she gave birth to me. Otherwise, no one will ever quite have what they’re having.
THIS MEMOIR OF STREISAND’S encompasses her girlhood in working-class Brooklyn in the 1940s, her big break on Broadway in “Funny Girl” in 1964, a movie career that made her the biggest actress of the 1970s, her popular albums and top-rated TV specials, the awards, the snubs, her hangups, terrors and passions, her close girlfriends, the men she’s loved and, yes, the foods she might adore more. “My Name Is Barbra” is explanatory and ruminative and enlightening. It’s shake-your-head funny and hand-to-mouth surprising. The lady who wrote it is in touch with herself, loves being herself. Yet she disliked memoir-writing’s ostensible point. “I’ve been through therapy many, many years ago, trying to figure these things out,” she told me. “And I got bored with that. Trying to get things out. I really didn’t want to relive my life.”
Writing the book forced Streisand not only to relive it, but to do the synthesizing between the present and the past. For instance, she frequently reckons with how losing her father at a young age and living for decades with her mother’s glass-half-empty approach to maternity set her up for a journey of approval.
Those 970 pages also turn the book into a piece of exercise equipment. Streisand doesn’t like the heft. “I wanted two volumes,” she said. “Who wants to hold a heavy book like that in their hands?”
Rick Kot, an executive editor at Viking who oversaw production on the book, told me, “Publishing books in two volumes is difficult just as a commercial venture. And nobody seems to have any issue with how long” Streisand’s is.
The bigness of it makes literal the career it contains. Streisand is poring over, pouring out, her life. She’s feeling her way through it, remembering, sometimes Googling as she types. It’s not a book you inhale, per se. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a pressing lunch date with the author.) Nor does it inspire the “five takeaways” treatment that juicy new memoirs by Britney Spears and Jada Pinkett Smith have. Not that there weren’t requests for spicier material. Streisand said that Christine Pittel, her editor, told her “that I had to leave some blood on the page.” So feelings are more deeply plumbed; names are named.
And she did do some hemming and hawing. “I was very late in delivering the book,” she said. “I think I was supposed to deliver it in two years.” It took her 10. And as she went, she thought about her legacy. “If you want to read about me in 20 years or 50 years, whatever it is — if there’s still a world — these are my words. These are my thoughts.” She also considered those other Streisand titles, the ones by other people. “Hopefully, you don’t have to look at too many books written about me. You know, whenever I was told about what they said, certain things, I thought, like, who are they talking about?”
There are takeaways. But they’re too chronic to qualify as “current.” Mostly, they involve Streisand’s hunger for work and her endless quest to maintain control over it. Singing and acting made her famous. This insistence on perfection made her notorious. Sexism and chauvinism are on display throughout the book. But what becomes apparent is that the woman who has a “directed by” credit on just three films (“Yentl,” “The Prince of Tides” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces”) had been a director from the very start of her career. Here is the book’s grand revelation — for a reader but for the author, too. “I didn’t know about it,” she said, of this proclivity for management, planning, vision, authority and obeying her instincts. “But writing the book, I discovered it. Basically, I was doing that, you know, when I was 19 years old — or even showing my mother how to smoke.”
Streisand is unsparing about the treachery she faced at work, collaborating with men. Sydney Chaplin (one of Charlie’s kids) played the original Nick Arnstein during her “Funny Girl” Broadway run; they shared a flirtation that Chaplin wanted to consummate and that Streisand wanted to keep professional. (For one thing, she was married to Elliott Gould.) So, she writes, Chaplin did a number on her. In front of live audiences, he’d lean in to whisper put-downs and profanity. When it came time to shoot “Hello, Dolly!,” Streisand couldn’t understand why her co-star Walter Matthau and their director, Gene Kelly (yes, the Gene Kelly) were so hostile toward her. She confronts Matthau, and he confesses: “You hurt my friend,” meaning Chaplin, his poker buddy. Throughout her career, she’s up against what one surly camera operator, on the set of “The Prince of Tides,” boasts is a boys’ club.
That’s the sort of blood that gives this book its power — not the prospect of a bluntly louche Brando and a doting Pierre Trudeau being honest-to-God soul mates, not whatever her byzantine thing with Jon Peters was about. It’s that Barbra Streisand endured a parade of harsh workplaces yet never stopped trying to make the best work. That experience with Chaplin left her with lifelong stage fright. But what if it also helped sharpen her volition to get things — in the studio, on a film set, before a show — exactly, possibly obsessively, right?
“When I was younger, I think they had a preconception, you know, because maybe I was aloof or something, because I was a singer but I wanted to be an actress. And then as an actress, I wanted to be a director,” she said to me. “In other words, take another step. Be the actress as well as the singer. To me, it was so much easier to look at the whole. But even when I was an actress, I would care about the whole.” Like that scene in Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were,” from 1973, where Streisand touches Robert Redford’s hair while he’s sleeping, a personal choice she made by instinct.
Over and over again — with TV specials, live concerts, musical arrangements — she was executing ideas. The execution earned her a permanent reputation. And she knows it. In the book, she tells a story about making some staging suggestions for her 1980 Grammys performance with Neil Diamond and muses, “This kind of incident may be why I’m called ‘difficult.’”
“Difficult” is in the work. Streisand’s characters constitute this cocktail of “mercurial” and “determined” with a couple squirts of “feral.” They’re multitaskers, consumed with both busyness and learning how to do something. She was perfect for romantic comedies during second-wave feminism: Her drive drove men nuts. My favorite performance from this ’70s run of hers is in “The Main Event,” a frothy, filthy, solidly funny screwball hit from 1979. She’s in high expressive form and at peak curls, playing Hillary Kramer, a fragrance mogul forced to sell her company after her accountant runs off with all her money. But she discovers a surprise asset: a terrible boxer, Eddie “Kid Natural” Scanlon (Ryan O’Neal), whose career she tries to turn around. The movie, which Howard Zieff directed, sums up the Streisand experience: her tenacity; her outrageous comfort as both a comedic actor and as a version of herself; her exasperation with men who exploit her and count her out.
Eddie doesn’t want to work with Hillary and bets that the sight of his battered face will disgust her right out of boxing management. The violence of boxing does send Hillary vomiting during the drive home from one of his fights. What it doesn’t do is deter her. “I hope this taught you a lesson,” says Whitman Mayo, who plays Eddie’s pal and trainer, Percy. “It has,” Streisand says. “Get him in shape.”
The two men share a sinking feeling, seemingly typical when it comes to Streisand. “She’s not giving up, Percy,” Eddie says to his trainer, who must concur: “That’s a problem.” People who’ve negotiated with her probably recognize the look of worry and fatigued resignation on O’Neal’s face. He’s going to lose.
It’s reasonable to suspect that Tom Rothman, the head of Sony Pictures, knows the feeling. When the company was planning to release an anniversary edition of “The Way We Were” this year, Streisand argued for him to include two scenes that, she was pained to discover, had been omitted from the original. For Rothman, the trouble with granting Streisand her wish was that, as “a filmmaker’s executive,” as he put it in an interview, he didn’t want to change anything without Pollack’s input. But Pollack’s been dead for 15 years. They agreed to release two versions: Pollack’s and, essentially, Streisand’s extended cut.
This, she writes, is a triumph of her relentlessness. “The word she uses in the book, that’s 100 percent accurate,” Rothman told me. “She’s relentless.” Her being right about the scenes didn’t matter to his bottom line, which required him to do justice to Pollack’s memory while assuaging Streisand’s worries over creative injustice. “She would say: ‘This is better, this is better! This is why it’s good!’ And I would say: ‘But Sydney Pollack didn’t want it!’”
The reason Rothman wanted to land at a happy solution was because of the person he was negotiating with. “Barbra broke a lot of not just artistic boundaries but boundaries for female artists in the movie business, in Hollywood, in terms of taking control of her career,” he said. “I have boundless respect for her.”
Streisand’s boundlessness, her capaciousness — the lack of precedent for her whole-enchilada ambitions, the daffiness, the sexiness, the talent, orchestration, passion, originality; her persistence and indefatigability; the outfits; the hair — were a watershed. She was always adapting, if not to what was cool or “current,” per se, then certainly to whom she felt she was at a given moment. “You know me,” she writes, late in the book. “I’m the version queen.”
The line is straight from Streisand to Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift — version queens of different kingdoms. That’s just a list of the obvious people who followed her into showbiz and makes no mention of the less famous folks whom Streisand inspired into a thousand other achievements. She’s “to thine own self be true” in neon. This might be the real Streisand Effect. And now she can take a step back and appreciate it.
“That gives me real joy, that I affected some people into doing what they wanted to do,” Streisand said. “That I gave them some sort of courage. Or if they felt different, you know, I was somebody who felt different. That’s a reward for me. That makes me feel great.”
THIS HOME OF STREISAND’S has been called a compound. But even with the ocean overlook, it’s too rustic, cozy and deceptively modest for the geologic or ego-logical footprint that “compound” connotes. There’s an active farm and enough rose varieties to hijack a flower show. It’s neither Xanadu nor Neverland Ranch. There’s some reality to Streisand’s place, some soul.
This is to say that paintings are everywhere, outside the bathroom, up the main staircase, in the bathroom. There are oils by John Singer Sargent and Thomas Hart Benton, portraits by Ammi Phillips and Mary Cassatt. A wall holds one of Gilbert Stuart’s George Washingtons. She loves Klimt and adores Tamara de Lempicka and Modigliani, adores them with an awe the world reserves for her. Some of the paintings are by Streisand, including a portrait of Sammie, her late Coton de Tulear, whose fur is affixed to the canvas. One, her son, Jason Gould, did.
Streisand’s fans know what’s on her property and the labor she personally devoted to realizing it — that there’s a mill with a functioning waterwheel, that she’s dedicated a room to her collection of dolls and that another’s maintained for the display and storage of her stage and screen costumes. They’d know because, in 2010, Streisand put it all in a book called “My Passion for Design.” Nevertheless, people have concluded that Streisand lives at her own personal Grove. They’ll ask: Are you going to see the mall? But there is no mall to see. Nothing’s for sale, nothing is open to the public.
Less known is how it might feel to stand here, in a living room at Streisand’s house, to gaze over her shoulder at the ocean and stop yourself from saying out loud, “On a clear day you really can see forever.” It’s strange to move from the bulk of her book to the lightness of the woman who wrote it, to the one-of-a-kind incandescence that’s kept her a star. No memoir can quite contain that. An odd effect of that stardom is how that person can start to seem an uncanny sort of familiar. One of the mightiest, most Olympic performers we Americans have ever experienced, is, on a Tuesday at lunchtime — and I mean this from the bottom of my heart — just some lady. The one behind you at a Gelson’s, maybe, who might notice the cottage cheese in your cart and get moony over how creamy it is. (“I love going to the supermarket,” she told me.)
After lunch, Streisand was ready to relax and needed to stretch her back, which lately has been acting up. Relaxing meant letting loose her three Cotons de Tulear, dogs as white as snowflakes, whiter in fact, like bleached teeth. It meant retreating to the family room. So off I went down a wallpapered hallway paneled with more framed art and into another section of the house that felt different from the airs of presentation and preservation that typify the rest of the home. The kitchen was here, for one thing. For another, hunched over a round table was James Brolin. Streisand calls him Jim, and Jim was in a T-shirt and sweatpants, cross-referencing information on an iPad with what he was writing on a sheet of paper. He was jotting down film titles to watch later for movie night. They had just had a Scorsese marathon.
There’s life all over the property. But here in the family room is where everybody lives, including that portrait of Sammie, which, at the moment, was propped up on the floor because “I don’t have any places to hang anything anymore,” she said. This way she can see it from the sofa while she watches TV. This part of the house seems like the only place where anything gets strewn. “It’s not that orderly,” she told me. “Meaning, I have the things I need around me.” Like her pets, like Jim. “It’s a playroom. We watch TV, we have the dogs on our laps. It’s more disordered.”
It felt, in many ways, like a secret, the comfy chaos of this zone feeling preferable to the control on display everywhere else. Streisand seemed at home here because she was. She took a seat and proceed to ply the dogs, Fanny and Sammie’s lab-bred clones, Scarlet and Violet, with a treat. They looked up at her with expectant patience. I’ve seen scores of dogs anticipate a treat. It’s as if Streisand’s had heard about the bonkers approach of those other dogs and zigged, sitting patiently as Streisand doled a morsel or two to each. Even she seemed impressed. Here is another of stardom’s odd effects. Without us, it’s Tuesday.