Barbra Streisand has been writing her autobiography for eight years now – a bit of a chore, it turns out, when the last thing you want to think about is your own past.
“I bore myself,” says the 79-year-old, cheerfully, those trademark Brooklyn vowels as reassuringly strong as ever. “That’s why I have a researcher, who looks up all the facts about my life. I’ve also kept journals over many years, and I don’t even want to look at them.”
Misty watercolour memories of the way we were? Hardly. “I never was somebody to look back,” explains Barbra. “I like to move on. Once I make a record, I never listen to it again, unless I’m forced to. So it was hard for me to ever write a book in the first place. But I’m almost done – I’ve done the first 824 pages. Now I just have to catch up on the next 23 years.”
Of course, it’s hardly surprising that, 800 pages in, Barbra still hasn’t reached the 21st century: there is, after all, an awful lot of life story to pack in.
Born in Brooklyn during the war, she had a difficult childhood: her father died a few months after her first birthday and her mother – who had been a soprano in her youth – struggled to make ends meet in her job as a bookkeeper. Known on the block as the “the kid with no father and a good voice”, young Barbara (she later dropped the second vowel to make her name more interesting) would lose herself in movies and TV, dreaming of stardom. “I always wanted to be a somebody, to be famous,” she once admitted. “To get out of Brooklyn.”
Though she’d initially set her heart on being an actress, it was that golden voice – with its soaring mezzo-soprano range – that first made the world sit up and take notice. By 19, she was a hit on Broadway, and at 21 she was on the cover of Time magazine in honour of her Tony-nominated role as comedian Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl. She won the first of her two Oscars for the 1968 movie adaptation, and cemented her Hollywood credentials in the following year’s Gene Kelly-directed Hello, Dolly! – by which time she’d already recorded 10 gold albums.
In the half-century since, this one-woman industry has sold over 150 million records – soundtracking the decades with such iconic hits as Don’t Rain On My Parade, Evergreen and Woman in Love – joined the elite club of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and earned a clutch of lifetime achievement honours, including the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. She was the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a major feature film (1983’s Yentl), the first female composer to receive an Academy Award, and the first recording artist to achieve number one albums in six consecutive decades.
So it’s fair to say the kid from Brooklyn fulfilled her ambition to “be somebody”. But did the reality live up to the dream?
“Yeah, it did,” says Barbra, talking to Weekend from her home in Malibu, where she’s spent lockdown holed up with her husband of 23 years, James Brolin. “I believe in the power of the will. When I graduated from high school at 16, I moved into an apartment with another friend who wanted to be an actress. It was a tiny little apartment, and I never really understood how to make a bed. I couldn’t figure it out, with the corners and stuff, and so I stood in my doorway and thought to myself: ‘I really have to make it, so I can get somebody else to make my bed.’ I believe in the power of thought, and that the self can transcend matter.”
For all her aversion to looking over her shoulder, writing her memoirs isn’t Barbra’s only recent trip down memory lane: she’s also been busy preparing the second volume of her Release Me album series, in which she dusts off and polishes up recordings from the Streisand vault that, for one reason or another, never saw the light of day.
“I couldn’t record a new album, because of the quarantine – and I can’t sing in a mask,” she explains. “So I was thrilled to find some of these things we never released, but should have done. It was lovely for me and my husband to be together all the time,” she adds, “and for me to be able to mix this record in my nightie.”
Embellished with new instrumentation, Release Me 2 doubles as a near 60-year odyssey through the shifting landscapes of modern music, with songs ranging from Tin Pan Alley classics like Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg’s Right as the Rain to a 2005 reunion with Barry Gibb – who produced her 15 million-selling 1980 album Guilty – and the Laurel Canyon sound of Carol King’s You Light Up My Life, recorded at California’s legendary Burbank Studios in 1974.
As you’d expect from someone who’s previously duetted with everyone from Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra to Neil Diamond (on classic 70s tearjerker You Don’t Bring Me Flowers) and Kris Kristofferson (her co-star in the 1976 version of A Star is Born), the album boasts some stellar guest artists, including Willie Nelson and one Kermit the frog. “That one I forgot I’d even recorded,” she chuckles. “I did it for my son, who loved Kermit.”
Be Aware – an impassioned plea on behalf of the world’s hungry children – was written at Barbra’s request by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. “Hal did a great job on the lyrics, which let me express my feelings about what’s going on in the world,” she says. “And it’s sadly still relevant today.”
Lest you think this is just another wealthy superstar crying crocodile tears, Barbra has a long record as an activist and philanthropist: her Streisand Foundation was established in 1986 to promote progressive ideas, and she’s funded major research into women’s health and climate change, a cause to which she was an early convert in the 1980s.
I doubt if I would ever perform again live. It’s just too traumatic for me.Barbra Streisand
Peace anthem One Day (A Prayer) – another song on which Barbra’s music and activism converge – has been in the vaults since 1968. “Oh my god, that was a very big year – the Vietnam War, and the National Democratic Convention in Chicago,” she says, recalling the infamous scenes in which riot police brutally cracked down on anti-war protesters outside the convention centre, to defiant chants of ‘the whole world is watching’.
Barbra’s civil rights activism even earned her a place on President Richard Nixon’s notorious list of political opponents. “To me, that’s a badge of honour,” she tells Weekend. More recently, she donated a stock of Disney shares to George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna.
Despite her horror at the deadly heatwave and raging wildfires that have swept across America (“We’re paying the price – it’s terrifying”), Barbra is feeling more optimistic about her country’s future than she was a year ago. An outspoken critic of Donald Trump – her last album, 2018’s Walls, was the most nakedly political of her career – she’s equally vocal in her support for her new commander-in-chief.
“I love that Biden got elected, and we can go back to what I call normal – kindness, generosity, thinking about the Earth,” she says. “The Democrats, I think, are the party of common sense, and the GOP are just obstructionists – it’s very disturbing now to see a party just wanting to rip apart another party instead of working for the greater good of the people.”
The hardest thing about the Covid lockdown, she says, was that it came less than two years after the arrival of her first grandchild, Westlyn – the daughter of her actor stepson Josh Brolin. “I have a picture of when they came to visit – they were outside in masks, and we were in masks on the other side of the door. But getting vaccinated has given us back our lives – then they could come over and we could be together. And I have two now!” she beams, of Westlyn’s sister, Chapel, born on Christmas Day last year.
So what of the future – does she ever think about (whisper it) retiring? “Every time I do a little tour, I always think… I don’t like performing in public,” says Barbra, whose lifelong struggle with stage fright kept her away from concert tours for 27 years until the 1990s. “It scares me still, and every time I finish one of those I say, ‘I’m never going to do this again’. And then of course I do. So I never say never, but I doubt if I would ever perform again live. It’s just too traumatic for me.
“I only have two stage outfits – the first act and the second act,” she notes. “I don’t like fittings and having to try on clothes. That’s what was great about quarantine – I could wear pretty outfits to go to sleep, and then walk around the house wearing the same thing.”
She’s already started planning her next studio album, with “three or four songs” earmarked for inclusion. She could even end up beating her own record of six number ones in six decades – an achievement she seems genuinely to have forgotten until Weekend reminds her. “Oh that’s great, I love that,” she says. “Yeah, I’m proud of that.”
And so, as she closes in on her eighth decade, life for Barbra Streisand – singer, actor, director, producer, songwriter, screenwriter, activist, philanthropist, icon –is pretty good?
“I think life is very good,” she says. “I can’t complain.”
And best of all, she adds, “I still don’t have to make my own bed.”
Release Me 2 is out now on Columbia / Legacy
A STAR IS BORN
Barbara Joan Streisand was born on April 24, 1942 to Diana (born Ida) and Emanuel Streisand, the children of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
She met her first husband, Elliott Gould, when they appeared together on Broadway in 1962. They have one son, Jason Gould, an actor and singer. She married Emmy-winning actor James Brolin in 1998.
In 2017, Barbra famously had two clones made of her dog, Samantha. Seeing the beloved Coton de Tulear on her deathbed, she realised she “couldn’t bear to lose her”, Barbra told The Times in 2019. “There were no more curly-haired Cotons like Samantha – I had to continue her DNA.” She named the two genetic replicas Violet and Scarlett.
Barbra once called up Apple CEO Tim Cook and got him to change the way her name was pronounced by the company’s virtual assistant, Siri. “It’s Streisand with a soft s, like sand on the beach,” she explained at the time. “He delightfully agreed to have Siri change the pronunciation with the next update.”
First published in Waitrose Weekend on August 5, 2021 (c) Waitrose Weekend