(Rachel Syme’s article appeaed in The New Yorker, 11/14/2023. Photo: Trust is a big theme in the book, and perhaps its reason for existing. Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast)
In “My Name Is Barbra,” the icon takes a maximalist approach to her own life, studying every trial, triumph, and snack food of a six-decade career.
Seventy years ago, before she was galactically famous, before she dropped an “a” from her first name, before she was a Broadway ingénue, before her nose bump was aspirational, before she changed the way people hear the word “butter,” before she was a macher or a mogul or a decorated matron of the arts, Barbra Streisand was, by her own admission, “very annoying to be around.” She was born impatient and convinced of her potential—the basic ingredients of celebrity, and of an exquisitely obnoxious child. When Streisand was growing up in Brooklyn, in the nineteen-forties, she used to crawl onto the fire escape of her shabby apartment building and conduct philosophical debates with her best friend, Rosyln Arenstein, who was a staunch atheist. One day, Streisand told Arenstein that she was going to prove the existence of God. She pointed at a man on the street and said that, if she prayed hard enough, he would step off the curb. Within seconds, he obliged. “I had two thoughts at that moment,” Streisand writes in her hulking new memoir, “My Name Is Barbra” (Viking). “One: Whew, that was lucky! And two: There is a God, and I just got Him to do what I wanted by praying. I guess that’s when I began to believe in the power of the will.”
Streisand was always willful. She was not always lucky. Her father, a gentle academic named Emanuel, died from seizure complications when she was a year old. Her mother, Diana, could be cruel and strangely absent, particularly after she married Louis Kind, a man who seemed to resent Streisand’s existence. “I was like a wild child, a kind of animal,” Streisand writes. “There was no routine and no rules.” She shoplifted and stole Kind’s cigarettes, which she smoked on the roof. She developed chronic tinnitus, possibly because of stress, and kept the ringing in her ears a secret for years. “I long for silence,” she writes. But, despite these challenges, Streisand also knew that she was in possession of something rare. She could sing, naturally and effortlessly, with a broad, sunny tone and cataract force. Streisand took exactly one singing lesson and never learned how to read music. She simply accepted herself as gifted, with the same conviction that made her believe she could speak to God.
Because Streisand’s instrument was innate, she also found it rather boring. She joined the Choral Club at Erasmus Hall High School, in Flatbush, but what she really wanted to be was an actress. She would often go to the Astor Theatre, next door to Erasmus, to watch films by Akira Kurosawa, and to the Kings Theatre to see melodramas starring Deborah Kerr and Marlon Brando. (The great motif of this book, besides fame, is snacks, and Streisand is particularly nostalgic about Good & Plenty candy, which she likens to “eating jewelry” in the theatre.) In English class, she produced book reports on Stanislavsky’s “My Life in Art” and “An Actor Prepares.” She also got a job at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where she watched a production of the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s “Purple Dust.” She learned a lead role and proclaimed herself an understudy—though nobody had asked her to do this—and would greet the stagehands with “Top o’ the mornin’ to you, boys!” in an Irish accent. (“Again,” she writes, “annoying to be around.”)
Streisand was obsessed with acting because she saw it as a form that allowed for spontaneity and change. She was dismayed to learn, in a class that she took at fourteen, about the concept of blocking, in which an actor is expected to repeat her motions every time she runs through a scene. “You mean you have to move in exactly the same way, to the same spots?” she asked her teacher. “Why?” (Soon after, she quit the class.) Throughout her career, she balked at the idea that self-expression should be stable or reproducible. One reason that Streisand leaned into her musical prowess—she graduated high school at sixteen, moved to Manhattan, and soon started performing in a gay bar and a night club—was that concert audiences loved her elasticity. To this day, she prefers to sing a song differently each time.
The great paradox of Streisand’s career, then, is that as a person she has been nearly impervious to change. “No matter who you are,” she writes, “you can only eat one pastrami sandwich at a time.” Her point is that fame is a “hollow trophy”; she still thinks of herself, at eighty-one, as the “skinny marink” from Brooklyn. This assertion is tough to take from a woman who could, if she wanted, have every pastrami sandwich in New York delivered to her Malibu estate on a private jet, but I’m inclined to believe her. Streisand has spent her career, which spans fifty-plus albums, more than a dozen movies in starring roles, three films as a director, and a bushel of awards (an honorary egot, along with three Peabodys, eleven Golden Globes, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom), trying to protect the person she always was: a girl who, somehow, knew how to trust herself.