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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hello Gorgeous’

- - Friday, February 1, 2013

HELLO GORGEOUS: BECOMING BARBRA STREISAND
By William J. Mann
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 566 pages

What's a legend? In literature, it's a handed-down narrative that captures a culture. In mapmaking it's a table that explains the symbols, and in show business, it's Barbra Streisand. Even if her music is not your music -- or her politics your politics -- you should grant her legendary status.

In order to gain such regard, one doesn't necessarily have to burst upon the scene full-blown from the forehead of Zeus. It helps, though, and it is exactly what Miss Streisand did during 1960-64, the period covered by "Hello Gorgeous," a thoroughly readable if overlong volume.

In the winter of 1960, when this book opens, Barbara -- still spelled with three "a's" -- was a high school graduate (93 average) with no experience nor interest in anything but acting -- not singing -- on a stage. Four-and-a-half years later in the spring of 1964, she's a major star with her picture on the cover of both Time and Newsweek the same week.

Trying to get a fix on the entire career of someone who has reigned supreme in her own show biz niche from the early '60s to the present day would be a gargantuan undertaking, but William J. Mann (author of five other Hollybooks, including biographies of Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor) wisely decided to start at the beginning and stay there, which produced in this case an extremely positive result.

For readers who lived through the period, "Hello Gorgeous" -- La Streisand's opening line, spoken to a mirror, in "Funny Girl" -- is an intriguing reminder of an era most definitely bittersweet.

As Mr. Mann writes very early in the book, everyone in 17-year-old Barbra's acting class knew she burned with an unusually intense heat, knew how much she wanted (not fame and fortune), but simply to be great: "She wanted to be [Eleonora] Duse, she said, though she'd never seen Duse act ... That didn't matter. Duse had been a great artist, perhaps the greatest, and that's what Barbra wanted ... she wanted to be remembered for being great, for making art."

Economics, however, dictated that she enter a singing contest, so she showed up one evening as her older friends, Cis and Harvey Corman were eating dinner, and announced her plans. They didn't know she could sing, so, to convince them, she sat down on the edge of their dining table, turned her back to them, and began a medley.

When she finished Harold Arlen's "A Sleeping Bee," she turned around, slowly, "anxious to see how her friends had responded. Cis and Harvey were 'drenched in tears,' as Cis would admit. None of them would ever forget the moment."

When the future megastar first began to get publicity, the writers and interviewers liked to stress her "kookiness," the offbeat, thrift shop clothes she favored, the made-up bio bits, and her Bohemian lifestyle and philosophy. Interestingly, the truth might have worked just as well: Her father, an intellectual with artistic and philosophical sophistication, died when she was 15 months old. According to the author, she never stopped missing him and what they might have done and seen together, and how he would have taught her and expanded her mind and sensibilities.

As for her mother, Diana Rosen Streisand (later Diana Kind, mother of Rosalind Kind, Barbra's half-sister) had given up dreams of singing with the Metropolitan Opera to marry Barbra's father. That may have been why she found it so hard to give her first-born daughter genuine praise. Chicken soup yes; praise no.

The author delights in making much of such situations, milking the lack of praise for probably more than it is worth. He overuses this same amateur psychologist approach with several of Miss Streisand's on-the-way-up friends and especially with her first husband, the actor Elliot Gould, who comes across as loving, supportive and caught in a very bad bind -- his career was stalling as hers was taking off on the Broadway stage, at nightclubs and concerts, in recordings and on TV.

And then there were the movies. One measure of her astounding success is that by the end of 1964 she had won a Tony (for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl"), a Grammy and an Emmy. An Oscar had to wait four more years, until 1968 when she shared the award with Hepburn -- Miss Streisand for "Funny Girl" and Hepburn for "The Lion in Winter." To date, Miss Streisand has also won another Oscar, eight Golden Globes and three People's Choice awards, among many others.

Mr. Mann may not be a scholar, but he respects the process: The 505 pages of text (broken up by two simply wonderful sets of pictures) are followed by 42 pages of notes and a 28-page index.

Readers will find that Mr. Mann lingers, lovingly and long, over details small and smaller, but in the process a vivid portrait emerges of a startlingly talented young person with enough drive and ambition for a whole cast of players. This book requires a significant time commitment, but it is well worth it.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.