Barbra Streisand Is, as Ever, Firmly in Control

Since her breakout in the 1960s, she’s been able to convince the world around her to listen — not by chasing trends but by remaining always and fully herself.

Barbra Streisand, photographed at her home in Malibu, Calif., on Oct. 8, 2020. Streisand wears her own clothing and accessories.
Credit...Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg

THE DAY I arrive at Barbra Streisand’s property, she is on the phone with the Christie’s auction house in London. Outside, it’s a brilliantly sunny California afternoon in October, the skies clear of the ash cloud that recently blanketed Los Angeles.

Collecting is one of Streisand’s passions. On the walls of her sprawling Malibu home are early 19th-century American folk-art portraits, including several by the master of the genre, Ammi Phillips, a New England artist known for his spare, enigmatic, almost Modernist images. Streisand has been buying them since the late 1980s and is especially drawn to paintings of a mother with her child. She also owns two of George Washington, one done by Charles Peale Polk in 1795 while Washington was still alive, which Streisand has promised to Mount Vernon, the Virginia museum that was once the president’s home. (The other is by Gilbert Stuart.) We could be in Newport, R.I., or Colonial Williamsburg, except that Streisand’s husband of 22 years, the actor James Brolin, a fit-looking 80, is working beside the large pool just outside the living room windows, with the Pacific Ocean his backdrop.

An assistant leads me to an annex Streisand calls the barn, where she and her husband did most of their entertaining before the pandemic struck. This “barn” is a vast structure with a spiral staircase in a silo, a napping room, a frozen yogurt machine and more evidence of Streisand’s wide-ranging tastes: There are meticulously recreated rooms in the American colonial, Art Nouveau, Scottish Mackintosh and Arts and Crafts styles. Streisand has rotated through these movements and others, going through “periodic purges,” as she puts it, when her tastes in interior decorating (and, she adds, hairstyles) have changed. By the end of her Art Deco phase, circa 1974 to 1994, “I never wanted to look at Art Deco again,” she wrote in her 2010 coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design.” She put most of the pieces up for auction, an ordeal that inspired Jonathan Tolins’s 2013 Off Broadway play, “Buyer & Cellar.”

I’ve been settled in a cavernous screening room, filled with overstuffed sofas and chairs, when suddenly, Streisand appears. She’s wearing a black top of her own design and a pair of $20 pants she bought online from a company called Simplicitie, and has just had her shoulder-length hair highlighted — which I know because she said the dye job distracted her from that afternoon’s 600-point reversal in the Dow Jones industrial average. The stock market is another of Streisand’s passions. She wakes up most mornings at 6:30 a.m. to check the opening in New York. If she finds the action “interesting,” she trades. Then she goes back to bed.

Coming face-to-face with Streisand, who is 78, is a shock. Nearly her entire adult life has been chronicled in images — onscreen; in photographs — and she’s the subject of scores of unauthorized biographies, none of which she’s read. She’s won Oscars, a Tony, Emmys, even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For six years, she’s been working on an autobiography that she says is nearing completion. She’s been a presence in my life since I was a teenager and saw her in 1968’s “Funny Girl,” a heartbreaking film about the devastated Broadway diva Fanny Brice that prompted my sister to lock herself in her room for a half-hour sob.

Streisand is still a little breathless as she settles into a chair at a safe distance. I ask if she won the auction. “Yes!” she exclaims. “It was nerve-racking.” She extends her phone to show me an image of “Peasant Woman With Child on her Lap,” an 1885 Vincent van Gogh painting rendered in somber grays, blues and browns. (I later see on the Christie’s website that the work sold for $4.47 million, well above its high estimate of $3.8 million. She’s loaning it to a museum.)

Streisand has always collected: In 1964, when she was starring in “Funny Girl” on Broadway, she saved enough from her $2,500-a-week salary to buy a small Matisse, her first major purchase. Art satisfies her urge both to collect and invest — a Klimt she bought in 1969 for $17,000 sold years later for $650,000. And, she says, “I love things that are beautiful. I think I have a good eye — in some ways my entire life has been a quest for beauty.”

But her love of things also fills a void. “Sometimes I think it’s all connected to the loss of a parent,” Streisand writes in her design book. Her father, Emanuel, a high school English teacher, died in 1943 at age 35, when Streisand was 15 months old. “Because you’d do anything to get that mother or father back. But you can’t. … Yet with objects, there’s a possibility.”

STREISAND SEEMS HAPPIER talking about art than music, but any story about her life must begin with her singing voice: “one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource,” as Glenn Gould, the celebrated classical pianist, once put it. Only the great 20th-century soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf brought him comparable listening pleasure.

In the weeks before we meet, I revisited many of Streisand’s recordings, going back to her 1965 album “My Name Is Barbra.” Even now, her voice is instantly recognizable; she is able to fuse musicality and drama to a degree few singers — with the exception of Maria Callas — can. Equally impressive is her sense of restraint; some of her most memorable songs begin quietly, even haltingly. On the title track that opens “My Name Is Barbra,” she starts off unaccompanied, relying solely on her voice, as if to say, “Listen closely, you’ve never heard anything like this.” She often employs a penetrating, somewhat nasal sound, a remnant of her childhood in Brooklyn, but as she adds volume, her tone broadens and her voice soars into its upper range. Finally, just when you think she has nowhere else to go, she unleashes her full vibrato, holding the climactic note seemingly forever — or, to be precise, a remarkable 18 seconds, as with the ending of “A Piece of Sky,” one of the hits from her 1983 film, “Yentl.”

Streisand famously has had no serious musical education, yet I tell her that I find it hard to believe that her formidable vocal technique — her distinct phrasing, enormous range, expressive vibrato and skill at sustaining dynamics from pianissimos to double fortes — hasn’t been the result of countless hours of practice and training. “What’s a double forte?” she asks.

She says her ability to hold a note can be largely attributed to one quality: willpower. “Streisand was a prodigy,” says Michael Kosarin, the music director, arranger and conductor. “About the only thing I can compare it to is Luciano Pavarotti,” the operatic tenor, who, like Streisand, didn’t read music. “Singers can be overtrained. The technique can get in the way of the acting.” He pointed to her rendition of the song “My Man” from “Funny Girl”— “In the first half she’s barely singing. Some notes are a little off-pitch. She’s overcome by emotion. It’s perfect for telling the story, not perfect in and of itself.”

ImageStreisand wears a <strong>Valentino</strong> coat, $5,200, similar styles at (212) 355-5811, and <strong>Hanro</strong> sweater, $174, <a href="https://shop.hanrousa.com/">hanrousa.com</a>.
Credit...Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg

Streisand says her vocal stylings came to her naturally. She sings like she speaks, and when she does, she often inhabits a character. She’s playing a part, and acting is what she always wanted to do. Her legendary voice, it seems, has mainly been a means to other ends: She’ll only do a concert these days, she says, so she can “buy a painting or give the money away to charity.” But singing has paid for her cliffside Malibu compound and the objects within. It has financed the causes and political candidates she believes in. It has fueled her investing. “She sees herself as much bigger than a singer or actor,” says the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 90, who has known Streisand since she was 19; they played card games together during rehearsals for Streisand’s run in her Broadway debut, 1962’s “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” directed by Sondheim’s friend Arthur Laurents. “She’s a political figure who affects things that go well beyond entertainment.”

Perhaps Streisand is so nonchalant about her vocal talent because it came to her so easily. By the age of 5, she says, she was known in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood as the “girl with no father and a good voice.” (Her father obviously still looms large: She proudly mentions that he taught the classics to prison inmates in Elmira, N.Y.) Her mother, Diana, had a natural operatic voice but never sang professionally: She supported Barbra and Barbra’s older brother, Sheldon, by working as a school secretary and a bookkeeper. She warned her daughter not to pursue a career in show business, because, as Streisand recalls, “I didn’t look like the movie stars I read about in magazines.” She now believes her mother was jealous of her talent. “I didn’t really like my life as a child,” she says. “I thought, ‘This can’t be it.’” Her mother remarried and, at 16, Streisand graduated high school early and moved to Manhattan. (Streisand has a half sister, Roslyn Kind, but rarely mentions her or Sheldon, a Long Island real estate investor.)

At 18, Streisand heard about a talent contest at the Lion, a club in Greenwich Village. She had recently been fired from her job as a clerk and phone operator for a printing company and was being repeatedly rejected for acting gigs. The prize was $50 and a free dinner of London broil, and she needed both. Along with auditioning and interviewing, she also was reinventing herself: She said she was from Smyrna, Turkey, using the ancient Greek name for the city (“I pronounced it with an accent and a rolled ‘R’ — ‘Smeerrna’!”), a vaguely plausible claim given her features. “I didn’t want to be labeled as some girl from Brooklyn,” she says. After she sang Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s 1954 song “A Sleepin’ Bee,” there was a stunned silence — and then, thunderous applause. She followed with the 1952 jazz hit “Lullaby of Birdland,” walking through the small, packed room with her microphone. She won.

She didn’t realize until she arrived that the Lion was a gay bar, but it seems fitting that she got her start there. As William J. Mann, author of the 2012 book “Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” has written, many of her early friends and influences turned out to be gay men, and “gay audiences instinctively recognized something very familiar about her, a shared sensibility.” Streisand is routinely ranked as a gay icon alongside Judy Garland, Bette Midler and Lady Gaga, who, to varying degrees, embody a combination of glamour and suffering that can only be redeemed by love, requited or (more often) not. “The Man That Got Away,” the 1954 torch song originated by Garland that later became a hit for Streisand, has been a queer anthem for decades.

Theater mavens and celebrities began making their way to the Lion for Streisand’s weekly performances, and after a month or so, she moved on to the more upscale Bon Soir nearby. One memorable night there, she met her future lifelong manager, Martin Erlichman; on another, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the lyricists who would later write many of her most enduring songs, including 1973’s “The Way We Were” (written with Marvin Hamlisch) and, a decade later, the “Yentl” soundtrack (with Michel Legrand). In 1962, Laurents hired her for “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.” In that play, the 19-year-old Streisand stopped the show with her solo “Miss Marmelstein,” a comic vocal masterpiece in which she complains that more attractive girls get called by their first names. Overnight, she became a Broadway star. (In 1963, she married her “Wholesale” co-star, Elliott Gould, whom she divorced eight years later; they have a son, Jason.) Her next theatrical break came in 1964, with “Funny Girl.” Though the musical — about an early 20th-century Ziegfeld star who won and then lost her man — seems written for Streisand, the producers only settled on her after Anne Bancroft and Carol Burnett turned down the role.

Streisand’s mother was right that she wasn’t conventionally pretty, at least not in the aristocratic, Grace Kelly mold. She repeatedly rebuffed advice to have her nose cosmetically altered, and instead made it one of her signature features; she learned to deploy her Brooklyn accent for comic effect. Audiences couldn’t take their eyes off her. While doing seven Broadway performances a week, Streisand also taped her “My Name Is Barbra” TV special for CBS, a vocal tour de force that extended her fame nationwide. At 21, she landed on the cover of Time magazine: “She touches the heart with her awkwardness, her lunging humor and a bravery that is all the more winning because she seems so vulnerable,” the magazine’s reporter wrote.

Streisand’s performances in “Funny Girl,” and her televised rendition of its hit song “People,” were so indelible that the show has proved largely impervious to revival. “I’d never touch it,” says Sierra Boggess, who has starred in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “School of Rock” on Broadway. Streisand “is so ruthlessly herself and so unique. I wouldn’t know how to make it my own.” It’s hard to imagine anyone today replicating Streisand’s astonishing rise to stardom — discovered in an obscure gay nightclub and anointed by an elite group of powerful cultural gatekeepers. Yet, even as social media has spawned a new generation of pop stars, Streisand’s appeal endures, unaffected by shifting tastes. Her relevancy comes not from following musical trends but from refusing to do so.

TODAY, STREISAND CALLS herself an actor first. Though she never had music lessons, she studied with the renowned acting teacher Allan Miller while she was still a teenager and absorbed the Method approach taught at New York’s Actors Studio (she was deemed too young to enroll but was later made an honorary life member). One of her unfulfilled dreams is to have performed in the classics, particularly in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Acting is also what drew her to Sondheim’s songs. “He gives you so much to work with,” she says. “I love singing his songs because they’re written for characters in a play where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end — and then I try to relate that to parts of myself.” Both Streisand and Sondheim recall that while working on his song “Send in the Clowns” from the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music” for her 1985 album of Broadway show tunes, she struggled with what she considered an “emotional gap” between the last stanzas. The climactic line — “Quick, send in the clowns. / Don’t bother, they’re here.” — comes before the last stanza in the Broadway original, but Streisand called Sondheim and asked if she could move that line to the end. It’s hard to imagine any other performer who’d dare edit Sondheim’s work, but two hours later he called her back to say that “she was right and astute,” Sondheim recalls. In the stage version of the song, the last stanzas are separated by dialogue that makes explicit the predicament the former lovers face: that the aging actress Desiree is still in love with the man she once rejected, who is now married to a younger woman. So Sondheim wrote a musical bridge and additional lyrics for Streisand that became the version she sang on the album.

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Credit...Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg

But Sondheim and Streisand quarreled some years ago over a new movie version of the musical “Gypsy,” in which Streisand would play Mama Rose, the role immortalized on Broadway by Ethel Merman in 1959. (Rosalind Russell starred in the 1962 movie version.) Although the musical is loosely based on the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the American burlesque star, the show is dominated by Gypsy’s mother, a frustrated performer who pours her ambitions into her daughter — an archetypal stage mom. Streisand’s fans have long clamored to see her in the part, which seems tailored to her voice.

As the lyricist for the Broadway original, Sondheim controls the rights along with the estates of Laurents, who wrote the book, and Jule Styne, the composer. They were amenable to the project, but Streisand wanted to direct and star in the film, which Sondheim and Laurents resisted. Then she started tinkering with the book. (Streisand says she was only restoring the earlier movie version to the original book.) And now, a Barbra Streisand “Gypsy” — a possibility as recently as four years ago — is no longer on the table.

Still, attempting to rewrite one of the most celebrated books in Broadway history is entirely in character for Streisand, who tells me several times that artistic control has been far more important to her than money or critical acclaim. This has been true from the outset: She insisted upon — and won — contractual control over her first record album, even down to the cover design, which features a photograph of her performing at the Bon Soir.

Hollywood was another, altogether tougher industry, where women had long been at the mercy of powerful male studio heads and directors, and where even Streisand, already a major star, struggled to make herself heard. “Don’t let them do to you what they did to me,” Garland famously advised Streisand in the 1960s. Women were typically paid less than their male co-stars and strictly relegated to acting. “Actresses did not direct,” Streisand recalls. But for “Funny Girl,” her first film, she watched the dailies with its Oscar-winning director, William Wyler, offering her opinions along the way and learning the craft from one of its masters.

Later, for “The Way We Were,” Streisand’s co-star, Robert Redford, got $750,000 plus a share of the profits, while Streisand also got profit-sharing but was paid $400,000 less. She wanted to star in and direct a sequel, but requested a $400,000 director’s fee to make up the pay difference. Her producer, Ray Stark, flatly refused. No sequel was made. In those years, male stars negotiated for a percentage of a film’s gross revenue, rather than the often nonexistent net profit. Streisand joined their ranks with 1976’s “A Star Is Born,” and helped begin the still-ongoing fight for gender pay equity in Hollywood. “It wasn’t easy,” recalls Michael Ovitz, the former Hollywood agent who represented her during the ’80s and ’90s. “The business didn’t value women as much as men. Barbra could be tough as nails. She stood up for what she believed in, with enormous integrity.”

It wasn’t until 1983, with “Yentl,” that she finally got the chance to direct. She’d bought the rights to the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” in 1970. Her original vision was for a nonmusical, black-and-white art film, but “the only way I could get ‘Yentl’ made was to sing in it,” she says. The movie eventually emerged as a lavish full-color musical. Streisand starred as a young woman in a Jewish shtetl who poses as a man to pursue an education. She also directed, co-wrote the screenplay and produced it.

“Yentl” grossed over $40 million and won Streisand a Golden Globe for best director, but not even a nomination from the male-dominated Directors Guild of America. “Maybe in the next few years, with more women directing, they’ll get used to us,” Streisand said at that year’s Globes ceremony. Since then, only one woman has won the Oscar for best director — Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 (and only five women have been nominated). “It’s a disgrace more women haven’t,” Streisand says. She hasn’t directed a film since 1996’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” a romantic comedy in which Streisand — finally — wins and keeps her handsome leading man, played by Jeff Bridges. It proved to be a case of life imitating art: The year the movie was released, Streisand met Brolin.

STREISAND’S INSISTENCE on control and obsession with detail have been criticized for much of her life: She is “difficult,” “demanding,” a “perfectionist,” all of which she readily acknowledges. It’s hard to imagine a comparable male star or director being subjected to the same criticism. In any event, it’s impossible to fault the results. “So she’s a perfectionist,” says Kosarin. “Most geniuses are perfectionists. Look at Steve Jobs.”

While Streisand insists that money is secondary to her, financial security is another form of control. She’s brought the same determination and self-education to stocks as to art, antiques and real estate. Jim Cramer, who discussed the market with her as a hedge fund manager before he became a popular CNBC host, told me she knew more about initial public offerings than most traders. “And she hated to lose,” he adds.

Streisand says she’s earned millions trading stocks — several million between 1998 and 2000 alone. (“I’d be up at 6:30, light a fire, have a hot chocolate and trade until 1 p.m.”) She admits she’s not the most disciplined investor: She panicked during the crash in 1987 (“I lost a fortune”), and again in March when the market plunged because of pandemic fears. But her instincts have been sound: She bought Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google shares when her then-financial adviser said they were too speculative. Her adviser steered her into Disney stock in 2011, and she likes to give shares as presents to children in her life. She can get the Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, on the phone and recently asked him to correct Siri’s pronunciation of her name from Strei-zand to Strei-sand. He agreed. “People mispronounce my name no matter how famous I am,” she laments.

Apple is now the biggest holding in her charity, the Streisand Foundation, which funds various progressive causes — racial equality, women’s rights, civil rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and voting rights — with a particular focus on climate change and the environment. She helped endow the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, and co-founded the Women’s Heart Alliance to support research on heart disease in women.


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Credit...Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg

She’s also raised money for political candidates, including every Democratic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy (she sang for Kennedy at the 1963 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when she was barely in her 20s). And while she has never been an activist in the mold of, say, Jane Fonda, her influence may be more far-reaching. She befriended Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker of the House, in 1986, when Streisand hosted a Congressional fund-raiser at her own Malibu home. “It took real courage back then to get involved because the entertainment industry believed there’d be a backlash,” Pelosi says. “She tended to every detail,” the politician recalls, even serving the black-and-white cookies popular in Baltimore, Pelosi’s hometown. Streisand in fund-raising mode “is dazzling to behold,” Pelosi tells me. “It’s not just because she’s a celebrity. She knows the issues. She’s studied. She can explain why she supports what she does. That’s what’s persuasive.”

Streisand’s early forays into politics faced criticism at the time: “When I first directed a movie,” Streisand told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “it was as if I was being told how dare I attempt to infiltrate a man’s domain. Now it’s: How dare I be interested in politics.” And yet, because of her, Hollywood activism is now commonplace. “She doesn’t have to do this,” Pelosi adds. “She does it out of patriotism. She loves our country.”

The Trump presidency has summoned a new level of outrage in Streisand. “What do I hate most about Trump? He lies every day,” she says. “He has the compulsion to lie, even when the facts say something different. The worst lie was about the pandemic. Why not face facts? Why not tell the truth? People are stronger than you think — they can handle the truth. It would have saved thousands of lives.” She wrote the song “Don’t Lie to Me” for her most recent album, 2018’s “Walls,” to “express my despair and anger”: “Why can’t you just tell me the truth? / Hard to believe the things you say, / Why can’t you feel the tears I cried today, cried today, cried today? / How do you win if we all lose?” (Of a Joe Biden presidency, she says, “I’m exhilarated … [He] will bring back dignity, honesty, intelligence and compassion to the Oval Office. I look forward to that.”)

Streisand gave an extended analysis of her politics in an address titled “The Artist as Citizen” in 1995 at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I am also very proud to be a liberal,” she told the packed auditorium. “Why is that so terrible these days? The liberals were liberators — they fought slavery, fought for women to have the right to vote, fought against Hitler, Stalin, fought to end segregation, fought to end apartheid. Liberals put an end to child labor and they gave us the five-day workweek! What’s to be ashamed of?”

“I spent three months working on that speech,” she says, yet she hadn’t realized that she would be speaking in front of so many cameras and news outlets. “My heart was in my throat.” Her near-paralysis there echoed an incident from 1967 when, overcome by stage fright, she forgot her lyrics during a concert in Central Park in front of an estimated 135,000 people. Other than for political or charitable events, she didn’t sing live at a major concert for 27 years. “What if I forgot the lyrics again?” she asks. Nearly everyone suffers to some degree from performance anxiety, but psychologists say it can become acute when a fear of being judged merges with deep-seated insecurity. Even after all these years, Streisand recalls that the Times columnist Maureen Dowd was in the audience at her Harvard speech, and the prospect of a bad review terrified her.

“I still think I’m like most creative people are — confident at times and insecure at times,” she says. “I don’t know if that ever goes away.” Today, after years of therapy when she was younger, she’s “much more grounded.” She still doesn’t know the source of her early brashness. “I think I had more of that when I was young,” she says. Streisand has repeatedly portrayed strong, successful women onscreen, but “she isn’t afraid to make herself vulnerable,” says Kosarin. “That makes her so approachable. There’s an alchemy there that makes her a star.”

LIKE MANY ASPECTS of her personality, she traces that undertow of vulnerability to not having known her father, a subject she returns to several times in our conversations this fall. His absence haunts her still. Last May, Streisand, like the rest of the world, watched George Floyd being killed by the Minneapolis police. She was struck by the horror of Floyd’s death, but she was struck as well by his 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, now left fatherless. To lose a father — “I know how that feels,” Streisand says. So, in June, Streisand sent Gianna some shares of Disney stock, along with a letter, written from the perspective of a young girl whose father has died.

“I think our dads watch over us forever,” Streisand wrote. “When you get older and have a decision to make … just close your eyes and ask him for help. And if you listen very carefully, he will lead you to the right choice. I promise!

Love,

Barbra.”

Production: Connect the Dots. Hair: Soonie Paik. Makeup: Amber Dreadon. Tailor: Vita Gavrylyuk. Digital tech: Michael Preman. Photo assistants: Max Dworkin, Hunter Zieske and Joseph Mitchell. Stylist’s assistants: Ansley Burnette and Emma Larsen