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What We Learned From Barbra Streisand’s Revealing Memoir

In the hotly anticipated ‘My Name Is Barbra,’ the icon explores her ambitions, love life and legendary career


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Viking / Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for BSB

My Name Is Barbra, the long-awaited memoir from Barbra Streisand, 81, has arrived with a splash, as well as a tsunami of news coverage. It’s the first time that the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner has so fully opened up about, among other things, her early hopes to become an actress, famous friends (such as Marlon Brando), 25-year marriage with the actor James Brolin, 83, and spectacular career.

Streisand has lots of ground to cover in these 992 pages, as not only a legendary singer but also an actress with decades of iconic performances on stage and screen — including her roles as Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl (the 1964 theatrical production and 1968 movie); opposite Robert Redford in 1973’s cinematic love story The Way We Were; and starring in the 1983 film Yentl, a passion project that she also cowrote, directed and coproduced.

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The memoir has been hotly anticipated, not only because of her stratospheric fame and impressive romantic history — her list of ex-boyfriends includes tennis player Andre Agassi, actor Don Johnson and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — but also because she’s so famously private.

In the memoir, Streisand admits that “for 40 years publishers have been asking me to write my autobiography, but I kept turning them down because I prefer to live in the present rather than dwell on the past. And the fact is I’m scared that after six decades of people making up stories about me … I’m going to tell the truth and nobody’s going to believe it.”

But she has also suggested that she feels as though the book, written with the help of journals she’s kept throughout her life, is finally setting the record straight; she said in a prepublication interview with the BBC, “This is my legacy. I wrote my story. I don’t have to do any more interviews after this.”

Here’s some of what we learned from the book: 

She had a cold childhood

She was raised in Brooklyn by her mother, Diana, with her older brother, Sheldon. Her father died of a cerebral hemorrhage when Streisand was just 15 months old, leaving her with a mom who, she writes, didn’t believe in affection. Streisand once asked her mother why she never said “I love you," and she said, “I didn’t have time.”

Her stepfather, who lived with the family for about five years, was worse: “Even though his name was Lou Kind, he was anything but,” she writes. “He never spoke to me,” she writes, adding that the affection she received from her grandfather “saved me”: He “gave me a taste of what a good man can be.”     

She was a willful, talented kid

Streisand got good grades as a child but a D in conduct in school because “I was so impatient and I never learned manners.” If the teacher didn’t call on her and she had the answer, “I’d just blurt it out.” She was also known as the “girl on the block with a good voice” and would sing in the lobby of her building, whose high ceilings created an appealing echo. In her early 20s, an interviewer asked her, “How do you hold a note so long?” and she said, “Because I want to.”

She was mischievous

She and her friend would prank call strangers, pretending they were from a radio show and asking them to “name that tune.” And she’d shoplift — finding discarded receipts in stores, then taking the item with the receipt to return for cash, or just putting items, like a pair of socks, in her bag.

She has tinnitus

It started as a child, when she would hear clicking in her ears — then “pings” and “pongs” and sounds like “musical fireworks.” She later learned that the noises are caused by tinnitus, an incurable hearing disorder. “It’s enough to drive you crazy. And it used to make me very grumpy, but now I’ve learned to live with it.”

She was homeless for a while

She sang in a talent contest at a gay bar called the Lion, which gave her the opportunity to perform there a few nights a week and have all the London broil she could eat. She later got a regular gig performing at the Bon Soir nightclub, but, still in her late teens, she was struggling financially; she carried around the keys to various friends’ apartments and a folding cot so she could crash somewhere as needed.

Her nose drew notice

“Sometimes it felt like my nose got more press than I did,” she writes, adding that she was compared to a hound, an amiable anteater and, much better, a Babylonian queen. “I wish I could say none of this affected me, but it did. Even after all these years, I’m still kind of hurt by the insults and can’t quite believe the praise. I guess when you become famous, you become public property … . I must say I’ve never gotten used to it.”

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She pretended to be married to Elliott Gould before they married for real

They had given each other rings and lived together, so when an interviewer asked if they were married, Streisand said yes. When she was 21 and he was 25, they finally tied the knot quickly in Nevada, though when the justice asked her to promise to “love, honor and obey,” she said she’d like to leave out the “obey” part. They divorced in 1971 and have a son, Jason, 56, together.

She had a fling that turned very sour onstage

In 1964 she landed the role as Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl alongside Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s son, whom she claims tried to sabotage her performance after their love affair soured (they were both married at the time). While she was reciting her lines on stage, he’d mumble curses and insults, she writes: “It was becoming a nightmare. Now, every night at seven thirty as I prepared to go on, I felt sick to my stomach.” For the first time, she began to get severe stage fright, as well as panic attacks.

The Way We Were revisited

She writes about the filming of The Way We Were, with costar Robert Redford, and her disappointment when Sydney Pollock cut two scenes she considered critical to the plot. She was thrilled to be able to get them added in an extended version out on BluRay this year to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. (You can read an excerpt from this chapter in Vanity Fair.)

She turned down some good roles

She turned down the leading role in Klute, for which Jane Fonda would later win an Oscar, “because I had already played a prostitute [in The Owl and the Pussycat], and the wonderful director Alan J. Pakula was not yet attached.” She also said no to leads in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Julia. “I have to wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ But that’s easy to say in hindsight.”

She almost turned down A Star Is Born

“I didn’t want to do it, but I had a commitment to First Artists to deliver a film by a certain date,” and certain themes interested her: “I thought the film could expose the truth about what it’s like to be in the public eye. I knew about that from my own experience. The press, looking for drama, builds you up and then knocks you down.” She’d costar with Kris Kristofferson (“incredibly sexy,” she notes), and coproduce it with then-boyfriend Jon Peters.

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She has quite the list of ex-boyfriends 

  • Streisand met Pierre Trudeau at the film premiere of Funny Girl in London, and found him “very dapper, intelligent, intense . . . kind of a combination of Albert Einstein and Napoleon (only taller).” She and Trudeau later dated, but he was 50 to her 27, and she wasn’t ready for the intensity of a serious relationship. They remained friends for many decades.
  • When she starred in the film version of Funny Girl, she became close with costar Omar Sharif. There was dinner. “Then there were more dinners . . . I remember driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to a seafood restaurant on the water. Omar and I would be in the back seat of his car, holding hands and talking, while up front his driver kept his eyes on the road.” It never went beyond that generally platonic bond, though, according to Streisand.
  • She met Don Johnson at a party in Aspen, Colorado, and he asked her out. She writes that she “loved the fact that he got as much attention as I did. For years I had always been apologizing to the men I was with . . . I didn’t want them to feel overshadowed.” They’d go out on his boat, which he liked to race. “He loved to move fast, fly high, and play hard.” As things were fizzling out she called his home and his ex-wife Melanie Griffith answered the phone. Now she notes, they sometimes run into each other at parties held by mutual friends: “We hug, and he always whispers in my ear, ‘I love you.’ I don’t say it back.”  
  • Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino owner, told Streisand he had a friend who “admired” her — Andre Agassi. She and the tennis star dated in the ’90s; he was 28 years her junior.
  • She was friends with Warren Beatty, who called her once for a chat. “Then I hung up and asked myself, Did I sleep with Warren? I kind of remember. I guess I did. Probably once.”

The Marlon Brando thing

At just 19 or 20 years old, before she’d ever met Marlon Brando — “the man who in my opinion was the most gorgeous, the most brilliant, the most talented human being on earth,” she writes — “Someone came up to me at a party and said, “Marlon Brando told me, ‘If you ever see Barbra Streisand, tell that bitch she’s great.’”

A few years later, before she was set to perform at a benefit, she felt someone kiss her back. It was Brando, who said, “You can’t have a back like that and not have it kissed.” Later, they talked, and he said, “I’d like to f--- you.” “That’s not very romantic,” she responded, so he proposed they go to a museum together instead.

Another time he called her from London, after watching The Way We Were on TV: “In the last moment, you were so vulnerable that I fell in love with you all over again,” he said. “We should have done more when we were younger, f---ed a lot, had children. Go kiss yourself in the mirror for me.”

She agreed to do a topless scene …

… for her role the 1970 film The Owl and the Pussycat, but only if she could kill it if she chose. “And I killed it. I killed it because I thought it was too real. In other words, there’s movie reality, and then there’s real reality, and I felt it was too real for a comedy like this. I thought it was a distraction.”

Love affair with Brolin

At age 54 she was set up with James Brolin, then 56, at a dinner party; the first thing she said to him was, “Who f---ed up your hair?” (It was in a buzz cut, “white at the roots and sort of rust-colored at the tips”). “He called every day, and we were like teenagers . . . each call could last anywhere from two to five hours. Once I actually fell asleep on my dressing-room floor, with the phone in my hand.” They married in 1998.

She really is private

“I’m not a very social person,” she writes. “I don’t like to get dressed up and go out. I’d rather stay home with my husband and my dogs.” She likes painting with her son, Jason, and “can spend hours taking photos of the flowers in my garden.”

She cloned her dog

When her beloved dog Sammie died, a breeder cloned her. Now she sees Sammie in her dogs Violet and Scarlet. “It’s fascinating to see certain traits that remind me of Sammie, yet each of these beloved creatures is a unique being. You can clone the look of a dog but you can’t clone the soul.”

Grateful

Her favorite title, she writes at the end, is “gamma” — she is grandmother to Josh’s four kids: Trevor, 35, Eden, 29, Westlyn, 5, and Chapel, 2. “Life is a miracle, and I’m ready to relax and enjoy it,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “I think I truly am one of the luckiest people in the world.”

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