Pierre Trudeau gasped when she came down the stairs of 24 Sussex Dr., in a fur-trimmed white Scaasi gown. Bob Dylan wrote Lay Lady Lay about his lust for her. The Aerosmith classic I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing was inspired by something her husband cooed in her ear. Stephen Sondheim revised his songs to suit her. The lyricist Don Black (To Sir with Love) called her voice “liquid diamonds.” An Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony winner, she’s a medalist of Arts and Freedom, Star of many a Year and Decade, an honorary doctor and Living Legend. She’s won awards Crystal, Golden and Silver, and honours named for Gracie Allen, Charlie Chaplin, George Eastman, Cecil B. DeMille and the Pied Piper. She’s the only artist with No. 1 albums (10 of them) in six different decades, and she’ll likely stay that way because, well, albums. She has a nose like an Egyptian goddess, a reputation for perfectionism, and a last name, Streisand, that she doesn’t need. She’s Barbra.
But even with all that, after reading her new, extremely thorough autobiography, My Name is Barbra – 970 pages! – it’s clear that we owe her an apology. Despite headlining films that are classic (Funny Girl), hilarious (What’s Up, Doc?) and indelible (The Way We Were), she made only 19 in her 60-year career – and in three of those she directed herself. Despite her massive success, she had to fight her record company for every idea, dollar and credit. I’ve been crazy about her my whole life – in 1976, when I was 14, I went to see her version of A Star is Born four times – and even I believed she was all the things men say about powerful women: pushy, demanding, difficult. (In the photos that open every chapter, these rooms of men go from wearing suits and skinny black ties in the 1960s to shags and chest hair in the 70s, but Barbra is always the only woman.) And why? Because she kept going, and she made them keep going, until she was satisfied.
Her book also reveals another, more primal wound: Her father died when she was 15 months old, and her mother was as cold as the Arctic Sea. (Starring in Funny Girl on Broadway, 22-year-old Streisand brought audiences to their knees, tears streaming, voices hoarse from shouting “Brava.” Her mother said her arms looked too skinny.)
Streisand spoke to me this week from the cliffside home in Malibu she shares with her husband of 25 years, the actor James Brolin – the house with the “mall” she built in the basement for her doll, costume and antiques collections. At 81, her voice is less like buttah and more like salted caramel (deeper, raspier), but it still sounds like Brooklyn by way of Buckingham Palace, and for our 20 minutes together, she was warm and game. Naturally, she asked the first questions: “How long did it take you to finish my book? Did you get bored any place?”
Four days. And never. You call yourself “the most lied-about woman in the world.” How does it feel to set the record straight?
I love it. It’s exhilarating. It’s freeing. I don’t have to explain myself any more. I can say, “Here, just read.” You’ll know how I came about, what I think, how I create, my personality, my shyness and – what is the opposite?
Yeah, boldness. I’m both things. Maybe that’s a fault. But it is what I am. I was a loner. I played in the streets with my girlfriends in the projects. I came home when I felt like it. I ate over a pot, food my mother left. I had no semblance of a normal family. I had to make my own life. I wasn’t told what to do. Nobody paid attention to me. I just observed and thought, “I have to do my own thing.”
Yet whatever you did was too much.
[Laughs] It’s better than being too little.
You’re arguably one of the most-seen women on Earth, but in nearly every chapter, you describe wanting to be seen. So is it about being unseen, or misunderstood?
As a little girl I wasn’t seen. I wasn’t seen by my mother. When I had dreams I couldn’t tell her, because she would put me down. I was never seen by my stepfather, who never said a word to me. Literally, I don’t remember him ever asking me how I was, how was school – those conventional sentences that a child wants to hear, that say you’re interested in them. I felt, “Nobody is interested in me.” That’s why I always found surrogate mothers: Tobey Borookow, who knitted a pink sweater for the hot water bottle I used as a doll, who would take care of me after school; Muriel Choy, who owned the restaurant where I worked.
And much later, Virginia Clinton, Bill Clinton’s mother.
I always looked for mothers.
By the end of the book, I wondered if it was you who needed to see you correctly. You’re hard on yourself.
I went into therapy. Because I needed help. Why did my stepfather behave that way to me? What did I do that was so wrong? Thank god I loved my grandfather. I learned about intimacy, in a way, by sitting on his lap and cutting the hairs out of his ears. I went to synagogue with him. I sat next to him in the men’s section while the women were upstairs. Only in writing this book did I remember that. It felt so normal to me being with men, learning with men. It’s why I felt so natural making Yentl.
What did you feel most vulnerable writing about?
I didn’t like writing about the romantic partners in my life, except my husband. But my editor kept pushing me: “You have to reveal something that intrigues people.”
Those men include Jon Peters, Don Johnson, Andre Agassi, Kris Kristofferson, Marlon Brando and your first husband, Elliott Gould. So yes, intriguing.
I would never have written about any of them. Hey, you’re in Canada – one of my good friends lives in Toronto; she owns the Indigo bookstores.
Everybody knows each other in Canada. Is everybody loving my friend Prime Minister Trudeau?
I wish I had time to answer that. But I’m pivoting instead to Warren Beatty. You write, “Maybe I slept with him once, I can’t remember.” Cheeky?
A little bit. We’re still friends. He calls me every birthday, and we talk about when I was 16 and he was 21, and he asked me to test him on his lines. He was a Lothario even then. I remember seeing his name on the marquee for his first Broadway play – “That’s the guy from summer stock!”
You’ve long suffered from stage fright, and your book finally explains the origin: You had an affair with Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s son, when you co-starred in Funny Girl on Broadway. But after you ended it, he made you miserable, insulting you sotto voce on stage. You had panic attacks.
Because he’s no longer on Earth, I was able to tell the story. But it felt terrible all over again to relive it.
I’m going to quote you to you: “I never fulfilled my potential.”
I wanted to finish my career with directing Gypsy, playing the mother. I had every scene in my mind how it should go, what to add, how to film it. Yet Stephen Sondheim [who wrote the lyrics to the musical] whom I adored and worked with on a profound level, thought I should only either direct it or play it. He didn’t want me to do both jobs, even though I’d already done that in three movies. And even though he loved the script I worked on. I still can’t figure it out.
Another quote: “I don’t feel like a star.”
Of course, on some level I see what I’ve accomplished. But the version of myself I enjoy is me yesterday, talking to one of my girlfriends. She’s only 67, but I relate to her as another surrogate mother.
What are you proudest of that you put out into the world?
The duet I did with my son, Jason.
Your son with Elliott Gould. The duet is How Deep Is the Ocean, on your Partners album.
When he was 15 years old, I walked by his closed bedroom door and heard the most beautiful humming. I said, “Jason, is that you?” “Mom, go away!” Typical introverted teenager. When I heard that record he made in his 40s, I fell off my chair. He’s like me, not liking to perform. But five, six years ago, for my birthday party, he made a film of our relationship from when he was a tiny baby, and sang Nature Boy. He’s so gifted and so talented.
Do certain standards feel to you like they’re “yours” – People, Happy Days Are Here Again?
Yes, I was the first to sing some of them. But they belong to the universe.
Any song you wouldn’t sing now, or hear differently?
It’s a good question. But I’ve sung so many songs.
One thing you don’t mention in your book: Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born.
Years ago, Jon Peters told me he was doing a remake with Beyoncé and Will Smith. I thought that was very exciting. To update it, make it a new genre, like I did with Judy Garland’s fantastic film, updating it from the 1950s to the 1970s, to make the woman stronger, more self-sufficient. I was thinking of Joni Mitchell. But I was a little disappointed that the concept of the latest one was so much the same as mine, two singer-songwriters.
We’re almost out of time, but I must ask you: As a Jew, what are you feeling in the wake of Oct. 7?
I could never understand war. One human being against another? Why? We’re so privileged to be alive. We were all conceived in that special moment. I celebrate life – life itself. All I can do is pray. I think prayer does work, by the way. Or, imagination creates reality. I want people to sit down and talk to each other face to face, and try to hear each other’s point of view. To maybe understand each other’s differences and each other’s likenesses. And then they’ll come to sanity. We all love our children. We all want a safe place to live. Many years ago, I thought peace was dependent on a two-state solution. I don’t know now. But we have to respect the rights of all people, no matter what country they live in. What does violence get us? Nothing much.
You write about feeling unloved and unlovely. Still?
I don’t think I’ll ever get over that completely. I really didn’t like the lighting of the TV segments I saw today and yesterday.
Your CBS interview with Gayle King?
I should have opened my mouth and said, “The light needs to be hotter, and can I have an eye light?” But I didn’t want to do that. So I don’t look as good. [Laughs] What can I tell you? Tomorrow with my last interview, I’ll try again.
You’ve earned the right to say whatever you want. You’re Barbra Streisand.
Well, I’m going to take that advice.
This interview has been condensed and edited.