Destiny’s Child :: William Mann on Early Barbra
Those words, first delivered on stage five decades ago by Barbara Streisand in the role of legendary singer Fanny Brice, open the musical "Funny Girl." Now the line also serves as the title to William J. Mann’s new Streisand biography.
The Barbra bio hit the shelves on October 9, just a day or two before Streisand’s latest concert tour kicks off, and a month or so prior to the release of her new film, "The Guilt Trip," a road movie co-starring Seth Rogen.
The book has already received a positive notice from the trade journal "Publisher’s Weekly" when Mann and I meet in early August. He’s looking youthful and fit as we stroll along a breakwater on the shoreline of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the gay mecca where Mann and his husband live for part of the year. Mann guides me to a favorite spot, and we settle down for a half hour’s chat.
"Hello, Gorgeous," I joke, offering him my hand.
Mann, always gracious, accepts the jest with a smile, but it’s also a propos: He’s rugged looking, with dark, close-cropped hair, blue eyes, and a square, hewn jaw. This man could have been in the movies himself, had he not become an historian and biographer, authoring an extensive body of work that includes his newly completed "diva" trilogy, consisting of "Kate," which takes Katharine Hepburn as its subject; "How to Be A Movie Star," which looks at the early career of Elizabeth Taylor; and, now, "Hello, Gorgeous."
A novelistic flair
Mann is also the author of six novels, including the groundbreaking gay fiction trilogy "The Men from the Boys" (1997), "Where the Boys Are" (2003), and "Men Who Love Men" (2007). Mann’s novel writing skills inform his biographies, which carry the flair and texture found in good fiction. Indeed, Mann is also the author of "The Biograph Girl" (2000), a novel based on the life of Vaudeville and silent film star Florence Lawrence. And while the writer may not have pursued a career on stage or in films, that doesn’t mean Hollywood has no interest in his work: The film and stage rights for several of his books have recently been snapped up.
The process of translating a book to film is always uncertain, but if all goes well the literary portraits Mann has created of Katharine Hepburn and William Haines may find themselves translated to the small screen in the kind of adaptation usually reserved for novels and, far less often, for biography. But it’s not so far-fetched a proposition: Mann’s biographies carry a novelistic flair and the kind of texture found in good fiction.
For his "diva trilogy," as for his earlier biographies, Mann has specialized in a kind of "deep dish" writing that satisfies both a desire to know the books’ subjects as human beings, faults, foibles, and all, and a scholarly impulse to understand the times that produced such stars... not to mention the impact they had on their times. A major theme of all three "diva" books is the nature of fame, and especially of glamor. "As I’ve done with previous books, ’Hello Gorgeous’ is about how stardom is manufactured and sold, merchandized and marketed, and all that," Mann notes up front.
How Barbra became Barbra
There are already plenty of tomes on the shelves addressing Barbara Streisand’s life and career, but Mann is never content to take a story at face value. Both as a journalist and as a novelist of some distinction, Mann can’t help but wish to see more deeply. In this case, he explains, he’s taking a good, close look at the origins of Streisand’s career; the biography is subtitled, "Becoming Barbra Streisand," and that’s exactly where the new volume’s focus lies.
"The book only covers her first five years, so it’s only from 1959 to 1964, " Mann specifies. "We meet her at age 17 and trace her career to age 22."
That’s not to say that the book is slight or uninteresting. The new bio devotes an average of 100 pages to each of those five years, a brief but packed span during which Streisand rocketed to fame. "It’s the story of this unknown girl from Brooklyn who showed up in Manhattan and decided she wanted to be a big star and how she, and the team behind her, made that happen," Mann says.
Mann’s book details how Streisand deliberately, and with great attention to detail, shaped and perfected her image, dropping one of the "a"s from her name (originally it was Barbara), and, in her early years, toying with various stories about herself with which to entice the press. (At one point, the future superstar explained her exotic looks as being Turkish, not Jewish; on another occasion, she personally prepared a press release that claimed she had been "born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon".)
Nor was the young Streisand afraid to assert herself. From the start, Mann’s book observes, Streisand had a single goal: To get "[R]ight to the top, or nowhere at all." Along the way, she had no qualms about facing off with the likes of Mike Wallace (then a talk show host) and David Susskind, a powerful stage and film producer. Streisand went so far as to dress Susskind down on television for what she saw as deliberate obstruction, by himself and men in his position, of up-and-coming talent. (Her heat on this point stemmed from Susskind having agreed to meet with her, and then making her wait for hours until she left his office in exasperation.) The episode is emblematic not only of Streisand’s fearlessness; it also speaks to her deep-seated and ironclad belief in herself and her destiny to be an epoch-making artist.
Though Streisand had plenty of help reaching the pinnacle of success she’s enjoyed for so long, she remains front and center in the bio. "She was always in complete control," Mann tells me, "and I think that’s why she’s more vulnerable in my book, as opposed to other books [about her life and career], because I show her when she’s young and she doesn’t have the master plan yet."
Mann is quick to point out that Streisand’s path to the top, while expertly charted and navigated, was fueled by the exceptional "X factor" that enduring stars must possess. "If she wasn’t as phenomenal as her handlers were saying she was, she would have crashed and burned like so many have before her," Mann notes. "The product they were selling and marketing as being extraordinary actually was extraordinary."
But talent isn’t enough, Mann added. "It’s a formula: You need the star quality, but you also need the mechanics in terms of industry experts who are behind a successful career.
"One of the myths that’s been spawned about Streisand, and about every celebrity, is that they’re just so talented that stardom is destined," Mann adds. "All they had to do was show up, and the world was going to flock to them. That’s how you sell these stars, but of course, if that were the case, everybody would be a star.
"Streisand’s great asset was her voice, but she was very, very lucky to have a really strong team of lieutenants who made sure that voice got heard. Many times, great voices aren’t heard. But Streisand had a group of people that surrounded her and made sure she got to the right people, projected the right image, and became the iconic star she is today."
"Too good" a singer?
One fascinating, and crucial, aspect of the story is how Streisand herself was initially uninterested in having her voice heard--her singing voice, that is. That seems unimaginable now; even more stunning is how the head of Columbia Records almost missed his chance to sign her, thinking Streisand "too good" a singer for records.
If it raises eyebrows to think that Streisand, with her voice, was reluctant at first to pursue a career as a singer, it also seems a little remarkable that Mann, having written so extensively about Hollywood and various film stars, would now tackle a subject known for her work in movies, but so much more acclaimed for her musical performances.
The writing of "Hello, Gorgeous" did entail a learning curve, Mann allows. "In fact, Streisand had always seen herself as an actor first, and even today if you asked her whether she’s a singer or an actress first, she’s say she’s an actress,’ he explains. "She’s an okay actress, but she’s not a Bette Davis or a Meryl Streep. But her voice is unparalleled!
"For me, it was interesting to write this biography because I’m not a Streisand fan," Mann reveals. "I don’t mean I dislike her; I’ve always liked her okay, but I’ve never been one of these Barbra queens. I knew she was a good singer, but I didn’t quite get the madness for her. Then I started to research and write the book, and I found I enjoyed listening to her early records and trying to understand what she was doing musically. I hadn’t done that for previous books; there was a lot of listening involved in writing this one."
A personal touch
Listening, yes--and not just to old recordings. To get to the heart of Streisand’s origins, Mann carried out meticulous research, but he also relied on the personal touch. The writer interviewed as many friends, acquaintances, relations, and colleagues as he was able. Mann also found his focus on the star’s early career to be a definite plus.
"Most of the people who I needed to speak with were ordinary people who didn’t become big stars themselves," Mann discloses, "When you interview people who exist in that milieu about a colleague, you get the same bullshit. The more famous they are, the less candid their peers are going to be. It’s all, ’Wonderful! Genius! Perfect!’
"What was so great with Streisand was I didn’t have to worry about that," Mann continues. "I got to talk with her first boyfriend, Barry Dennen, who was very, very candid about their relationship. I got to talk to her best friend from that period, Bob Schulenberg. I spoke with her first publicists and her first manager. These were people who got to tell me about a side of Streisand that we’ve never seen before."
These were also some of the people who provided the talented Streisand with another ingredient crucial to success: "Salesmanship," Mann tells me. "You listen to Barbra Streisand’s voice and you think, ’That’s amazing; I want to hear more of that.’ But getting it heard was the hard part. They had to get her specialness noticed, and they did that through a variety of ways, like cooking up a ’kooky’ persona that was part make believe." The strategy worked: "Johnny Carson had just taken over ’The Tonight Show,’ and he loved to have her on because she was so unpredictable."
There was a specific goal toward which this "very calculated," marketing scheme was directed, Mann notes: "Early on, they already had their eye on ’Funny Girl,’ so Barbra was already, in a sense, playing Fanny Brice in all of the television appearances she was making at the time, so that she would be seen as the perfect fit for the part."
"Hello, Gorgeous" zeroes in on what makes Streisand run: A yearning for artistic excellence. "Hepburn wanted fame and glory and recognition, and Taylor wanted the lifestyle that stardom gave her, the minks and the jewels and all that," Mann observes. "Streisand wanted the acknowledgement that she was beyond good, that she was great--because that was something she had never gotten in her early life. In some ways her ambition was almost noble in a way, because she wanted artistic greatness, not fame and glory.
"Her father died when she was not even a year old," Mann recounts. "Her mother was very distant and emotionally undemonstrative. Streisand grew up wanting affirmation and a sense that she mattered." There was also the sense that the young Streisand had of being an ugly duckling: "The other girls at her high school kind of looked down their much-smaller noses at her."
While Streisand’s brand of beauty may not strike us as so unusual today, it’s largely because Streisand almost single-handedly redefined the parameters for attractiveness, Mann argues.
"She changed the perception of what beauty or glamor has to mean. Until then, it had to be Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day. Streisand came along, and suddenly it was all a little different."
Gay boys go wild
Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day--perhaps, not coincidentally, women whom gay men seem to adore. Streisand, too, has a so-called Big Gay Following.
"It was in a gay bar in New York that she first got noticed," Mann points out. "The gay boys went wild for her. Her friends, all of whom I interviewed for this book, who picked her clothes and helped her develop her act and her stage personality--they were all gay. She had a gay sensibility from the very beginning.
"The songs that she chose were often songs about not fitting in, being a little lonely, feeling heartbreak," Mann adds. "And then Judy Garland kind of passed the torch to her in those wonderful television episodes" of the short-lived "Judy Garland Show", in which Streisand appeared with the legendary entertainer.
In an earlier interview, while he was still penning the new bio, Mann had mentioned that Streisand was reportedly "terrified" to hear that he was putting the book together. I can’t help revisiting this, asking whether Mann--who once sniffed out Katharine Hepburn’s real age, despite the star’s attempts to rewrite the historical record, and received a congratulatory note from Hepburn herself--had uncovered anything to justify a feeling of panic or terror in the Streisand camp.
Mann hypothesizes that Streisand’s alleged response had probably sprung, at least in part, from a worry that the new biography, which is unauthorized, would be a hatchet job--or, at the very least, not in accordance with the carefully cultivated image Streisand has honed over the course of her career. To be sure, Mann’s new biography is of a woman with phenomenal talent but no small amount of insecurity, and no small amount of self-absorption to go along with it; at various points in Mann’s account, Streisand exhibits a lack of gratitude for those who have worked to instruct and promote her, and she has a tendency to seemingly give herself credit for ideas that originate with others acting on her behalf.
"She and her people are possessive of the brand," Mann notes. "No one else should have anything to do with telling her story except her. Most stars are like that, but Streisand is excessively so."
Mann then relates a story about sending an advance reading copy of the new bio to one of the star’s fan sites on the Internet. When a positive notice appeared at the site, "the very next day [the fellow who runs the site] gets a call from Barbra’s manager, who tells him, ’Take it down.’ The guy replies, ’It’s nothing she should be upset about! In fact, she should be really pleased that he was so thoughtful!’ Her manager says to him, ’It doesn’t matter. It’s unauthorized.’ " The notice came down from the site as demanded, even though the site had no official connection to Streisand or her people.
"I thought, ’What a silly thing to do on the part of Barbra’s camp,’ " Mann tells me, "but it’s not surprising. I do go behind the scenes, and I do say exactly what we were saying earlier: It wasn’t just the talent. It was also the fact that she had a group of people behind her who knew how to market her talent. It wasn’t the case that the world flocked unbidden; it was also because people were coaxed to pay attention, and once they did they said, ’Oh my god, this woman is fabulous!’ But there were a few more shenanigans involved than perhaps her handlers want to admit. There’s nothing more than this for her to fear, and to me that’s not a reason for fear. I think that’s fascinating."
"Hello, Gorgeous" may well be Mann’s last "diva" biography. The author’s former editor had suggested he pen a Madonna bio next, but Mann had other ideas. "I can’t imagine that," Mann sighs. "I can’t imagine doing another diva, and I certainly can’t imagine doing a more contemporary one. The more contemporary a star is, the less likely you’re going to be able to get to the story of the real person. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in history."
Back to early Hollywood
In fact, it’s a historical subject that’s drawn Mann to his next project, a murder that took place in Hollywood in 1922. Mann’s idea is to create a book that tells a true story in a novelistic manner.
"I go back to when the studio system is just taking shape, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, a very important film director, has taken place," the writer tells me. "That murder, along with the Fatty Arbuckle rape and murder trials and other scandals, forced the studios to coalesce and take on the system that they did."
The mention of Fatty Arbuckle is a reference to the three manslaughter trials the then-popular star endured after being accused, with little evidence, of having raped and inadvertently caused the death of a starlet while attending a party. Arbuckle was eventually cleared, but the case created a furor. Arbuckle’s career never recovered, and he died at age 46, twelve years after attending the fateful party.
Even apart from such scandal, pre-code Hollywood was a daring place, sometimes shockingly so for audiences of the time. "The Hollywood that we know took shape between 1921 and 1925," Mann details, referring to studio system and to the institution of the Hays Production Code, a collection of cinematic commandments that essentially gutted movies of any license to show realistic violence or adult situations. Among other things, the highly Puritanical Code forbade mention of divorce or adultery--or homosexuality. As a result, film became highly coded, artfully and indirectly addressing sensitive topics. "It’s those four years that I’m focusing on," Mann continues, "with Taylor’s murder as the driving narrative storyline."
The book will contain a huge payoff, artistically and historically, Mann tells me: "I’ve been able, through old court records, to figure out who did it," the author reveals. "And it’s not any of the usual suspects."
That’s thrilling news; but to what degree is he certain? "I’ve examined every other possible, previously suggested solution, and they all fall apart," Mann states. "Although the material evidence is long gone. My theory is the only solution that holds up and fits all the evidence.
"I add it to the canon of Taylor lore for the readers’ consideration," the writer continues. "There have been several books about the case; I think my solution is the best, and the most likely. I also think it’s the only solution that makes sense. Hopefully, the book will read like a murder mystery, as well as telling an important story about American popular culture."
In any event, it’s a project that will draw both on Mann’s skills as an investigative journalist as well as a novelist.
"Yes, exactly, and that is so exciting," Mann says. "Though I’m going to have to get those novelist’s gears working again! I haven’t written a novel in a while, and I’m realizing for this book to be the success that I want it to be, and to avoid having it typed as some kind of film studies book, then we have to sell it as a sexy murder mystery.
"That’s the only way it’s going to get any attention and readers will want to read it," adds the author and historian. "That means I have to write in a way that’s compelling and page turning. It can’t just be ’interesting.’ It’s got to be, ’I can’t put this down! I was up until three in the morning reading this book!’ That’s what I’m aiming for."
Watch Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland sing a duet: