Barbra Streisand, Rising Star

Barbra Streisand performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in New York City, on December 12, 1962.Photograph from CBS Photo Archive / Getty

Here is a brief  ‘Talk of the Town” commentary by Geoffrey T. Hellman that appeared in the May 12, 1962, issue of The New Yorker. To read the complete issue and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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A promising young singer discusses her Broadway début.

According to Playbill, Barbra Streisand, who is the harassed secretary, Miss Marmelstein, in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” and sings a self-exposing, show-stopping song called “Miss Marmelstein,” was born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon, and educated at Erasmus Hall High School, in Brooklyn. We asked her about her birthplace in the course of a post-matinée chat we had with her at Sardi’s last week.

“What does it matter where you are born?” she said. “Do you think it would be all right for me to wear a long wool dress to a birthday party that the Lichee Tree Restaurant, in Greenwich Village, is giving for me tomorrow night? I got it in Filene’s Basement, in Boston, for a hundred dollars reduced to twelve-fifty. I buy most of my clothes in thrift shops. Department stores are too expensive, and the salespeople there are so mean! They’re a haughty bunch of people. In thrift shops, they’re not mean. My birthday was really a couple of weeks ago; I’m twenty. The owners of the Lichee Tree are old friends of mine. I grew up with Chinese people. I used to baby-sit for a Chinese couple in Brooklyn; they had a restaurant and taught me to enjoy Chinese dishes. I often go to Chinatown to eat late at night. You get wonderful white hot breads with the center filled with shrimp at the little coffee shops there. Only ten cents! I love food. I look forward to it all day. My body responds to it. Everything else seems so nebulous. I love broiled mushrooms and watercress. I began to sing in night clubs when I was eighteen—I was at the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel, and on Tuesday, May 22nd, I’m going back to the Bon Soir for two weeks—and when people offered to buy me a drink I’d ask for potatoes. I never saw a night club until I performed in one. The Bon Soir hired me after I’d had a week’s engagement in a restaurant in the Village, and I got that engagement by winning a talent contest for singing. I was given sort of a good voice. I never was in Manhattan until I was fourteen. I came over to see “The Diary of Anne Frank.” My father, who was a Ph.D. and taught English literature and psychology in high schools, died when I was fifteen months old, and my mother never liked to leave Brooklyn. She’s there now. She did come to the opening night of ‘Wholesale,’ but I don’t think she understood what I was trying to do in it. Why should she? The things that interest her about me are whether I’m eating enough and whether I am warmly enough dressed. She’s a very simple, nonintellectual, nontheatrical person who lives and breathes.”

Miss Streisand, who in her secretarial role drew such (nonpejorative) adjectives as “oafish,” “plain,” and “homely” from the critics, is in private life an animated, poised, and unconventionally beautiful young woman, with an aquiline nose, great big soulful eyes, and great big soulful eyelashes. During our talk, she consumed, soulfully, three buttered rolls, a clam juice, a V-8, a crabmeat with asparagus, and a 7-Up.

“The best fried chicken I know of comes with a TV dinner,” she said. “I have a railroad flat in the East Sixties, but it’s getting too small. It’s getting too small because I just bought two marvellous Victorian cabinets with glass shelves. I got them in a shop at Eighty-third Street and Columbus Avenue, called Foyniture Limited. That’s how it’s spelled. I like to get shawls that I can wear instead of a coat, and that can also serve as bedcovers. I was bald until I was two. I think I’m some sort of Martian. I exist on my will power, being Taurus. My birthday was April 24th. I hate the name Barbara; I dropped the second ‘a,’ and I think I’ll gradually cut the whole thing down to B. That will save exertion in handwriting. I sometimes call myself Angelina Scarangella, which won’t. I used to study acting with three different people, and I didn’t want any of them to know I was studying with the others, so I took the name Angelina Scarangella part of the time to throw them off the track. I had it printed on match covers. Allan Miller, on West Forty-eighth Street, was my first teacher. He’s marvellous. While I was going to him, I worked as a clerk in a printing company downtown. Those terrible train rides commuting from Brooklyn! I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty or to the top of the Empire State Building. I’d love to visit the Statue of Liberty, because I like water. I suppose I’m going to be famous.”

We asked whether she wasn’t busy enough without returning to the Bon Soir.

“I’m doing it because I can sing the way I want to sing there,” she said. “I can’t do that in the show. I see the part differently now from the way it was written and directed, and I’d like to do it differently, but I can’t. It’s difficult for me to find songs that I like. I don’t like mooshy love songs. ‘Sleepin’ Bee,’ by Harold Arlen, is my favorite. It’s about love, in its way. When I get really rich, I’ll have tutors come to my house and teach me languages—including Greek and Japanese. I like Greek and Japanese poetry, but poems can’t be translated satisfactorily. I’m reading ‘The Conformist,’ by Moravia, and some old book by Arnold Bennett that has an art-nouveau cover. It’s magnificent. I hate diamonds. I like garnets, jade, carnelian, and emeralds, and rubies in old settings. I like interviews—they’re still a novelty—but by the time they appear they look funny to me, because my attitude changes from week to week.”

“Your attitude toward what?” we asked.

“Oh, toward smoked foods, say,” she replied, and we rushed to the phone to file our copy.

Published in the print edition of the May 19, 1962, issue, with the headline “Coming Star.”

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Here is a direct link to the article.

Geoffrey Theodore Hellman (February 13, 1907 – September 26, 1977) was an American journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker.

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