Winter 1960


For sixty-five cents you could get a piece of fish, a heaping helping of French fries, a tub of coleslaw, and some tartar sauce at the smoky little diner on Broadway just south of Times Square. But since they only had ninety-three cents and some pocket lint between them, they decided to order one meal and split it, throwing in an additional dime apiece for a couple of glasses of birch beer.

It hadn’t escaped Barbara’s attention—few things ever did—that today, February 5, was her father’s birthday. He would have been fifty-two if he hadn’t died when she was fifteen months old, and quite possibly, instead of eating greasy fried fish with her friend Carl, she’d have spent this unseasonably warm winter day wandering through the city discussing Chekhov with the man she had come to idolize, a devotee of the Russian playwright, as well as of Shaw and Shakespeare. It was, after all, Chekhov’s centennial, and as serious students of the theater, both Barbara and Emanuel Streisand would have been well aware of that fact. She and her father might even have taken in Three Sisters that night at the Fourth Street Theater in the East Village—a production Barbara had been dying to see, but for which she’d been unable to afford a ticket.

Looking up at Carl over their French fries with a sudden, surprising passion, Barbara insisted that everything would have been very different if her father had lived. Certainly she wouldn’t have had to spend her nights at the Lunt-Fontanne, ushering giddy housewives from New Jersey to their seats to see Mary Martin warble her way through The Sound of Music, hiding her face “so nobody would remember” her after she became famous.

Barbara Joan Streisand was seventeen years old. She had been living in Manhattan now for almost exactly a year, and she was getting impatient with the pace of her acting career. So far her résumé consisted of summer stock and one play in somebody’s attic. But she wasn’t anywhere near to giving up. Her grandmother had called her “farbrent” —Yiddish for “on fire”—because even as a child Barbara had never been able to accept “no” for an answer. Growing up in Brooklyn in near poverty, she’d existed in a world of her own imagination of “what life should be like.” She was driven by “a need to be great,” she said, a need that burned in her like the passion of a “preacher” and necessitated getting out of Brooklyn as soon as she could. And so it was that, in January 1959, just weeks after graduating (six months early) from Erasmus Hall High School, Barbara had hopped on the subway and, several stops later, emerged into her new life amid the lights of Times Square. Manhattan, she believed, was “where people really lived.”

With the childlike enthusiasm that could, in an instant, melt her usual steely resolve, Barbara looked over at Carl with her wide blue eyes, telling him about her father, the intellectual, the man of culture. Her hands in frenetic motion, her outrageously long fingernails drawing considerable attention, she insisted that her father would have understood her. She missed him “in her bones.” All her life, she’d felt she was “missing something,” and she had to fill up the empty place he had left.

But, asked about her mother, Barbara fell silent. Crumpling her napkin and tossing it onto her plate, she slid out of the booth, plopped her share of coins onto the table, and trudged out of the restaurant. Carl had to gulp down the last of his birch beer before hurrying after her. Barbara was already out the door and striding down the sidewalk, the fringe of her antique lace shawl swinging as she walked.

Carl Esser knew very little about this strange urchin he’d met just a few weeks before in a Theatre Studio workshop, except that she fascinated him. Sex and romance had nothing to do with the attraction, at least not for him. At twenty-four, Carl was seven years Barbara’s senior, and besides, the small girl who was already half a block ahead of him wasn’t exactly what most people would call pretty. A layer of heavy pancake makeup covered an angry blush of teenage acne. Her eyes, no matter how cornflower blue, had a tendency to look crossed. Most of all, she had a nose that was likened by some in their acting class to an anteater’s snout—behind Barbara’s back, of course. But her breasts were full, her waist was small, and her hips were nicely rounded, making for an odd and rather contradictory package.

Carl knew—everyone in their acting class knew—how intensely Barbara wanted to be great. She wanted to be Duse, she said, though she’d never seen Duse act, only read about her in books on theater in her acting teacher’s library. That didn’t matter. Duse had been a great artist, perhaps the greatest, and that’s what Barbara wanted. There were others in the class who claimed they wanted to be great, but what they really wanted was fame and applause. That wasn’t what fired Barbara up. She didn’t sit around idolizing movie stars or the latest Broadway sensation du jour. She wanted to be remembered for being great, for making art.

Taxicabs bleated their horns as Barbara and Carl crossed Times Square. Policemen blew high-pitched whistles as tiny brand-new Ford Falcons scooted past sleek Chevrolet Impalas with their sweeping tail fins. Steam from the Seventh Avenue subway rose through the grates like fog from an underground river. On every block hung the fragrance of roasting chestnuts, while tourists in fur coats gaped up at the news ticker on the New York Times Building, its 14,800 bulbs spelling out the latest in the U.S.-Soviet space race.

Barbara and Carl headed west on Forty-eighth Street. At Barbara’s apartment, number 339, the friends bid each other good-bye, and if Barbara was hoping there might be a kiss, she didn’t wait for it. It was clear that Carl, like all the others, wasn’t interested in her that way. If anyone had asked, she would’ve insisted it didn’t matter. With all her big dreams, she would’ve said that she didn’t have time for romance.

That day, or one very much like it, Barbara walked up the stairs to her apartment to the smell of boiled chicken. On the stove bubbled a pot of her mother’s chicken soup. Barbara’s roommate, Marilyn, told her that her mother had just walked in, dropped off the soup, and left. No message, no note. But the chicken soup, as always, was welcome because that fried fish and coleslaw would last only so long.


Striding into her acting class, Barbara was boiling with all the ferocity of her mother’s soup. Who did this Susskind guy think he was?

Word around the Theatre Studio had been that the producer David Susskind was always looking for new talent. It might be only for television, not the stage, but Susskind’s production of Lullaby for Channel 13’s Play of the Week had recently won approving notices for Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and next up was The Devil and Daniel Webster for NBC Sunday Showcase. The guy was making something worthwhile out of the boob tube. And since Susskind had been an agent, Barbara no doubt figured stopping by his office on Columbus Circle couldn’t hurt, to drop off some headshots if nothing else.

But rarely had she encountered such rudeness. Carl, who’d gotten an earful on the way to class, was trying to calm her down, but Barbara was on a roll. Susskind had agreed to see her, but then Barbara had sat in his office for hours to no avail. Finally she’d stormed out, and the storm had yet to subside. People such as Susskind, she raged, were refusing to let new talent emerge, almost as if they had a “duty to squelch” it. That was the problem with this business, Barbara carped. Whenever she tried to sign up with agents, she was told they only represented people who were working. But you couldn’t get work without an agent! Talk about double binds! Barbara took it all very personally.

The others in her class looked on with a mixture of amusement and weariness. To them, Barbara was that nutty kid who was always stumbling in late eating yogurt and wearing “a coat of some immense plaid,” as one of them described. When she spoke, Barbara reminded some people of a Jules Feiffer cartoon from the Village Voice—cynical, ironic, sometimes angry, and always quintessentially New York. When asked why she talked so much, often to the point where other students closed their eyes in exhaustion, she was apt to blame it on her tinnitus, a condition that had plagued her since she was eight. “I never hear the silence,” she said. Neither, her classmates might have replied, did they.

The Theatre Studio was located at 353 West Forty-eighth Street, just a few doors from Barbara’s apartment, precisely the reason she’d chosen to live there. The school was one of about a hundred such institutions in a twenty-block radius of Times Square. In the previous decade acting schools had proliferated in New York. With the elite “big three”—the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the American Theatre Wing, and the Neighborhood Playhouse—only being able to accommodate about six hundred aspiring actors, newer schools quickly formed to fill the need. Celebrated coaches like Herbert Berghof and Stella Adler established their own ateliers. The Theatre Studio was part of this same tradition, having been founded in 1952 by Curt Conway, a member of the groundbreaking Group Theatre and a major proponent of Method acting. In addition to the classrooms on Forty-eighth Street, Conway had acquired the Cecilwood Playhouse in Fishkill, New York, for summer productions, and a weekly radio program on station WEVD where his students interpreted new and classical work. The school offered three levels of courses, from fundamental to advanced acting, and special workshops conducted by some of the greats Conway had worked with, including Joseph Anthony, Howard Da Silva, Paddy Chayefsky, and Harold Clurman.

Not that Barbara, a neophyte, had gotten to study with any of them. Her primary teacher was Allan Miller, a young up-and-comer who’d studied under Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and who was best known for playing the second lead (behind Warren Beatty) in a summer tour of A Hatful of Rain. Under Miller’s tutelage, Barbara was beginning to blossom. Finally she was in an environment where people believed in her potential as much as she did. Any student with enough “appetite,” Miller believed, could be trained to act. With such a philosophy, it was no surprise that Barbara responded well to Miller’s instruction. “We all have deep, secret feelings,” he told his students—and that was certainly true enough of Barbara. With enough craft and discipline, Miller said, she could use those feelings to hone and express her acting talent.

Barbara had enrolled at the Theatre Studio when she was not quite sixteen, younger than most people who were admitted. Her only real acting experience came from a summer internship with the Malden Bridge Playhouse in upstate New York between her sophomore and junior years, where she’d gotten to act in Picnic and won a nice review in the local newspaper. Her acceptance into the Theatre Studio had come about only through the intercession of Miller’s wife, Anita, whom Barbara had met at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, where she’d secured herself yet another internship. As soon as Barbara had realized that her new friend’s husband taught at the Theatre Studio, she’d bombarded her with questions, coming across to Anita “like someone who had been starved.” Impressed by her passion, Anita had prevailed upon her husband to accept Barbara into his class. Instead of paying tuition ($180 for a fifteen-week course ), Barbara babysat the Millers’ two young sons. It wasn’t unheard of for students to barter their tuition in this way; another young hopeful, an enterprising kid from California named Dustin Hoffman, swept the floors and emptied the trash at night. Barbara told her mother she’d received a “scholarship.”

Although she took classes with other teachers, it was Allan Miller who became Barbara’s mentor. Handsome, intelligent, passionate, Miller offered Barbara a glimpse of what her life might have been like if her father had still been around. In the days before she got her apartment, Barbara would sometimes sleep on the Millers’ couch instead of schlepping back to Brooklyn. She’d fall asleep with books about theater, art, or literature resting on her chest. These were the kind of treatises she believed her father would have kept around the house: Socrates, Euripides, French farces, and Russian literature. Anna Karenina “changed her life,” she said. During this same period Barbara also heard her first classical music: Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.“Can you imagine what that’s like?” she asked, looking back. “To hear that music for the first time?”

At the Millers’ house, Barbara soaked up more culture than she “ever did in high school.” She viewed the Millers’ life with a sort of wonder. They were happy; their kids were happy; they were smart and curious and engaged with the world. It was as if she were peering through a looking glass into another world.

During Barbara’s first semester at the Theatre Studio, she took Miller’s Fundamentals course, which met twice weekly and included an hour of body training and seventy-five minutes of voice and speech instruction. “Acting is the only art in which the actor is both the piano and the pianist,” Miller wrote. Her teacher found Barbara “very awkward, emotionally and physically, in her expression of herself,” so in the beginning he insisted she perform her scenes in class using sounds instead of words.

Gradually, Barbara shed some of her awkwardness and developed some effective techniques, though she seemed, to some at least, to be surprisingly ungrateful to those who helped her. To her, it was as if her new skills were her accomplishments and hers alone. One teacher, Eli Rill, thought Barbara eschewed “the political niceties . . . the brownnosing” that most students practiced. There was no “thank you very much,” Rill said—no card, no phone call, even after he took a chance on her and cast her in a production he was directing. Rill didn’t mind,though he found Barbara’s behavior different enough to comment on it.

Barbara then advanced to Miller’s Intermediate Acting class. Here a “sensory approach” was taught to perfect “concentration, relaxation, and emotion.” Barbara was fascinated by this forceful man who taught her how to breathe, how to move, how to delve deeply into a whole range of emotions. She was a girl who knew very little about men. She’d never known her father, and her mother’s second husband, a crass used-car salesman who’d barely ever spoken to her, had been gone by the time she was thirteen. Her brother, Sheldon, seven years older than she was, had left when Barbara was ten to study at the Pratt Institute. By the time Barbara moved out of the apartment, the household consisted of her, her mother, and her younger sister, Rosalind, who was now an overweight child of nine.

Her encounters with the opposite sex had been fleeting—though intense enough to leave her extremely curious. The longest lasting one had been her fling with her fellow student Roy Scott the previous year. Roy was Barbara’s brother’s age, twenty-four, a grown man—even if he still poured ketchup on his macaroni and drank cheap wine. She had spent many late nights at Roy’s place, the two of them talking about acting, the theater, and life. Barbara thought Roy was the best-looking guy in Miller’s class, and she couldn’t fathom why he paid so much attention to a girl like her.

That such a brash, outspoken girl harbored such self-doubt surprised many people. When she wasn’t striving to become the great Method actor who could believe herself to be anything, including beautiful, Barbara would inevitably remember the “real ugly kid” she’d been in Brooklyn, “the kind who looks ridiculous with a ribbon in her hair,” as she described herself. When someone avoided her eyes, she felt certain they “couldn’t bear to look” at her. But Roy assured her that all this was nonsense. She was “very pretty and attractive.” It may have been the first time Barbara had ever heard those words.

Barbara’s mother, however, hadn’t been pleased with the relationship. Barbara rarely spoke of her mother; her roommate, Marilyn, only knew she existed from the chicken soup she’d drop off at the apartment. To her daughter’s friends, Diana Streisand Kind seemed “somebody far removed from Barbara, somebody she preferred not to even think about.” But she would be heard. “My daughter’s too young to be involved with your son,” Diana told Roy’s mother after tracking her down through the school. Barbara’s mother was adamant about such things. Even holding hands was frowned upon in Barbara’s household. “You’ll get a disease,” Diana warned. Thereafter, Roy kept his distance.

The breakup with Roy hadn’t helped Barbara’s confidence or her faith in her own appeal. But Allan Miller identified a raw sexuality in her work in class. Acting out a scene from The Rose Tattoo, Barbara was embarrassed to play the seductress, so Miller advised her to find a way to convey the girl’s desire without thinking about sex. What followed astonished him. Barbara pretended she was blind, and as she spoke, she touched her partner’s face. At one point, she stood on his feet; at another, she jumped on his back. Miller thought it was “the sexiest scene” he’d ever witnessed in his life.

Yet toward men, Barbara seemed skeptical and wary. She was content to bask in the lectures of her intense, impassioned teacher and to pal around with platonic friends such as Carl Esser, heedless of the game of musical beds being played by other Theatre Studio students. Those who watched Barbara as she sauntered in and out of class wearing her fringed jackets and oversized boots, projecting that fragile pretense of superiority so peculiar to misfit teenagers, had the sense that she was somehow frozen in midbloom.


The flyer tacked to the wall contained only the barest of details, but Allan Miller suggested that his students give it a read.

Barbara, Carl, and the others gathered around. A group called the Actors Co-op was holding auditions for a play called The Insect Comedy, written by the Czech playwrights Josef and Karel Ĉapek and set to be staged at a little playhouse on East Seventy-fourth Street. The director was a man named Vasek Simek, who, according to word around the Theatre Studio, was “a big deal,” a Czech who’d once worked for Radio Free Europe. The Insect Comedy, therefore, would be a “very significant play.”

Both she and Carl decided to audition. This, Barbara hoped, could be her big break. True, she had a rather sparse résumé, but challenge was what Barbara thrived on. She’d gotten herself to Manhattan to make something of herself, and to show her mother and everyone back in Brooklyn that they just hadn’t known how special she was. When Barbara was nine, a gang of girls had formed a circle around her, making fun of her until she cried. Although Barbara wasn’t crying anymore, she still tried to understand what she had done to elicit such cruelty. What exactly did she “vibrate,” she wondered, that brought out such hostility from people, even in her acting class?

One friend thought part of the answer was that people were threatened by her. Barbara had a way, this friend said, of “letting you know that she thought she was better than you were, and that she’d be a big success and you wouldn’t.” Barbara wasn’t being hostile, or even necessarily conscious of the attitude she was projecting. But the impression came through nonetheless. Her sense of superiority masked her self-doubt; Barbara had to believe that she was special since no one else did. Whether that specialness was good or just different, she had yet to fully discover. But she knew one thing clearly: She was not like anyone else.

Her tinnitus, for example, was evidence of “supersonic hearing,” Barbara believed, an ability that enabled her to hear sounds beyond the range of normal people. It frightened her; she wore scarves “to try to cut out the noise.” And it wasn’t just sounds. She experienced colors in a way no one else did. When she’d look at a white wall, she’d see textures. Her sensory perception seemed “an overemphasizing on the processes of being alive,” she thought. In some very real sense, Barbara existed outside the realm of ordinary people. Of course a girl with such extrasensory powers was going to have certain advantages over mere mortals. She felt as if she were “chosen,” that only she could “see the truth.” A girl like that was either going to go crazy or succeed beyond anyone’s imagination—except, of course, hers.

To Carl, Barbara insisted that if she got a part in The Insect Comedy, it could catapult her to the kind of success she’d always dreamed about. The show was bound to inflame her ambition. It would be her first real play in New York, because Driftwood, the little thing she’d done the previous year in the attic of its playwright’s fifth-floor walk-up on East Forty-ninth Street, didn’t count, at least not in her mind. She needed a part that would get her noticed. She’d already wasted too much time in the trenches, she believed. For Barbara, there was no patience for the chorus line. For her, it was “right to the top,” she insisted, “or nowhere at all.”

So all her laserlike focus was brought to bear on winning a part in The Insect Comedy.


Never had Barbara known a friend quite like Terry.

It was Terry to whom she turned for help in her quest. For her Insect Comedy audition, she needed an especially impressive outfit, and Terry had a way of finding things. Not long ago, he had given her a scarf of sheer silk netting, over which Barbara had gushed, “Where did you ever find it?” Terry had replied mysteriously that it just “turned up” somewhere, and when Barbara asked him what she owed him for it, he shrugged and said, “Never mind about that.”

Terry Leong was an absolute doll. Barely taller than Barbara’s five-five, he was twenty-one, finely boned, soft-spoken, and, according to one friend, as “delicately attenuated as a Chinese rod puppet carved of linden wood.” Terry’s father had been born in China, his mother in Boston, and the young man lived with them on Chrystie Street in Chinatown, though he was hankering to move uptown. Weekdays Terry toiled for McGregor-Doniger, the men’s sportswear company, designing golf shirts at their offices in the Tishman Building at 666 Fifth Avenue. Golf was far from Terry’s passion, however; he wasn’t happy with his job at all. He had studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and what he really wanted to do was design for the theater—which was why he jumped at the chance when his friend Marilyn Fried asked him to help her roommate Barbara put together outfits for Theatre Studio shows.

Barbara protested; she had no money. She was barely making her rent with the pittance she took home from ushering at the Lunt-Fontanne. But Terry told her not to worry about that. Where he was taking her, he explained, you could get treasures for pennies.

As they emerged from the Fifty-ninth Street subway, Terry explained to Barbara all about the thrift shops that lined Third Avenue. Here was the source of his fabulous finds. The rich people of the Upper East Side, he explained, were forever tossing out such treasures as original Lalique jewelry and Pauline Trigère jackets. They just boxed them up and sent them over to the little boutiques on Third Avenue that sold used goods to benefit charity. An alert shopper could snatch up these precious items for a fraction of their original prices. Terry was astonished that so few people had caught on to this, but he was loath to let the secret out. Then every fashion acolyte from Jersey and the boroughs would be arriving via bridge and tunnel to plunder all this bounty.

Barbara and Terry headed into Stuart’s, just south of Sixty-second Street. In the window, tall white ceramic obelisks of uncertain function stood beside a cluster of delicate porcelain tulips. Inside, one wall was covered in panels of gold, emerald, and tangerine felt—an attention to color that was carried throughout the shop, where all the accessories were arranged by hue. This way, the discerning shopper could ensure instantly that her earrings complemented her belt. Barbara was enchanted.

From Stuart’s, it was onward to other places such as Lots for Little, at Seventy-seventh Street, which benefited Catholic missionaries, and Bargains Unlimited, at Eighty-second Street, where proceeds went to Bellevue Hospital. On one of their shopping ventures, either this one or one very much like it, Terry discovered a Fabiani dress hanging on the rack and breathlessly insisted Barbara get it. When she admitted, a little shamefacedly, that she didn’t know who all these designers were, Terry sat her down and patiently explained that she needed to learn such things. If Barbara was going to stand out among all the other hopefuls looking for parts, she needed to develop her own particular style, Terry declared. Barbara latched on to his advice with conviction.

She was a fast learner. Even if she didn’t know the names of designers, Barbara had an instinctive understanding of what worked for her. She could pick up a skirt and know, without even trying it on, whether the color and the fit would suit her. Terry had been right to take her under his wing. He might need to help her decide which choker was best, but it was Barbara who knew, in her gut, that a choker would be the perfect finishing touch for the outfit they were putting together.

That day, strolling in and out of the boutiques on Third Avenue, Barbara was a happy girl, laughing and joking, trying on funny sunglasses and hats. The determination that frequently kept her face tight, hard, and unsmiling was missing. To see Barbara and Terry together, giggling, rummaging through a table of beaded blouses from the 1900s, was to spy something very special between them. They were like a brother and sister with “secrets, and codes, and a language of shared experience,” as one observer described it. And yet there was never a thought of romance.

Surely, at some point, Barbara must have wondered why. It was obvious that Terry, like no other man in her life, found her beautiful, even exquisite. He rhapsodized about her swan neck and long, graceful fingers. He adored the way fabric draped over her lithe, elegant, slender body. Yet standing next to him never produced the kind of charge she felt when standing that close to another man. It wasn’t because Terry was Chinese. Barbara had worked in a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn where she’d become close with the family who ran the place. Muriel Choy, the proprietor, had been like a surrogate mother, teaching her “about love and life and sex.” So Barbara never had hang-ups about race. At Erasmus Hall, she’d even dated a black boy—nothing serious, mostly just hanging out and talking, but she’d liked him in the way a girl likes a boy. Not so with Terry. This was different.

Eventually Terry told Barbara that he was gay. She accepted the news with nonchalance. This was why she loved Manhattan, after all. Here was every kind of person, coming and going. She was glad she’d been born in Brooklyn, she said, because it gave her a certain character. But she was also very glad she no longer lived there. “You know, once you cross the bridge, everything changes,” she’d say—and for the better, she believed.


The best thing about Cis’s house was the refrigerator. It was always full. And since Barbara was always hungry, the combination worked out perfectly.

On this day, Barbara arrived at her friend’s stately townhouse on West Seventy-eighth Street near Riverside Drive with some big news. She’d won the part of a butterfly named Clythia in The Insect Comedy. The strange little play had been produced on Broadway in 1948 starring José Ferrer. It was a piece about human survival as seen through the lives of “double-dealing, marauding” insects. While she was also playing a few other small parts, Barbara believed it would be Clythia, with her fragile, flirtatious hold on life, that would get her noticed. After all, Rita Gam, who’d played Clythia in 1948, went on to a long acting career on stage and screen—not to mention serving as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Princess Grace.

No doubt Cis encouraged Barbara in this latest endeavor. Cis always encouraged her. Cis Corman—born Eleanor Cohen—was sixteen years Barbara’s senior. All of Barbara’s friends were older than she was, but Cis, at thirty-three, was one of the oldest. Cis was also married, to a psychiatrist, Harvey H. Corman, and they had four children, the eldest of whom was only a few years younger than Barbara. Cis, far too creative and intelligent to be content with just playing mother and wife, had signed up for classes at the Theatre Studio and had encountered the young waif from Brooklyn soon thereafter. Yet she’d found nothing even “remotely adolescent” about Barbara. She’d been deeply impressed that the teenager already knew her own mind so well. Ten people might tell Barbara they didn’t like the dress she was wearing, but she stuck to her guns and insisted that she did. After Barbara played Cis’s lady-in-waiting in a Theatre Studio production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning, the unlikely friendship took off.

The Cormans were now Barbara’s proxy family. It wasn’t just that their refrigerator was full of food. They also had “roots,” as Cis put it. Barbara believed that her father would have felt equally at home in the Cormans’ house as she did. Both Cis and Harvey were people who valued ideas and learning. Harvey was proud of the fact that he’d been one of the first to teach at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the new graduate school of Yeshiva University, located in the Bronx. His brother Sidney, known as Cid, was a highly esteemed poet who had founded the influential poetry magazine Origin and was currently teaching literature in Japan.

Most friends of Barbara’s knew that discussions of her family, especially her mother, were off limits. But here, in the safe, book-lined cocoon of Cis’s house, Barbara could open up. Sitting on Cis’s comfortable couch, Barbara may well have thought about how, growing up, she had lacked such a piece of furniture in her own living room. For that matter, she had lacked a living room.

After Barbara’s father died, Diana Streisand, overwhelmed with debt, had taken her children and moved into her parents’ small apartment in Williamsburg. For the next eight years, Barbara’s grandparents’ living room was her bedroom. Barbara and her mother shared a bed while her brother slept on a rollaway cot next to them. To Barbara, an actual living-room couch was “an amazing thing” —a symbol of real life, normal life, a life she knew very little about.

Except for the time she spent with the Cormans, who were simpatico with her in so many ways. For starters, the Cormans were Jews, but not very religious, the same as Barbara. On Harvey’s daily walks to his office, he was often asked by the rabbi of a small synagogue at Seventy-third Street if he’d help form a minyan, the quorum of ten males needed for prayers, but Harvey always politely declined. Likewise, Barbara’s mother rarely lit candles or kept kosher. Although Barbara believed in God—as a young girl, she’d tried earnestly to argue one friend out of her atheism —she didn’t take her religion all that seriously. “I am deeply Jewish,” she’d say, “but in a place where I don’t even know where it is.” She had attended yeshiva on her grandparents’ insistence and had learned to read Hebrew, even though she didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. What stayed in her memory most was one teacher’s insistence that good Jewish children should never utter the word “Christmas.” To a girl as rebellious as Barbara, that was too good to resist. “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas,” she had chanted as soon as the teacher left the room. When nothing bad happened to her, she figured she knew better than her teachers.

Barbara made jokes about a lot of things. But if anybody made a dent in that armor of sarcasm and indifference, it was Cis Corman. To others Barbara might remain tight-lipped about her childhood: “I don’t remember it. I was born at six. Came out, a full set of teeth.” But Cis knew that Barbara remembered her childhood all too well. Every step she took, every word she uttered, reflected the facts of Barbara’s short life, and all of it could ultimately be traced back to that day in August 1943 when Emanuel Streisand—scholar, poet, professor—had died of respiratory failure brought on by a morphine injection intended to alleviate an epileptic seizure.

It was a source of both pride and comfort for Barbara that she had inherited her father’s ambition and intellectual curiosity. Emanuel had received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and education from City College in upper Manhattan, and at the time of his death, he had been working on his doctorate. He’d taught elementary and junior high school English, then got a job tutoring juvenile offenders at a Brooklyn trade school. During the summers, he counseled kids at upstate camps. He was a good, decent man who wanted to make a difference in the world while also making something of himself. A pedestrian existence in Brooklyn would never have been enough for Emanuel Streisand, Barbara was certain. All of their lives would have been different if only her father had lived. It was clear she was her father’s child. Her mother had simply borne her.

And while Barbara hadn’t gone on to college like her father, she could have. She’d done well in school, even though she’d hated it. She would lie on the floor on Sunday nights, watching What’s My Line?, and feel it was her “last chance of freedom before going to school the next day.” Still, she’d graduated with a ninety-four average. When her guidance counselors saw her grades they called her mother in to ask, “Why isn’t this kid going to college?” But if they had bothered to pay attention, they would have known the answer. Barbara’s senior book reports had all been on Stanislavski and acting. She had only one ambition, and that was to go to Manhattan and act. Her mother had finally given in to her demands, allowing her to accelerate her classes and graduate early so she could, as Diana explained to Barbara’s teachers, obtain “further experience in the city.”

Barbara had never fit into the routine of school. She’d been a loner at Erasmus Hall, and even when the girls stopped ganging up on her, she still kept largely to herself. She was an odd duck who, to alleviate boredom one day, dyed her hair platinum blond. Sometimes she wore purple lipstick to boot. She fit into no clique. The other smart kids shunned her because she looked like a beatnik while the “actual beatniks” avoided her because she had “brains.”

Barbara’s mother despaired over such antics. Diana simply didn’t understand her. What her sophisticated father had seen in her pedestrian mother Barbara could not understand. Her mother wanted her to be just another cog in the wheel. She told Barbara she should be a school secretary, just like she was. “You’ll get paid vacations and summers off,” she argued. “It’s a steady job.”

If Allan Miller had filled some of the emotional space left by her father, then Cis Corman stepped in where Barbara’s mother had never ventured. Never had her mother said, “You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re anything, you can do what you want.” To outsiders, it might seem as if Barbara’s mother coddled her: “Don’t go out in the rain, don’t do this, you’ll get a cold, don’t do that.” But when Barbara did come down with a cold, she felt as if her mother’s response was always, “I told you so. Now you take care of it.” Emotionally, Barbara believed, her mother had left her at the same time her father had. Barbara felt that her mother had gone into shock after her father’s death, a shock that had now lasted seventeen years.

Affection wasn’t forthcoming from her grandparents either. Barbara’s maternal grandfather, with whom she lived during the first years of her life, was a strict taskmaster who resented the intrusion of his daughter’s family into his household. Her paternal grandmother, blaming Emanuel’s widow for not taking good care of him, would actually look the other way when she saw Barbara on the street, dressed all in black and wearing purple lipstick. From nearly every adult in Barbara’s early life had come the same message. She wasn’t any good. She did not matter.

Instinctive actress that she was, Barbara had learned to play up the melodrama of it all, probably even to Cis. If she wasn’t going to give people real emotional details, she seemed only too glad to provide some sentimental theatrics. Much hay would be made over a hot- water bottle Barbara had used as a doll, supposedly the only doll she ever owned. She’d swear its warm “rubber tummy” felt more real than any doll bought from a store. Many times she told the story of her babysitter, a kindly lady from downstairs named Tobey Borokow, knitting a pink sweater for the hot-water-bottle doll.

Barbara liked to foster an image of herself as a sort of street kid, and, in fact, for much of her childhood she was on the street, singing on stoops with other girls from the neighborhood while people looked down from their tenements. Unlike the other kids, however, Barbara was never called in for meals. Instead, she came and went as she pleased, often eating from pots her mother left simmering on the stove—which was why the Cormans’ dining-room table, with actual meals being shared around it, fascinated her. When Barbara was a little older, she started smoking. Nightly she’d litter the rooftop of her building with the butts of her Pall Malls. Her mother didn’t object. In fact, at ten, Barbara taught her mother how to smoke.

If that seemed rather lenient for the usually strict Diana, it was almost certainly because she, like her daughter, needed a break from the man downstairs, her new husband, who had come into their lives when Barbara was eight—the same year, not coincidentally, that her tinnitus began. Louis Kind was a coarse man, nothing like the image Barbara carried around of her noble father. Kind, already divorced and the father of three, moved with his new family into a cramped apartment on Newkirk Avenue, where he could usually be found hunkered down in front of the television set watching pro wrestling with a beer and a bag of pretzels. Her mother warned her that Kind was “allergic to kids,” and no doubt especially to “obnoxious” ones, as Barbara admitted she could be. With her flair for melodrama, she’d tell of slithering on her belly under the TV instead of walking in front of it and risk getting yelled at by her stepfather.

Yet no melodramatic tricks were needed to elicit sympathy for the worst of Kind’s behavior. More than once he had called Barbara ugly to her face. He was truly cruel enough to call an adolescent girl ugly. And though friends insisted that Barbara’s mother had tried to shield her from her stepfather’s foul moods, Barbara could never remember her mother defending her.

For the teenager, such hell seemed as if it would go on forever. “I tried to imagine my future, like other kids,” Barbara said, “but I couldn’t, it just stopped. There was a big blank screen, no husband, no children, nothing. I decided that meant I was going to die. I would think, ‘That’s too bad, because I really could have done things.’”

To Cis, she could admit such fears. There was no one else she trusted enough to share such private thoughts. Cis was what Barbara’s mother could have been. Both Cis and Diana were daughters of working-class Russian Jews. Cis’s father had sold hardware in Boston; Barbara’s grandfather had labored as a tailor in Brooklyn. The Cormans might have been financially well-off by the time Barbara met them, but Cis knew what it was like to struggle. The critical difference between her and Barbara’s mother was that Cis had always tempered her struggle with an appreciation for style, knowledge, and talent. Like Muriel Choy before her, Cis Corman made Barbara feel valuable in a way her own mother seemed incapable of doing.

Louis Kind was gone by the time Barbara was thirteen, but his stink remained. Barbara found she could no longer stand being in that small apartment with her mother and her meager view of the world, or with the little girl who had been born of her mother’s union with Kind. Pudgy Rosalind had a round, pretty face and was the apple of her mother’s eye. Rather than watch her mother dote over this angelic little child, who seemed so different from her, Barbara spent even more time away from home, living for herself and only herself—“kind of a wild child,” she’d tell people.

Yet she believed all that wildness—the fact that she’d never had parents who taught her the “rules” of proper behavior—had helped her. She never learned that “you weren’t supposed to do certain things or say certain things.” Convictions were meant to be acted upon: “You feel it, you make it happen,” she said. “Imagination and belief manifest reality.”

This was her current mantra. Several months earlier, she’d found— either at the Cormans’ or in Allan Miller’s library—George Bernard Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Surely it was a work her father must have known and studied; surely he must have been as struck as Barbara was by the words “Thought transcends matter.” The idea that she could make things happen simply by believing in them was staggering. By the time Barbara was seventeen, she had become convinced she could manifest greatness for herself simply by believing in it strongly enough.

And so there came into her mind the idea to make one last try with her mother. Maybe it was suggested by Cis, sitting in her living room, talking about The Insect Comedy and human survival and Shaw and Ibsen. Or maybe it was an idea entirely of Barbara’s own formation, a conviction that, if she believed strongly enough, even her mother might come around to seeing her talent and her worth.

Back at her little flat on Forty-eighth Street, Barbara picked up the telephone, called her mother, and invited her to come watch her act.


The first thing one noticed walking into the Brooklyn apartment of Diana Rosen Streisand Kind was the smell. Even when nothing was cooking on the stove, the place reeked of kale. Diana used kale to make soup, which she then ladled into Tupperware containers and lugged into the city to drop off at Barbara’s apartment. She did this twice a week. And no, she didn’t expect a thank-you for her efforts because none had ever been forthcoming from that girl in the entire seventeen years of her life.

The idea of watching Barbara perform in some little playlet did not thrill Diana, but she agreed to go. Otherwise, no doubt, Barbara would say that Diana never showed her any support or encouragement. So she pulled on her coat, locked the door to apartment 4-G, and headed down to the subway at the corner of Nostrand Avenue.

Diana knew how unhappy Barbara had been growing up. She knew that her daughter thought she didn’t understand her. But Diana did understand “in her own way,” as at least one of her friends believed. Barbara’s mother hadn’t been very happy in her own life either. For most of the last two decades, she was found in either one of two places: at her typewriter at work trying to earn a living to support her family, or at the stove in her apartment cooking soup or potato pancakes to feed her family. “If I close my eyes and picture Diana,” said one friend, “she’s always standing at that old, rusty stove.”

Depositing her fifteen-cent token, Diana pushed through the turnstile and waited on the platform for the train. She was a small woman, not unpretty, even at fifty-two, though the years and the struggle had left their marks on her face. Her eyes always seemed tired and the corners of her mouth tended to droop down. Bundled in her coat, standing by herself, she drew no particular attention from the others who gathered on the platform. They didn’t know she’d once had dreams not dissimilar to her daughter’s, that the little girl who had been born Ida Rosen in the East New York section of Brooklyn had adopted the name Diana because it sounded more glamorous, or that she’d once been accepted to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus—when she was Barbara’s age, in fact. For a couple of heady weeks, Diana, who’d been told for years she had a beautiful voice, imagined herself singing arias at the Met. But her father, a cantor at their Orthodox synagogue, objected to how late she got home, so that was the end of that.

Instead of singing at the Met, Diana had married Emanuel Streisand, whom she’d met at the home of one of her friends and who had impressed her with his love poems and grand ambitions. She’d enjoyed being Manny’s wife and had never really gotten over his death. She knew Barbara hadn’t either, though she never spoke of him to her. It was too difficult. In Diana’s memory there was etched the image of Barbara at the age of one, pulling herself up in her crib to look out the window. “Watch for your father,” Diana would say, and when Manny came through the door, he’d lift the tiny girl in his arms. But then came the day when Manny no longer came home. For several nights, Barbara still hoisted herself up to look out the window. Diana never said a word to her about what had happened. After all, Barbara was just a baby.

The train arrived with a loud grinding of metal against metal. Diana stepped inside and took her seat as the subway started to move again. Six years earlier, Diana had taken this same route with Barbara, then eleven years old. The fare was only ten cents then, and tokens weren’t in use yet so you had to use a real dime. Hearing Barbara sing with some of the neighborhood girls on the tenement stoops, Diana had come to believe that her daughter might have inherited her musical talents so she’d taken the child into Manhattan for an audition for MGM Records. She’d dressed Barbara in a pretty blue dress with a white collar and cuffs, and instructed her to warble “Have You Heard?” for the record-company executives. But the little girl wasn’t offered a contract, only a spot in their training program. When Diana heard “No pay,” she said, “No child,” and hustled Barbara back home to Brooklyn.

Two years later there was another trip into the city. Barbara was now thirteen. She’d told her mother about the Nola Recording Studio, where anyone could go in and make a record on real vinyl disks. With memories of her own childhood dreams, Diana had agreed to give it a whirl. It was with considerable excitement that both mother and daughter practiced what they were going to sing. Diana arranged for a pianist to meet them at the studios, housed inside Steinway Hall on West Fifty-seventh Street. Barbara sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “You’ll Never Know,” revealing a surprisingly strong voice for a girl so young, though the child in her could still be heard, especially when she struggled to reach the high note at the end of the phrase “how much I care.” Diana’s voice was more polished. She’d chosen “One Kiss” from the operetta The New Moon. With Barbara watching from behind the glass, Diana stood at the microphone and sang with all the feeling she could muster: “One kiss, one man to save it for . . .”

It had been a rare interlude of happiness and lightheartedness for Diana and her elder daughter. But the “one man” they headed back home to in Brooklyn that night was hardly the Galahad that Diana sang about in “One Kiss.” In the beginning, Lou Kind had been charming, bringing Diana little gifts. But when she’d found herself pregnant with his child, Kind had balked at marrying her. He had just left one wife; he didn’t want another. Diana’s father forced her to leave the house when he discovered she was pregnant. So she’d found the place on Newkirk Avenue for herself, Sheldon, Barbara, and the upcoming baby. Finally, just two weeks before Rosalind was born, Kind gave in and married Diana.

For the next five years she was miserable, probably even more miserable than her daughter. Kind slept with other women, “scandalously flaunting” his affairs with them in front of her, Diana later told a judge. He mocked her. He shouted at her. He used “vile, obscene, and scurrilous language.” He stayed out all night. And he hit her.

Kind countered that Diana had used the same sort of language with him and that she refused to cook for him when he came home from work. He worked two jobs, he charged, because of Diana’s “ever increasing demands for money.”

But he wasn’t working two jobs, or even one, when he finally left the house some five months after Diana’s trip to the Nola Recording Studio. When Diana sued him for child-support payments for six-year-old Rosalind, he told the judge he was too sick to work. The judge called him a “pathological liar” and ordered him to pay Diana thirty-seven dollars a month. It wasn’t much, and Diana didn’t always get it.

So the mother who often seemed to be the bane of Barbara’s existence had her own heartaches. Friends who knew her well insisted that Diana wasn’t really opposed to her daughter’s dreams of being an actress. She had signed the form allowing her to graduate early, hadn’t she? And she’d allowed Barbara—at the tender age of fifteen—to apprentice one hundred and sixty miles away in Malden Bridge. A year later Diana had even permitted Barbara—at sixteen!—to move on her own into Manhattan in order to pursue her dreams. How could Barbara say her mother didn’t support her? That was something Diana simply couldn’t comprehend. Of course she supported her. She took this long subway ride twice a week to bring her chicken soup!

What worried Diana most about Barbara living in Manhattan was that she’d get sick. Barbara, to her mother’s mind, was not a strong girl. When Barbara was five, Diana had to send her to a health camp because she was so anemic. She also suffered from asthma whenever she spent too much time in the fresh air. Now, making matters worse, Diana feared that Barbara’s acting school was working her way too hard. How that Allan Miller could expect so much from a teenaged girl Diana could never understand. If anemics didn’t eat right, they could get very, very sick—maybe even die. That’s why Diana had insisted Barbara attend Hebrew health camps. She knew the girl hated them, but it was the best thing for her—just as breaking up her entanglement with that older boy, Roy Scott, had also been for her own good. It was very hurtful that Barbara never trusted that Diana knew best.

Rosalind did, however. Rosalind was a far more obedient, pliable, and cooperative child than Barbara was, eating whatever Diana put in front of her. So what if Rozzie was a little plump? It was better than having Barbara’s skinny arms.

Diana was aware that she spent more time with her younger daughter than she ever did with her older one and that it might appear to some that she played favorites. But she was hoping to do for Rozzie what she “had failed to do with Barbara—be more involved in her life.” But the truth was that Barbara had never wanted advice, Diana felt, only approval. Barbara scared her a little, Diana acknowledged, because she was “so smart [and] had an answer for most things.” And for the few questions Barbara did ask, Diana “never knew how to answer.”

Diana admitted that she wasn’t all that affectionate. Anyone who knew her knew how stiff she could be when they hugged her hello or good-bye. She wasn’t a kissy type and never claimed to be. Who had time for sentiment when they were struggling to make ends meet and raise three kids all by themselves? And no, she didn’t gush all over Barbara’s wild dreams about becoming a big Broadway star. How could she do that and then sit back and watch her fail? Why would she encourage her daughter’s hopes for something that simply was never going to happen? Where was the love in that? Better to protect Barbara from the kind of disappointment that she, Diana, had felt—the disappointment that life inevitably handed to people like them. Diana had no patience for criticisms that she didn’t hug Barbara enough or that she didn’t jump up and down supporting her dreams. She brought her chicken soup. Twice a week. What more could she do?

At last the train reached Times Square, and Diana got off. The sun was setting, striping the corridors of the theater district with long purple shadows as she made her way across town to watch her daughter playact on the stage.


Inside the Theatre Studio, the students were busy preparing for their show. On hand that evening to lend support to Barbara were Terry, Carl, and Barbara’s roommate, Marilyn. Even Allan Miller was aware that tonight’s little presentation was Barbara’s big moment to convince her mother that she was on the right course. Not an easy task, Miller knew. Mrs. Kind had once called him and accused him of putting her daughter into “white slavery.”

Setting up the room to perform the little playlet, Barbara was certainly aware that the real drama tonight was between her mother and herself. She could be acutely self-reflective at times. She knew very well that she’d sought an acting career to fill up an empty place inside of her, to get the attention she had “missed as a child.” In downtown Brooklyn she had spent “a lot of time and money in the penny arcades,” snapping pictures of herself in the little photo booths, experimenting with different colored mascara on her eyes, trying out “all kinds of different hairstyles and sexy poses.” Living in this colorful world of her imagination, Barbara could be as pretty as she wanted to be. And so, as an actress, Barbara would never be content with the heroine’s less attractive, wisecracking best friend. She was going to be the lead, the star. “Is it crazy for me to want to play the love scenes?” she asked. “Is love only for blue-eyed blondes?”

Those in her class knew her dream parts. She wanted to play Camille and Juliet. She could “bring so many facets” to Juliet, she believed. So far, her favorite part had been Medea, which she had performed soon after her arrival at the Theatre Studio. In her head she carried one of the lines from that play: “I have this hole in the middle of myself.” The line actually read: “Why . . . this open wound in the middle of myself?” Either way, its resonance in Barbara’s life was understandable.

Looking up, she saw her mother enter the room wearing her old cloth coat. Diana took her seat, and the little presentation began. Barbara was no doubt anxious. Diana sat watching, her hands folded in her lap.

Just what scene Barbara enacted for her mother’s benefit that night has gone unrecorded. But whatever part she played, she no doubt gave it everything she had. This night had been a long time in coming—at least since Barbara’s fourteenth birthday, when she had seen The Diary of Anne Frank at the Cort Theatre on West Forty-eighth Street, just a couple of blocks from where she now lived and went to classes. Watching Susan Strasberg enact the role of Anne, Barbara had been filled with envy. “I can do that,” she told herself, and she also told her mother the same thing when she returned home that night to Brooklyn. But Strasberg had the kind of connections Barbara did not: she was the daughter of Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio, the most prestigious acting school in the country.

For Barbara, the Actors Studio was her own personal mecca. The Theatre Studio was fine as far as it went, but Strasberg was king. On the subway, Barbara had written impassioned letters to the great acting teacher, begging him to see her. Once, angry and resentful that only people with connections seemed to be admitted to the Actors Studio, she’d scrawled to Strasberg, “I hear you’re a starfucker.”

Wisely, she never mailed any of the letters—because there did come a day when she finally got a chance to show Strasberg what she could do. Almost a year earlier, Anita Miller had asked Barbara to be her audition partner at the Actors Studio (Allan was a member). That had given Barbara the “in” she needed, and soon afterward, she secured a spot in a three-month course at the studio. The letter telling her she’d been accepted became a “prized possession.” But disillusionment quickly set in. The course had “so many people,” Barbara discovered, that the chance of any one-on-one time with Strasberg was minimal to nonexistent. There was also little connection with her fellow students, who seemed like alien creatures to her. They loved “struggling” during class, Barbara observed, but when they put on “a regular face . . . they would freeze up.” She had crashed the gate, but she still wasn’t one of them.

Even worse, when she’d gotten up to perform a selection from the Richard Nash drama The Young and Fair, her nerves had taken over, and she’d cried all the way through her rendition. No surprise, she was not invited to join the Actors Studio after that.

Might it have been a scene from The Young and Fair that she performed that night with her mother looking on? Or maybe it was Medea. Whatever it was, at the end of it, everyone applauded, including Diana. Marilyn thought Barbara was “very proud of it.” But Diana said little. Outside on Forty-eighth Street, she agreed to accompany Barbara and Marilyn back to their apartment. Terry trooped along as well.

Climbing the several flights of stairs, no one said a word. The old building had settled, and the steps weren’t always even. The walls were cracked, and the fragrance of mold and dust was everywhere. Inside the flat, the three younger people sat on the bed while Barbara’s mother stood and lectured them on eating right. Finally Diana said she’d seen nothing tonight to convince her that Barbara had what it took to be a success as an actress. She didn’t want Barbara’s heart broken, her hopes dashed. “And look at you,” Diana said. “Your arms are still too skinny.”

Soon after that, she left.

Barbara seemed unfazed. To her friends, she expressed no anger or hostility toward her mother. Instead, when she and Marilyn sat imagining what their lives would be like after they became successful, Barbara said that the first thing she’d do was buy her mother a mink coat.



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