From the stove wafted the mouthwatering aroma of chicken soup, vanquishing, at least for the moment, the pungency of fried fish. With a gentle nudge and a kiss on the forehead, Elliott woke Barbra, telling her breakfast was ready. He’d made the soup for her, filling the role her mother had long performed. With Diana keeping her distance now that her daughter was, as friends put it, “shacking up with” a man, Elliott had gladly stepped in to play Barbra’s chief cook and bottle washer.
He was blissfully happy. In their little tree house, Hansel and Gretel had only themselves. No managers, no publicists, no agents, no columnists, no audiences. When all the stress of their careers got to be too much, they retreated here and unburdened the frustrations of the day. Elliott was aware how “very dependent on each other” he and Barbra had become, but certainly that could only be a good thing for two people in love. After all, they were “so right for each other,” he believed—especially in terms of “ambition and business and identity and power.” They were both going to be big, big stars, they believed—important, serious actors. They would become rich and powerful, too, and they would chart their careers according to their terms and nobody else’s.
Such were the dreams, anyway, of a twenty-four-year-old kid and his twenty-year-old girlfriend. On this much, they saw eye to eye.
Finally getting out of bed, Barbra made her way to the sewing-machine stand where a steaming bowl of soup awaited. Elliott had learned how to make it just the way she liked it—which meant just the way her mother had always done. In learning how to make Barbra happy, Elliott had been an eager student. His was a personality that aimed to please. He’d grown up obeying without question the directions of his parents—especially his mother. It was no surprise that Elliott should prove to be the perfect boyfriend for Barbra, who rarely aimed to please anyone other than herself and for whom questioning directions was standard operating procedure. Elliott was correct in believing they were right for each other—but their compatibility was due as much to the fact that they were opposites as it was to the fact that they were in sync about their careers.
It boiled down to a simple dynamic. Barbra decided; Elliott agreed with her decisions. When Barbra was tired after a performance at the Bon Soir or Blue Angel, Elliott knew they would head immediately home, and that was fine with him. When she wanted to stay awhile and talk with people, they stayed and talked, and Elliott was never seen protesting. When Barbra wanted a new piece of furniture to cram into their already crowded flat, Elliott always seemed to concur that it was actually needed. By now, her tastes had completely rubbed off on him. Like Barbra, Elliott loved “old things and bizarre things and funny things”; he could be spotted buying his own antique Coca-Cola trays or painted toy soldiers to hang on the walls or stand on the tables. And when at one point Barbra didn’t like a painting he’d bought, he declared that “on second thought it wasn’t really right” and tossed it out with the trash, as one Wholesale company member observed.
But any differences between them seemed only to inspire Elliott to love Barbra more. While he was very aware of current events, Barbra didn’t “listen to the radio” or “know what was going on in the world,” Elliott said—unless, of course, it was nuclear testing, and even that she hadn’t been following closely these last few months. While Elliott loved music, Barbra had “never heard the Temptations sing.” Of course not. She rarely saw further than her own sphere of existence, her own plans and pursuits. But still, Elliott thought she was “remarkable.”
That was because Barbra wasn’t always so imperious as she seemed at first glance. She could, in fact, be very tender with Elliott. For his birthday just a week or so earlier, she’d presented him with a gold cup representing “the first annual Alexander the Great Award,” a takeoff on her “first annual Fanny Brice Award.” In the quiet of their little flat, with taxicabs bleating from the street below and Oscar the rat scuttling under the stove, they made a vow to never be apart on each other’s birthdays.
In giving Elliott an award to balance hers, Barbra was being particularly sensitive to the man she loved. On stage at the Shubert Theatre, Elliott was the star; she was just a supporting player. But as soon as they stepped out beyond the footlights, their positions leapfrogged. Not since Wholesale opened had there been any major media attention on Elliott. When he was mentioned at all in the press, it was as Barbra’s boyfriend.
Barbra said that she “didn’t want Elliott to be hurt . . . by [her] success.” So she trod very carefully, preserving two things that she wanted very much: professional success and personal fulfillment. Elliott’s love for her—and lust—had wrought an extraordinary transformation. The young woman who’d once believed herself too ugly for ribbons now saw herself as desirable. The theater student once too embarrassed to act out a scene from The Rose Tattoo now viewed sex as a thrilling enterprise. When asked what she liked best in a man, Barbra unambiguously replied, “Animalism . . . a certain animal quality.” She liked hair on a man, she said; hair was “important.” And Elliott had “great hair.” She admitted she was turned on by a man’s calves.
Barbra’s newfound sexual power extended past the confines of her little railroad flat. She enjoyed the authority it gave her, and she was becoming skilled at knowing exactly when “to turn it on,” one friend thought. At the theater, she’d flirt and smile and laugh with producers, musicians, or engineers who were “playful and sweet with her” and “who treated her like a woman.” Being treated that way was still something new and exciting for her. But at twenty, with the acne of her teen years gone, Barbra suddenly felt like a desirable woman—no matter how many critics still made snide mention of her nose. When she walked into a room, all eyes would immediately turn to her, and people seemed to fixate on her. Jule Styne was a good example of this phenomenon. And as the experience with Styne had demonstrated, Barbra was becoming an expert at exploiting her new powers.
For that, she could thank Elliott. Bob had made her see herself as beautiful and had given form and shape to the vision she’d had of herself as a little girl. But Bob had never desired her, at least not the way Elliott did. Sitting across from her, watching Barbra sip her soup, her hair still mussed from sleeping and her breasts peeking out from her nightgown, Elliott may well have decided that breakfast could wait. He may have stood, taken her by the hand, and led her back to bed. If it didn’t happen that day, it happened on plenty of others, and even the scavenging of Oscar the rat wouldn’t have been a distraction.
It was the first time Barbra had ever seen palm trees, even if it was difficult for her to see through her tears.
Bob Banner, the producer for Garry Moore, had flown her out to Los Angeles to appear on The Dinah Shore Show, which he also produced. Ray Stark saw it as an opportunity to introduce Barbra to Isobel Lennart and, even more critical, to his wife. It was clear they were getting close to offering her the part; they’d even begun talking salary. Stark’s continuing enthusiasm for her must have encouraged Barbra, but even that couldn’t brighten her spirits as she was driven through the streets of L.A., nor did the chance to play hooky from Wholesale for a whole week. What had brought on the tears was her first prolonged separation from Elliott, which made her first visit to the Coast feel like, in her own word, “hell.”
But it was an important trip. Barbra’s limo brought her to a boxy, warehouselike building at the corner of Alameda and Olive in Burbank. Near the top, the letters NBC glowed green. This was NBC’s Color City, the first television studio in the world equipped exclusively for color broadcasting. Whereas the other networks occasionally broadcast specials in color, NBC was leading a revolution, with the goal of achieving 100 percent color programming within a few years. While the soundstages of Color City were hardly the ornate theaters of Broadway, or even the grand, classical architecture that housed the recording and television studios of New York, they did represent the future.
Making her way into the capacious structure, Barbra knew that her performance on the Shore show was to be, yet again, an audition of sorts. In the studio audience that night would be Fran Stark, whose opinion, as it turned out, mattered as much as her husband’s. Barbra had met Mrs. Stark soon after her arrival in Los Angeles, at the Starks’ palatial home. The encounter between Brooklyn Barbra and Beverly Hills Fran was watched by everyone involved with eager eyes. The two women were cordial to each other, even if their contrasts were glaring to those present. Fran was elegant, poised, and reserved; Barbra was avant-garde, awkward, and earnest. Ray did his best to facilitate an affable occasion. Styne was there, too, no doubt also doing his best to keep everything flowing smoothly. Columnist Louella Parsons reported that Styne had come to L.A. on “some special business” ; no doubt it involved Barbra and Fran.
Fran Stark was one generation removed from the tenements and hardscrabble streets of her mother’s—and Barbra’s—youth. She’d been educated at the prestigious Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Every summer, young Frances had accompanied her mother to Europe, where they lived at the Hotel Carlton in Cannes, or at the Majestic Hotel, where Fanny took over an entire floor and gambled to her heart’s content. Meanwhile, Fran, who her mother had decided would be raised as a proper lady, was being taught French by a French mademoiselle.
In her teens, Fran became an accomplished horsewoman, winning awards at the National Horse Show. When her mother moved to Hollywood, Fran was introduced around as one of the more eligible young ladies in town, but her heart was won by the up-and-coming Ray Stark. Their marriage was one of the social events of the season for the movie colony. The newlyweds filled their home on South Peck Drive with modern art, starting with a single Chagall, then adding a Rouault, which they placed over the mantel. Now Fran was one of the great ladies of Hollywood, a perennial on best-dressed lists, ranking alongside Jackie Kennedy and Babe Paley.
It was, no doubt, with a raised eyebrow or two that she regarded Barbra’s more bohemian wardrobe. Both of the Starks could be snobbish. They were particular about their images and their hard-won place in society. Their children were Peter, eighteen when Barbra met him, and Wendy, sixteen. Even their names suggested the magical world to which their parents aspired. Peter and Wendy grew up among the other offspring of the rich and famous. Wendy played with Candice Bergen, went to school with Liza Minnelli, and shopped Rodeo Drive with Yasmin Khan. In that elite Hollywood social circle, parents competed against one another to throw the most spectacular birthday parties for their children. The Starks often won. On one birthday, Wendy was startled when her father shouted “Surprise!” and pulled back the curtain to reveal two elephants, one big and one small, grazing in her backyard.
The Starks threw some of the biggest, most elaborate parties in Los Angeles, with large tents and usually a theme. It took Fran at least a month to plan her gatherings. There had to be two bands: one for traditional dancing music during the dinner, and then a dance band for afterward—to play the bossa nova or the twist. A Stark soiree two years ago was still being called “the outstanding Hollywood party of the season.” A tent had been erected in the backyard large enough to accommodate a small circus. Under this big top sat 280 guests at twenty-eight tables. Thrown for investors in the film version of The World of Suzie Wong, the goal of the bash was to “launch” (Hollywood jargon for “introduce”) Nancy Kwan, who was taking over the lead in the film. The usual mix of Los Angeles society—Rosalind Russell and Freddie Brisson, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Betsy and Alfred Bloomingdale, William Haines and Jimmie Shields—had sipped champagne and air-kissed each other. At the end of the night, Fran was just pleased that no one “had fallen into the swimming pool”—it had happened before—and that all of the jewelry that had been lost had been reclaimed. Except for one topaz ring. “I suppose,” Fran confided to a reporter, “since it is not a diamond no one will admit wearing it.”
No such extravaganza, however, was thrown in Barbra’s honor; she wasn’t, after all, signed yet. The first meeting between Barbra and Fran Stark most likely was just a small affair, cocktails or maybe a light dinner. Yet no doubt it was enough for Barbra to get a glimpse of a very alien world. From Barry and Bob, she had heard a little about life among Southern California’s upper class, but seeing it firsthand—the swimming pools and housekeepers and long winding driveways and Aston Martins and Bentleys—was something else entirely. Although Barbra told one friend she found Fran Stark “pretentious,” she was also intrigued by the world in which she and Ray lived. When Fran shook Barbra’s hand for the first time, her wrists sparkled with platinum-and-emerald bracelets and her ears dripped with diamonds. Upstairs there was a treasure chest of gemsworth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Standing under the chandelier in the Starks’ home, surrounded by Picassos and Calders, Barbra had entered a world far, far away from her mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, where everything reeked of kale, and where tattered cookbooks and cracked china were piled on the dining-room table.
Heading into the studio to tape the Shore show, Barbra knew that Fran Stark sat out in the audience waiting to judge her. Rehearsals, sans audience, had gone well, and there was every reason to think that this final taping would proceed just as smoothly. But given Barbra’s tendency for first-night jitters, there was, almost certainly, more than a little anxiety as she slipped into her dress for the evening. A thumbs-down from Fran could kill the whole deal, no matter how much Ray and Jule might plead her case. To lose The Funny Girl now was unthinkable. Barbra had sought out her old teacher Allan Miller for some private coaching so she’d get better and better at each reading. But none of that would matter if the elegantly dressed woman sitting out in the audience tonight didn’t like what she saw and heard.
So it was with considerable determination that Barbra steadied her nerves and headed out in front of the cameras.
Dinah Shore was a television mainstay, having hosted various shows for a decade. This current series aired once a month, in color, on Sunday nights after Bonanza—a terrific ratings lead-in. Tonight’s episode, which would be taped for a later airdate, was to be pitched as “a group of vocal performers” who, in Shore’s opinion, would be the “important entertainers of tomorrow.” In addition to Barbra, the guests were Georgia Brown, who’d briefly also been in the running to play Fanny Brice; pop singer Sam Fletcher; and the Chad Mitchell Trio, who were folk singers.
Shore, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, had grown up in Tennessee; with her lilting accent, she cultivated the image of a Southern belle. She swept out onto the stage this night in a long gown and glittering top, her earrings sparkling as the orchestra played a soulful introduction. She read from a script prepared by the show’s writers, with input from Marty, that was intended to keep the momentum going for Barbra. But right off the bat, Shore got it wrong.
“Barbra Streisand,” she said, placing the accent only on the first syllable of “Streisand” and practically swallowing the second. To Barbra, such pronunciation was like fingernails on a blackboard. Someone, evidently, had failed to school Shore the way they’d schooled Garry Moore. Shore, unaware, went on in her flowery drawl. She called her next guest “a girl barely out of her teens,” who was “wistful, funny, appealing, and enormously talented.” Then came the obligatory key point, made every time Barbra appeared on television but which tonight was especially important since Fran Stark was sitting in the audience. “She’s basically a comedienne,” Shore said of Barbra, “but she’s a fine dramatic actress, too, as you’ll see when she sings her torch song.”
The giant TK-41 color television camera then dollied across the stark, expressionist set to find Barbra standing at the foot of an open staircase. She seemed somewhat ill at ease. The added pressure of the night couldn’t have helped, but Barbra’s nerves could also have sprung from the proximity of that monstrous mechanical beast. The camera had to be rolled in practically to her toes whenever a close shot was needed, as it contained no zoom lens. Yet Barbra looked fabulous, taking full advantage of the color broadcast by wearing a bright orange, floor-length, Grecian-style dress secured by a brooch at the waist—a perfect representation of Bob’s “white goddess.”
But when she opened her mouth to sing, a rather strange thing occurred. Usually this was the moment when people described the hair standing up on the backs of their necks, or tingles suddenly vibrating down their spines, or some other physical manifestation of their reaction to Barbra’s voice. But something was off tonight. To at least one reviewer, who saw the show when it was broadcast, Barbra seemed “anxious.” Whether it was Fran Stark, the metal leviathan at her shoulder, or Shore mispronouncing her name, Barbra was off her game. She launched into a shrill, stylized rendition of “Cry Me a River,” a song that usually blew people away in nightclubs, but which here seemed overdone, overwrought, almost a parody of a “serious actress” trying to express herself in a song. Barbra’s eyes seemed to keep crossing as she snapped out the lyrics, staccato-style, and at times she was all mouth, summoning very little of the pathos she’d brought to the song in the days when the pain of losing Barry had been so recent.
Then, after the audience’s applause, she dramatically flung her filmy tangerine cape over her shoulder and ascended the stairs to emerge into another modernistic set, where she sang “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The song had become Barbra’s signature very quickly during her nightclub appearances. For some loyal fans, however, who’d heard Barbra sing it dozens of times at the Bon Soir or the Blue Angel, it was impossible not to think she was performing it this night as if she were Fanny Brice keening “My Man.” She seemed to be summoning the same heartache that Brice had brought to her own signature song, the same defiant strength in the face of adversity. But did it feel real? That much her fans were divided on. Once again, she was all mouth and teeth as she threw back her head. “Happy days are . . . here . . . a . . . gain!”
Later in the show, there was a little more lightheartedness, as Barbra joined Shore and the rest of the cast for an upbeat rendition of “Brotherhood of Man,” from Wholesale’s chief Broadway rival, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Perhaps it might have been smarter to pair “Happy Days” with something more rousing like this, because Barbra’s two solo numbers hadn’t allowed for any of her quirky humor. Styne, of course, had previously advised her to play that down, and she seemed to be heeding his words again this night. Whether that was a mistake was unknown, as the critics wouldn’t get a crack at the show until it was aired a few months down the road.
But one critic had already seen all she needed to see. Whether it was the lack of humor and warmth, the stylized singing, the odd facial expressions, or something else entirely, Fran Stark had not been won over by Barbra’s performance. Privately, she would declare that if it were up to her, Barbra Streisand would never play her mother.
Sitting at a desk, wearing a dark dress and a long strand of pearls, Barbra raised her eyes to the photographer who was recording the moment for posterity—and for distribution in Columbia press kits. Standing beside her was Goddard Lieberson, smartly dressed in a well-cut suit and a French-cuffed, tab-collared shirt. As Barbra looked on beaming, God leaned down and signed the contract that had been placed in front of her on the desk. That day, October 1, Barbra officially became a Columbia recording artist.
Soon after her return from Los Angeles, she’d learned from Marty that, after weeks of negotiations, her contract was ready to be signed. Dorothy Kilgallen had reported, without hiding her scorn, that Marty had been seeking $100,000 as an advance for his client—which, Kilgallen sniped, was “a lot of loot for a new name, especially a singer who hasn’t hit it big by herself in the record market.” At such a figure Columbia had indeed balked, but Marty had just moved on to what he had really wanted for Barbra all along: complete “creative control, no coupling, and the right to choose her own material.” (Coupling meant being paired with another artist.) This was granted. After all, David Kapralik reasoned, Barbra had built a successful nightclub career on her own. Why mess with a proven formula? Plus, Marty had secured a clause that allowed her, should she get cast in another Broadway show after Wholesale, to participate in a show-tune album with another record label. As always, Marty thought ahead.
The rest of the contract was pretty standard. A small advance— twenty grand—with a five percent royalty against ninety-eight percent of records sold. The deal between them was for five years—which actually meant one year, after which Columbia had the option for the next four years to keep Barbra or let her go. But these ordinary clauses weren’t what most observers noticed. Instead, they saw a twenty-year-old kid waltzing into Columbia and demanding—and getting—full creative control from a man as legendarily omnipotent as Lieberson. It left some industry stalwarts flabbergasted. And what was more, the $100,000 figure floated by Kilgallen was never retracted. Whether that was an oversight or whether Marty deliberately chose not to correct the columnist is unknown. But it would certainly fit his strategy of positioning Barbra as an extraordinary artist being extended extraordinary privileges by the powers that be.
For many people, that was precisely the image they came away with, and their beliefs seemed to be confirmed by Kilgallen’s follow-up column. “After months of negotiations,” she reported, “Barbra Streisand is signing with Columbia Records this week, and will cut her first solo discs for the company within a few days. They’ll go all out to promote her, of course—at those staggering rates.” For Kilgallen’s readers, who included nearly everybody in showbiz, the impression was that Barbra had actually gotten that hundred grand. It wasn’t surprising that many of them felt angry or jealous.
In the fall of 1962, the ranks of that small but vocal minority of Streisand detractors were beginning to swell. Not only was Barbra catching breaks that other performers believed were being denied to them, but she remained, to their view, ungrateful for all that she was getting. On a recent radio program, Barbra had been asked by interviewer Lee Jordan how her success felt. “It doesn’t feel like anything,” she’d replied cavalierly. She went on to reiterate her resentment at not being able to do what she wanted at night because she had to be at the theater. “Already she’s complaining,” Jordan commented, and many listeners shared the surprise and disdain that was apparent in his voice.
It was the Columbia contract that really seemed to tip the scales for a lot of people. “What I would have given for a contract like that, guaranteeing me complete creative control,” groused one singer, who’d been around a lot longer than Barbra. Grasping around for an explanation, some of them latched on to the idea of a network of “Jewish helping hands,” an informal but deliberate collusion among Jewish power brokers to promote one of their own. “They wanted to have their say about what was beautiful, what was talented,” said another performer, who was not Jewish. “For so long they had been self-conscious about being Jewish themselves, always having to promote these pretty blonde Gentile girls with perky little noses, and then along came Barbra and they suddenly had a chance to build up a real obvious Jewish girl.”
Was there some merit to the theory? As far back as Eddie Blum, there had been men in positions of power, Jewish men, who had taken more kindly to Barbra because of her ethnicity. More recently, Arthur Laurents had gone to bat for her with Goddard Lieberson, urging the record producer to help out this talented kalleh moid. Indeed, most of those who had opened doors for Barbra—hiring her for shows or clubs, extending her runs, writing material for her, promoting her to the press, giving her contracts—had been Jewish. In addition to Laurents and Lieberson, there had been Jerome Weidman, Harold Rome, David Kapralik, Max Gordon, and, although reluctantly, David Merrick. Currently, Ray Stark and Jule Styne were attempting to open yet more doors for her. Barbra was also benefiting from the support of an important new fan and booster, the composer Harold Arlen, who was known to rave at influential cocktail parties about how wonderfully she sang his songs—“A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Right as the Rain,” “When the Sun Comes Out,” among others. And it was perhaps noteworthy that the one least enthusiastic about her—Merrick—was also the one most uncomfortable with his own Jewishness. Merrick, according to witnesses, would “bristle” when he heard Barbra speaking in her pronounced Jewish Brooklynese. Was Merrick the exception among Barbra’s Jewish godfathers who proved the rule?
But not all the helping hands had been Jewish. The very first people to give Barbra a leg up the ladder had been Gentiles: Burke McHugh, Ernie Sgroi, Sam and Les Gruber. And Barbra’s Jewishness had been as much a handicap at times as it had been an asset: How many of the snide reviews, especially those commenting on her looks, had been stoked by anti-Semitism? The truth was, for all the belief in some great Jewish conspiracy to elevate Barbra Streisand, if there had not been two Broadway shows—Wholesale and now The Funny Girl—that required eccentric Jewish characters, none of Barbra’s benefactors, even if they’d wanted to, could have helped her much beyond nightclubs and records. As it was, Barbra had come along at just the right moment for both these shows—and, consequently, for her own success.
There was also a change in the air, a “democratization” as Bob called it, inspired by the Kennedys in the White House and the civil rights movement taking place across the country, a sense that “fashion and beauty and talent were for everybody,” not just those who looked like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. That year, Diahann Carroll had won the Tony as Best Actress for Richard Rodgers’s No Strings—a first for an African American and a feat unthinkable even a few years earlier. Johnny Mathis was selling records and making teenaged girls swoon in the way Pat Boone and other white singers had done before him. Nightclubs and theaters were filling up with faces and voices that unambiguously reflected the experience of ethnicities rarely encountered by white-bread America until now: Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Dustin Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Chita Rivera, Bill Cosby, and Totie Fields, to name just a few. Even Barbra realized the shift that was taking place. People, she said, “were ready” for her.
It was clear that Columbia Records was ready for her. Shaking hands with Lieberson and posing for the last of the publicity photos, Barbra was done with pleasantries—which she never tolerated for too long—and eager to get busy. Mike Berniker, a young up-and-comer from A&R (the artists and repertoire division), was assigned as her producer. Berniker had just produced a Tammy Grimes album and sent it over to Barbra so she could get a sense of his work. After having a listen, Barbra called him and said, “Yeah, let’s go.” They set the date of October 16 for Barbra to record her first disks. But, as Berniker and everyone else at Columbia would discover, Barbra would turn out to be a very different artist from Tammy Grimes—from everyone else, in fact, on their label.
Barbra and her castmates were practicing their new marks, entrances, and exits now that Wholesale had moved over to the Broadway Theatre, on Broadway near Fifty-third Street. Changing theaters midrun was never easy for a company that had been doing the same exact things, in the same exact places, for seven months. Alone among them, Barbra was probably glad for the change in scenery; any shake-up to her Wholesale routine was welcome to her. But the move to a new theater was hardly consolation for losing The Funny Girl.
She hadn’t quite lost it yet, but things didn’t look good. Just a couple of weeks ago, the part of Fanny Brice had seemed within her grasp. Earl Wilson had reported, “David Merrick may hold up his Fanny Brice musical while it’s tailored to young Barbra Streisand.” Louella Parsons had confirmed the report, sourcing Jule Styne and announcing that Anne Bancroft was now “completely out of the Fanny Brice story.” In no uncertain terms, Styne had told Parsons, “When we make it, Barbra Streisand . . . will play Fanny.” It would require “a whole rewrite job,” Styne explained, as the “story had been written with Anne Bancroft in mind.” Barbra, it seemed, had the job.
Then, out of the blue, the entire Brice project stalled. No one was returning Marty’s calls. How much Barbra knew about Fran Stark’s opposition to her is unknown, but in fact it was much more than just that putting on the brakes. Surely Barbra had heard rumors by now of what was afoot and what had really caused all the preparations for The Funny Girl to come to a grinding halt.
In late September, Jerry Robbins had quit. “Although Jerry has been working on the Fanny Brice musical for many months,” his lawyer had written to Stark’s lawyer, “it is now obvious to everyone that it is not ready for rehearsals. If it is rewritten and becomes ready for production (a hope he cherishes) he will be glad to consider directing and choreographing it.” But for now, he was through.
Robbins’s letter of resignation had come after a series of “ghastly sessions” (so called by Isobel Lennart) with Ray Stark. The long-simmering tensions between director and producer had finally boiled over. Robbins had bluntly told Stark the book was “not ready yet, despite everyone’s work and creative contributions.” Moreover, he resented being coerced into moving ahead on the project, especially because it meant postponing Mother Courage, which was ready to go.
What really ticked Robbins off, however, was a letter Stark then wrote to his attorneys, pointing out that he, Stark, was an investor in Mother Courage and so had some say over Robbins’s decisions. “I think there can be no question of the fact,” Stark wrote, “that never has a director received so many benefits as Jerry is now receiving.” Enraged and offended, Robbins called Stark’s assertions “slanderous, ” and then added pointedly, “As for delivering stage successes on Broadway, I’m a veteran compared to you, this being your first time up at bat.”
From there, it could only go downhill. In his resignation letter, Robbins stressed that if he did not do the play, he would “not want any of his ideas or material used.” It was that clause, even more than Robbins’s departure, that had halted the project. Robbins’s contributions were woven all through the book, and no one knew this better than Lennart. She’d have to scrap everything and start over, writing an entirely new script, while Stark and Merrick began searching around for a new director. This was the real reason the book needed to be rewritten; it wasn’t to accommodate Barbra, as Styne had told Parsons, but rather to accommodate Jerry Robbins.
But, in public, Barbra was being used as the reason for the show’s delay—even though she hadn’t even been signed yet and, given Fran Stark’s opposition, might never be. If the producers had really been delaying the show so they could “tailor” it to Barbra, they would have already signed her. But as it was, there was no show to sign her for, and if there ever was again, they might still go with someone else. Given how smart both Barbra and Marty were, they surely knew exactly how they were being used by Stark and Merrick. It couldn’t have been a pleasant predicament. They couldn’t complain or object too loudly, as Barbra was still being touted as the “leading” candidate. But they also had no bargaining power in this game of wait and see.
It didn’t take Marty long to realize that they might have a way to influence the situation after all. Soon he was making a few calls to the columnists on his own, and within days Earl Wilson was reporting, “Barbra Streisand, who’s been practically set for the delayed Fanny Brice musical (but never signed for it), is reading for the new show The Student Gypsy.” This was a musical written by Rick Besoyan, the author of the long-running off-Broadway satire Little Mary Sunshine. The message to Stark and Merrick was plain: If they wanted Barbra, they’d better act fast in putting their show back together.
But the producers were stuck. Without a script, without a director, they could go no further. Lennart had already been floundering; how could she possibly write an entirely new book devoid of Robbins’s contributions? Would they need to hire another librettist? In such chaos, The Funny Girl might easily wither away, as so many failed concepts had done before it. And with it, so too would wither away Barbra’s best chance to reach the top. When would another musical come along that needed a funny Jewish girl with a big nose as its star?
So, with undoubtedly a heavy heart, Barbra resumed learning her new marks for Wholesale. She also went back on The Tonight Show, where the new host, Johnny Carson, mispronounced her last name just like everybody else did. And she signed a contract for yet another gig at the Bon Soir. Same as it ever was.
Peter Daniels looked through his thick glasses at the young woman perusing the sheet music in front of him. Usually it was just the two of them, or the two of them plus a trio. But now thirty or more musicians surrounded Barbra and Peter, all tuning their instruments, a cacophony of notes sounding in that magnificent space, with its hundred-foot ceilings matched by a hundred feet of floor space. Above them dangled mikes and long copper wires leading to the recording equipment. From the small glass booth on the second floor, a gaggle of solemn men in suits looked down at everything they did. Peter took his seat at the piano, playing a few keys to familiarize himself. Barbra continued looking over the music, psyching herself up to record her first disks under her contract.
Early this morning, Tuesday, October 16, a warm, overcast day, Peter had trekked down to Columbia’s Studio C at 207 East Thirtieth with Barbra and Marty. It was an old Presbyterian Church, and it offered some of the best acoustics of any recording studio in the city. Miles Davis would record nowhere else. When Barbra looked down from the control room at all the musicians, Mike Berniker thought she was trembling. He took her by the hand and led her to the floor.
At the moment, unbeknownst to anyone, the Kennedy administration was facing down the Soviet Union in what came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although tension was everywhere, Barbra had no idea just how close the country was to nuclear war as she tested the mikes in the studio that morning.
Peter found he could work well with the orchestra, conducted by George Williams, a true master, who’d arranged for Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Lionel Hampton. Together they had reworked “Happy Days” yet again, finding a synthesis of the various renditions Barbra had performed so far. With the goal of producing two records that day, with two sides each, Peter had also rearranged “Right as the Rain,” “When the Sun Comes Out,” and “Lover, Come Back to Me.” He’d been with Barbra long enough now to know exactly what worked, what didn’t, what they’d tried before, and what they still might play around with.
Barbra had come a long way since Peter had first laid eyes on the pimply-faced kid with enormous chutzpah auditioning for The Sound of Music. He’d been there for the first Bon Soir show, for the Blue Angel gigs, and for so many other performances. Many times Barbra had slept on the floor of Peter’s studio after a long practice session. In the last several months, Peter had been spending far more time with Barbra than he had with his wife, Anita, causing not a few problems at home. But Peter, a brilliant, offbeat, march-to-his-own-drummer kind of guy, had left England at a young age and come to America with a single goal in mind: to become a famous musician. Peter wanted to be a star—to be recognized—almost as much as Barbra did, and he knew attaching himself to her would pay off. In fact, it already had. His steady gigs at both the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel were in part because of his connection to her. While this time he might have been at Columbia to make Barbra’s first records, next time, he hoped, he could be making his.
Nearly all of the songs Barbra had used to establish herself had been arranged by Peter; his influence could be heard every time she opened her mouth to sing. It was Peter who had thought to have her hold the notes as long as she did in “Right as the Rain”; it was he who’d had the idea to sex up “When the Sun Comes Out.” Occasionally he’d suggest something that didn’t work, but usually Barbra was able to accomplish whatever Peter had in mind, continually surprising him with her ability to take one of his ideas and elaborate on it. Theirs was an easy partnership, though not without quarrels. Barbra was demanding, and while Peter could usually roll with her tetchiness, sometimes he had to get up off his stool and take a walk around the block.
Of the songs Barbra was to record that day, “Lover, Come Back to Me” dated back the furthest, all the way to her first Bon Soir appearance more than two years ago. It had been Barry who’d helped her arrange that song, playing the record over and over for her in his apartment. Back then, Barbra had had trouble with one line, never seeming to get through it without tripping over the words, but now the song flowed easily and smoothly, like the old friend it was. Peter had kept the fast, almost freight-train tempo that Barry had devised, but he had given the song an extra bounciness that brought out its soul. Barbra might have been singing about missing a lover, but she did so gaily, almost giddily. Hearing her sing the song, there was no question that her lover was coming back.
But nowhere was Peter’s talent expressed better than in the new arrangement he’d come up with, in partnership with George Williams, for “Happy Days Are Here Again.” As Barbra sang that signature number into the microphone hanging in front of her, there was a sense in the room of something wonderful coming together. For this rendition, Barbra was able to perfectly balance the song’s original jubilation with the sense of melancholy she’d brought to it. What they brought forth that day was a haunting, complex number, celebratory and cautionary at the same time, a call of joy as well as a cry of sadness. It was, in the end, whatever the listener believed it to be, which, of course, is the mark of transcendence. Barbra’s voice, a gorgeous instrument on its own, never sounded better than here, surrounded by that thirty-piece orchestra in that exquisitely acoustic room. When they were finished, and Williams lowered his conductor’s baton, Peter knew in his heart they had just wrought a masterpiece.
Hoping to change his wife’s mind about Barbra, Ray Stark had brought Fran to the Bon Soir. Seeing Barbra in the more relaxed setting of a nightclub, he anticipated, might soften Fran’s vehement opposition. The show was tentatively back on track, now being called The Luckiest People, after a line in the Styne-Merrill song “People.” They would tiptoe their way around the legal issues with Robbins the best they could. But recent press reports were stating that Kaye Ballard was now being considered for the lead. On The Perry Como Show, where she was a regular, Ballard was doing some superb impressions of Brice. The New York Times’s Sam Zolotow, who knew about such things, had called Ballard a contender for the part. But that was hype. Ray Stark hadn’t lost his faith in Barbra.
Fran, however, was another story. That was why Barbra, waiting in that cramped little dressing room that had become something of a second home, had to go out on the stage one more time to try to win her over. It seemed she was forever auditioning.
She should have been riding high, especially with the release earlier that month of the “Happy Days” single. Yet despite its brilliance, the disk had gone precisely nowhere. That was because, as Marty discovered, the head of the sales department, a conservative fellow by the name of Bill Gallagher, had doubted the commercial viability of “Happy Days.” Just to be safe, he’d pressed only five hundred disks and distributed them only in New York. Enraged, Marty had demanded that Columbia release the second single as soon as possible and get one hundred percent behind promoting it this time.
In response, Lieberson had suggested a live album. Indeed, an album was what Marty had been angling for all along. So, just a few days before the Starks’ appearance at the Bon Soir, Columbia had sent in a team to the club to record Barbra live. Lieberson had introduced Barbra to the audience himself, calling her “a singular artist” who couldn’t be categorized. With beauty and grace she rendered “My Name Is Barbara” and the crowd was on their feet applauding. But then a microphone fuse blew. “You’re kidding me!” Barbra wailed. That was just the beginning. When she restarted her set, the Columbia photographer, hoping for a jacket cover, kept snapping pictures and distracting her. Finally Barbra had to ask him to stop. These were hardly the conditions under which she wanted to record an album. She needed the kind of control she’d had at the Thirtieth Street studio, without worries of extraneous noise or echoes. If this was what making albums was like, then she wanted no part of it.
Faced with the vacuum left by the collapse of the Brice musical, Barbra had taken Marty’s advice and signed with new publicists. Richard Falk had already left her, reportedly because Marty “was doing everything” himself. But it was Barbra who’d made the break with the Softness brothers. Quite simply, she felt she had outgrown them. She’d offered Don Softness, with whom she had the closer relationship, a chance to stay on, providing he got rid of all of his other clients to focus only on her. The offer was “tempting,” Softness said, but ultimately he turned Barbra down. He “had a company to run,” he said, and besides, a future of “being the tail that wagged the dog” was not something he looked forward to. Barbra may have been hurt, since rejection of any kind was never easy for her, which might explain why she had no further contact with Softness, not even to pay the last of the expenses he’d incurred in promoting her.
Her new publicist, Lee Solters, had far more connections than the Softness Group. And, like Marty, he was willing to come on board without any binding contract, assured only by an absolute belief in Barbra’s greatness and ultimate destiny. At least, that was the word that Solters let get around once he was in the job; it certainly fit the narrative Marty had already established. Solters, born Nathan Cohen in Brooklyn and always called “Nussy,” was a bald-headed, raspy-voiced character who’d been working as a press agent for David Merrick for more than a decade. It was Solters who’d been the architect of the ingenious “Mr. Clutterbuck” ploy. Grabbing publicity came naturally to him, one observer said, “like putting on a pair of shoes.”
While promoting Wholesale, Solters had encountered Barbra and quickly became impressed with her moxie and determination to get her name out there. It became clear to Barbra that Solters, far more than Softness or even Falk, had the clout to make her a household name. In addition to Merrick’s shows, Solters had also flacked for Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and Camelot. Just recently, he’d picked up none other than Frank Sinatra as a client. Solters knew everybody.
And while he hoped to raise Barbra’s publicity to new heights, Solters chose to continue, even intensify, the meme originated by Softness of Barbra as “kook.” Not only was it ideal positioning for the Fanny Brice musical, but even if that show never came to fruition, Barbra’s “kookiness” ensured that the press kept coming back for more. Who wouldn’t want great copy like Earl Wilson had been getting, or the fabulous stream of consciousness that had made the New Yorker piece required reading among the theater crowd? Barbra’s kookiness had certainly entranced Johnny Carson when she’d appeared with him on The Tonight Show. When the host had asked her if she thought of herself as a kook, Barbra had replied, “I don’t understand it really. I’ll tell you this, it’s very interesting because when I decided, well, not decided, I always knew I wanted to be in the theater, but I never made rounds or anything like that, it was very depressing. But I did for two days. It was during the winter. It was very cold and I wore a big coat and a big hat because I can’t stand the cold. So I walked into offices and they really thought I was nuts. Like one woman said to me, ‘When you go make rounds and you meet people, you should wear stockings and high heels’ and so forth. I said, ‘It’s freezing out, lady. It’s so cold, what difference does it make if I’m an actress, if I am talented or not talented, what difference does it make if I wear tights or not?’ So kooky people said I was kooky.”
Of course, that was classic Barbra—she meant every word of it, even if she was likely conflating episodes (was the hat and coat a reference to her Wholesale audition?) and ignoring actual chronology, as was her custom. All that mattered was that she told an entertaining story in an entertaining way. That had been Softness’s instruction, and now it was Solters’s as well. Barbra shouldn’t hold back, her publicists told her; she should say whatever came into her head—and the quirkier the better. So, after telling Carson she didn’t understand being called a kook, she gave evidence to demonstrate that she was, in fact, exactly what they called her. Carson, his amiable expressions showing an earnest, if exaggerated, attempt to follow her logic, clearly enjoyed her. As she had on PM East, Barbra could pull viewers in with her far-out style. Since that first appearance, Carson, looking to boost his ratings, had already had her back on the show once—a gig for which Marty also managed to get the Clancy Brothers included—and had slated her for still another appearance in early January.
That fall, Barbra stood over Solters’s shoulder, as Arthur Laurents understood, admonishing him to “get her something new.” Accordingly, Solters was busy preparing a multimedia promotional campaign for her: print, television, radio. He succeeded in getting Ed Sullivan, the king of variety television, to come down to the Bon Soir to catch Barbra’s performance. Sullivan hired her on the spot for his television show and, having enjoyed the evening so much, also hired Barbra’s warm-up act, comedian Sammy Shore, to appear with her. The date was set for early in December.
For Barbra, finally landing a spot on the top variety show was no doubt satisfying, though, in its own way, probably a little unsettling as well. Everything she did seemed to be an audition for something else, for something bigger.
Just as it was tonight with Fran Stark.
Taking one last look in the mirror, Barbra headed out onto the stage. If she was hoping for a decision, some sign that she’d cinched the deal, she was disappointed. Everyone was cordial at the end of the night, but whether she’d changed Fran’s mind, Barbra had no idea. Mrs. Stark was playing it all very cool.
The news had come with just a couple of days’ notice. A letter from Merrick posted backstage thanked them all for their work and dedication, then dropped the bomb: Wholesale would be closing on Saturday, December 8. After a strong start, the show had faltered in recent months, and even various special half-price ticket deals that were promoted to boost attendance hadn’t made a difference. The great hope that the show’s low production budget, coupled with strong early box office, would mean profits for everyone hadn’t materialized; by the start of December, Wholesale was $140,000 in the hole and sinking further. Even all the publicity about the girl who “stopped the show cold” every night had failed to keep up the momentum.
There were tears all around, but not from Barbra. Now, on the show’s last night, when the final curtain dropped, she bounded backstage chortling, “I’m free! I’m free!” Wiping off her makeup and discarding Miss Marmelstein’s frumpy dress for the last time, Barbra, with Elliott at her side, practically danced out into the cold dark night, the air swirling with snow flurries. They might have, as so many theater people did on finding themselves suddenly out of work, enjoyed a bit of a holiday, gotten away from showbiz for a while, taken a much-needed breather. But Barbra had no time for such luxuries. She had to get the tracks laid down for her album, which Columbia had agreed to produce in the studio next month after the results of their live recording effort at the Bon Soir had proven unsatisfactory to everyone. She also had to rehearse for the Sullivan show, which was coming up in just a few days. No, there was no time for any holiday.
Elliott, on the other hand, had all the time in the world. On Monday, as Barbra headed over to Peter Daniels’s studio to practice, Elliott slunk down to the labor offices on Fifty-eighth Street and applied for fifty dollars a week in unemployment benefits.