Spring 1960


For Barbara, telling a director he was wrong was a radical new idea and possibly a dangerous one at that. But that’s exactly what Barré was doing, and it was with wide eyes and open mouth that she stood behind him watching.

From the auditorium Vasek Simek was shouting, “Did you never see moths?” His arms were flailing and his bushy eyebrows were moving across his forehead like caterpillars. “Flap, flap, flap! They keep moving!” Except, in his Czech accent, it came out, “Dey keep movink!” It was all Barbara could do to keep from laughing.

But Barré wasn’t amused. “The girls can burst into little flurries of flap-flap-flaps,” he argued. “But we have to figure out exactly when. It can’t be all the time.”

For Barbara, Barré Dennen was a revelation. He had joined the cast late. He was a friend of Carl Esser’s from UCLA, where he’d known Simek on campus. And unlike the rest of the cast, Barré wasn’t intimidated by their director’s temper tantrums. Since rehearsals had begun in April, Vasek had used his association with the Actors Studio to lord over his cast, parading around the Jan Hus Playhouse like some cut-rate Stanislavski. But when finally confronted by Barré Dennen, he spilled his coffee all over himself, swore, and stalked off in a huff. That was probably the last they’d see of him for the day.

Barbara tapped Barré on the shoulder. She wanted to know if he really thought what he’d just done was a good idea. Did he want to keep them there all night? She explained that when Vasek got upset, it often took him hours to get over it. The Insect Comedy was opening in less than a week. Getting Vasek riled up was not helpful.

Barré just shrugged. Taking advantage of their volatile director’s absence, he sat on the edge of the stage and motioned for Barbara to sit beside him. She complied. He lit up a cigarette and asked if she wanted one. She demurred; she’d given up smoking for the time being. The late-afternoon sun was filling up the hall. From the open windows came the heavily accented voices of Czech women on the street below. Barré looked over at Barbara with dark, soulful eyes. Yes, he told her, he did think confronting Vasek was a good idea. It was never worth staying quiet if it meant the difference between being mediocre and being good. And was he wrong to feel she wanted to be good?

“More than good,” she replied quickly.

He smiled. The discussion was over.

Barbara liked this guy. They’d been hanging out a lot together since he’d joined the cast. Something very different was crackling between her and Barré than what she felt for Terry. With Terry, Barbara whispered and giggled; with Barré, she found herself holding eye contact for a few seconds longer than necessary, which made her cheeks flush as she finally looked away. The attraction between them was obvious to Terry, and to anyone else who saw them together. A few inches taller than Barbara, Barré had jet-black hair and a smile that was both sweet and sly. He could be flip and funny, smart and ironic, but he could also be sensitive.

He was a rich kid—a “Beverly Hills brat,” in his own words. A theatrical life had been foretold when his mother had bestowed upon him at birth an accent aigu even though his name was pronounced “Barry.” His father had come to Southern California as if he were the hero in a Horatio Alger tale, fleeing a hardscrabble life in Chicago to make a fortune selling venetian blinds in the land of sunshine and palm trees. Barré grew up in a luxurious modern glass house in Coldwater Canyon, with a pool and a yard and housekeepers and gardeners. When Barré announced he wanted to be an actor, his father hadn’t tried to talk him out of it, but happily enrolled him in UCLA’s theater department. After graduation, he had generously paid for Barré’s move to New York. Since that time, Barré had understudied the role of Bub in the revival of Leave It to Jane at the Sheridan Square Playhouse and landed a rather exquisite apartment in a brand-new building on Ninth Street in Greenwich Village, all paid for by Dad. Friends predicted that golden boy Barré Dennen was on his way to big things.

He was twenty-two. Barbara had just turned eighteen. Their first time out together, sharing a baked potato with sour cream and chives at a midtown diner, she’d drilled him like an investigative journalist. What was it like to have a live-in maid? What did his pool look like? What kinds of cars did his parents drive? What kinds of furs did his mother own? Barré found her questions captivating. There’d been no one like her in California.

As the rest of their class chattered about Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot who had crash-landed in Russia and was being called a spy, Barbara and Barré spent the time talking about acting. The sun was setting; the rehearsal was done. Given Vasek’s intransigence, it was only at times like these, after they had disbanded for the night, that Barbara could get any real advice about her craft.

The auditorium was emptying as Barbara stood facing Barré, arms akimbo. She wanted the truth. He was a theater-school graduate, after all, so his opinion mattered. She wanted to know if she’d gotten to the heart of her character—a sexy little butterfly who makes violent love, desperate to stay alive. “Be honest,” she insisted.

Barré smiled. He asked her if she’d ever seen Mae West. Barbara didn’t understand why he was asking the question, but she told him she thought she had, in some old movie, late at night. Barré suggested that maybe her butterfly was a little too esoteric, that it might benefit from “a little Mae West.” Barbara was surprised. That was his suggestion? Mae West? Nothing about going deep down inside and feeling what a butterfly might feel when it’s winter and she knows she’s got to mate because she’s about to die? Barré nodded. “Try a little Mae West,” he said. “Can you do Mae West?”

Barbara tried, but couldn’t quite get the right Westian inflection, so Barré demonstrated for her. “Oh, you,” he intoned, one hand on his hip, the other pushing at an imaginary bouffant. “You shameless creature, you.”

Good mimic that she was, Barbara quickly got the hang of it. “Oh,” she purred. “You great, strong, handsome thing.”

“That’s it,” he told her. “Play it like that!”

They both dissolved in laughter.

Method acting indeed.


The Insect Comedy came and went, three performances, May 8, 9, and 10, with barely a notice from anyone. So much for Vasek’s eminent reputation. So much for Barbara’s going straight to the top. One German-language newspaper had, however, called her “ausgezeichnet”—excellent—so Barbara hung on to that, thankful she’d come up with that Mae West business to set herself apart. That had been clever on her part. But now she needed a job. She had rent to pay.

The ushering at the Lunt-Fontanne had ended when she’d signed up for The Insect Comedy. For Barbara, jobs never seemed to last longer than a few months. Her first job in Manhattan had been as a clerk at a business firm. There she’d driven her bosses crazy by stumbling in late nearly every morning, groggy from late-night, after-class critiques she and the others held over pancakes and syrup at some Times Square eatery. Yet what really grated on her employers’ nerves was Barbara’s tendency to hum as she sashayed around the office filing papers and answering telephones. “Stop humming around here!” one of them barked at her. “What do you think you’re in, a show?”

She wasn’t in a show then, but she was hoping she would be now. The Sound of Music was preparing for a fall tour. Florence Henderson, a perky chanteuse who’d made a splash on Broadway in producer David Merrick’s Fanny a few years back, was likely to take over Mary Martin’s part. The other roles hadn’t yet been cast, so Barbara had set her sights on Liesl, the pretty eldest daughter who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” She had no worries about her singing voice. When she was a kid trilling on the stoops of her neighborhood, she knew the reason people didn’t chase her away was because they liked her voice. At Erasmus Hall, she’d sung in the Chorale Club, even if she was frustrated that she never got a solo—strictly ensemble work was never for Barbara since it precluded a chance for her to shine on her own. But anyone who’d ever heard her recording of “You’ll Never Know” agreed that she could sing.

Still, trying out for The Sound of Music was a lark. Liesl wasn’t Juliet or Medea. The show was hardly Barbara’s idea of great theater. This time there were no grand hopes tucked between the pages of her audition script. Heading into the audition, she knew this was just about getting a job. But warbling “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would be better than filing papers in an office.

Greeting her at the audition was Eddie Blum, a bluff, hearty fellow who’d been casting director for Rodgers and Hammerstein for the last couple of years, overseeing Flower Drum Song before taking on The Sound of Music. At the piano was Peter Daniels, an Englishman with piercing blue eyes that looked out from behind a pair of thick glasses. No doubt both were surprised by the young gamine who’d wandered into the studio to sing for them. Barbara stood there chewing gum, as obviously Jewish as a girl could be, trying out for the part of Liesl von Trapp, that flower of young Aryan maidenhood. Blum was amused—and impressed—by Barbara’s chutzpah in thinking she could convincingly play the stepdaughter of Florence Henderson.

She asked Daniels if he could accompany her on “Allegheny Moon,” Patti Page’s hit from a few years back. Daniels began tickling the ivories. “Allegheny moon,” Barbara sang. “Your silver beams can lead the way to golden dreams . . . So shine, shine, shine . . .”

Blum was transfixed.

“What Eddie Blum saw,” said one friend, “was this brave little meydele with a big schnozzle and acne on her face singing her heart out for the part and not seeing any reason why she shouldn’t. She was a teenage girl. Liesl was a teenage girl. Why shouldn’t a Jewish girl come in and try out for Liesl? And that’s what charmed Eddie Blum.”


Barré was pleasantly surprised. The kid could really sing.

They were at his apartment at 69 West Ninth Street. The windows were closed tightly to seal off noise from the traffic below. Carl Esser was tuning his guitar and Barbara was practicing a few bars of the song she was about to sing. Barré listened approvingly as he screwed microphones onto stands and plugged cables into the jacks of his Ampex stereo tape recorder. No longer would Barbara have to wait weeks or pay big bucks to have a record made of her singing. Barré possessed the latest technology right here in his apartment to give her a tape this very afternoon.

She had called, asking for a favor. Eddie Blum had thought she was terrific, and although he didn’t give her the job on the spot, he’d asked for a tape of her singing, presumably so he could convince some higher-ups—maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves—that she was perfect for Liesl.

Listening as she practiced Sammy Cahn’s “Day by Day,” Barré was impressed not only with the quality of Barbara’s voice but with the determination and focus she brought to the job at hand. She was “on fire with commitment to get it right,” he thought. Should she sit or stand? Where should she position herself so the tape recorder could best pick up her voice? Was Carl’s guitar tuned correctly?

Barré supposed it was Barbara’s preoccupation with making the tape that led her to barely react when he shared his own big news. Just days before, he’d been signed by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, which put on free plays during the summer at the Belvedere Lake Theatre in Central Park. First up was Henry V, and Barré had landed the small but potentially scene-grabbing part of a French soldier. He’d told Barbara all about it when she and Carl first arrived, and her response was to say “great” and then ask whether she should use the microphone or not when making her tape.

She had arrived, as usual, lugging her crumpled paper shopping bags. Feathers and sequined clothes tumbled over the top of one bag; another seemed ready to burst from her collection of buttons and scraps of cloth. A third bag held costume jewelry and shoes. Barbara told anyone who asked that she never knew when she might be called upon to whip up a costume. But a fourth bag was a relatively new addition to Barbara’s luggage. Barré noticed that she was now toting around crackers, fruit, and bottles of juice. He was aware she was leading a rather nomadic existence at the moment, having been forced to give up her apartment due to a lack of funds. She was staying at various places, including her brother’s office on West Forty-fifth Street, and sometimes housesitting for friends Barré had never met who lived on West Fifty-fourth Street. He knew better than to offer any sympathy or express any concern about her living situation. Barbara would have just brushed him off by insisting she was fine.

She was looking at Barré now, waiting for his signal to start. Checking the connections on the tape recorder one more time, he nodded.

Carl played a few chords on his guitar, then Barbara began to sing. “Day by day, I’m falling more in love with you, and day by day, my love seems to grow . . .”

Barré watched and listened. She was good. No doubt about that. Very good. He wondered why Barbara had never told him that she could sing. Certainly she knew about his love of music. Visits to his apartment meant listening to Edith Piaf or Shirley Horn or Billie Holiday on Barré’s record player. But never had Barbara told Barré that she could sing herself. He found it very odd. Certainly Barbara was never shy when it came to announcing or demonstrating her talents.

When she was done singing, Barré switched off the tape recorder. He told her he’d make a copy since he was certain she’d never get the tape back after she gave it to Blum. Barbara thanked him. He added that she had a beautiful voice. Again, she thanked him, and their eyes, as usual, held a little longer than absolutely necessary.

Barré wasn’t surprised that Barbara hung around after Carl packed up his guitar and left. She sat beside Barré on the couch, their shoulders touching. Barré told her she needed to do something with her voice. It was a gift he hadn’t known about. Her ability to sing opened up a whole new range of options for her. But beyond trying out for the part of Liesl, Barbara seemed ambivalent about the idea. Barré kept on pressing her. Down the block, he said, there was a nightclub called the Lion. He went there sometimes. The Lion held talent contests on Tuesday nights. She should enter. She could win fifty bucks. She could certainly use some cash at the moment, couldn’t she?

Barbara said she’d consider it. But nothing, she said, could get in the way of her becoming an actress.

Barré countered that singing was really just another form of acting. An Edith Piaf record was playing on the stereo, and Barré told Barbara to listen carefully to the way Piaf told a story with her songs. This particular song was about a depressed man who turned on the gas before he got into bed. From the record player, Piaf hissed like an open gas jet: “You were so sure, so sure, sooo ssssssure . . .” Barbara leaned forward, “sitting stone still,” Barré observed, listening. When the record was done, she said it was “really something.”

They sat there on the couch, quiet for a moment, still shoulder to shoulder. Every time they’d been in each other’s company, the buzz between them had grown stronger, though neither of them had spoken of it or made a move. Barbara was unlike any girl Barré had ever known. Not that there had been all that many—in fact, he’d only slept with two girls in his life. But one of them, about a year ago, on a night of a power outage, had gotten pregnant. Somewhere out there Barré had a three-month-old son he’d never seen. So he was understandably cautious about moving too fast. He didn’t want a repeat of what had happened on the night of the blackout.

But, if he was honest with himself—which, these days, he was struggling more and more to be—he knew that his careful approach with Barbara was even more complicated than that. The girls he’d been with—slept with or simply dated—had all been diversions from the real feelings he’d always done his best to hide. The club he told Barbara about, the Lion, was a gay club, and Barré didn’t patronize it just for the talent contests. He went because he felt he belonged there. Not that there had been all that many men in his life either. But Barré was a percipient young man. He was twenty-two. He’d had these feelings since adolescence. He knew they weren’t going away.

But he might be able to contain them. And Barbara excited him like no girl had ever done. He found her “adorable, sweet, funny, tender.” She had beautiful eyes and a beautiful body, though her skin troubled him a bit because the smell of Clearasil repelled him when he got too close. But she was neat and clean, almost compulsively so—surprising for a girl who practically lived out of a shopping bag. If an article of clothing came back from the dry cleaners not cleaned to her specifications, Barbara would be irate. She made sure she always looked put together, from her hat down to her shoes, even if, to some, her wardrobe seemed eccentric. But Barbara had her own particular style, a trait Barré very much admired.

As he’d learned these past few weeks, she was a girl of very definite likes and dislikes. She loved gardenias, she told him. They had a smell that no perfumer could ever replicate, which made her like them even more. She loved Cokes, and ice-cream cones, and French fries that tasted of bacon. She also adored chantilly lace, avocados, gingerbread, and lavender roses, as well as “the feel of fur blankets and the smell of Italian cooking.” But while she loved “the color of wine,” she didn’t care for “the taste of it,” she said, and among her greatest dislikes were eggs, arriving early to appointments, crowded streets, dirty ashtrays, and “opportunistic people.” That last one would make Barré laugh when he heard it because he felt she—he—all of them—were just waiting to pounce on the very first opportunity that came their way.

He was impressed by how much Barbara knew about literature. She could speak at length about Chekhov and Shakespeare and Euripides, thanks to her time with the Cormans and the Millers. But about music she was largely ignorant, except for some classical works and pop singer Joni James. She knew nothing of the great vocalists—Piaf, Holiday, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee. Still, she’d learned quickly after Barré started playing their records. Barbara admired Piaf, but it was Holiday she loved, sinking down into the cushions of Barré’s couch, closing her eyes as she soaked up Billie’s blues. She had a similar response in museums, Barré noticed. Barbara might know little about art, but she was drawn instinctively to the very best as they walked past—Monets at the Met, Picassos at MoMA.

But for all her flair, Barbara could be terribly shy, too, especially in gatherings of Barré’s UCLA friends. When these slightly older college graduates came by, Barbara seemed to shut down, to become physically smaller than she was. Carole Gister, one of Barré’s closest friends, had perceived the slender girl sitting off to the side as “a perfectly nice quiet child who’d seemed to have run away from home with a mattress on her head.” Barbara would explain that her shyness was “unconventional.” She might be strong and assertive in most areas of her life, but upon first meeting people, she didn’t always “like them straight away.” She was “a little more wary,” she said. Barré’s friends would have agreed with her assessment.

Once, trying to engage Barbara, some of those friends had begun asking about her acting ambitions. Someone came up with the idea that she could work as a hand model, and everyone enthusiastically agreed since Barbara had “these fabulous hands with long, delicate fingers,” Gister observed. But Barbara, not surprisingly, wasn’t interested. She would have had to cut her nails, for one thing.

Sitting next to her on the couch now, Barré suddenly reached over and kissed her. At least that would be how he remembered that day, insisting that, in addition to kissing her, he played records for her all afternoon: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Ruth Etting’s “Ten Cents a Dance,” Lee Wiley’s “Baby’s Awake Now,” and comedy vocals from Bea Lillie and Mae Barnes. Whether every single one of those records spun on his turntable that day or not, they certainly did so in the days that followed. There was also some Helen Morgan, Ethel Waters, Libby Holman, and Marion Harris. And also more kisses. Eventually Barré took a cloth and tenderly wiped the Clearasil from Barbara’s face.

But one thing was certain about that day Barbara recorded her tape for Eddie Blum in Barré’s apartment. When she left, she still had not asked anything about Barré’s part in Henry V. He wasn’t offended. He understood how “desperate she was to make it,” how “hungry she was for attention and success.” Barbara’s ambition, Barré felt, “had become a kind of living, breathing ache inside her that blotted out everything else.”


Cis and Harvey Corman were eating dinner when Barbara wandered in. They weren’t expecting her. They looked up with some surprise as she approached the table.

“Ya know,” she said. “I’m going to enter a contest for singing.”

“Why would you do that?” Cis asked. “You don’t know how to sing.”

“Yeah, I do.”

This they didn’t know. “Well, sing for us,” Cis said.

“I’m too embarrassed,” Barbara replied.

They encouraged her, saying that she had no reason to be embarrassed around them. So Barbara decided she’d sit on the table and face the wall. Setting down their forks, Cis and Harvey gave her their full attention. Barbara began to sing.

“When a bee lies sleepin’ in the palm of your hand . . .”

It was the Harold Arlen song “A Sleepin’ Bee,” originated by Diahann Carroll in the musical House of Flowers. Truman Capote had contributed to the lyrics, and June Christy had covered it a couple of years earlier. Barré had taught it to Barbara over several painstaking days in his apartment. The Cormans listened raptly.

Barbara finished with “A sleepin’ bee done told me I will walk with my feet off the ground when my one true love I has found.”

Slowly she turned around, anxious to see how her friends had responded. Cis and Harvey were “drenched in tears,” as Cis would admit. None of them would ever forget the moment.


The King Arthur Room was a small, intimate space tucked within the spacious if low-ceilinged Roundtable on East Fiftieth Street. Formerly the Versailles, the venue was the New York home of the Dukes of Dixieland, and it was here that Barré brought Barbara on this special night. With his father’s Diners Club card, he’d splurged on a dinner of steak and mashed potatoes. Yet no matter how tasty the London broil, it was for what came after dinner that Barré had brought Barbara to the Roundtable.

That tonight was a celebration at all was a relief. Barbara had won the contest at the Lion! Barré had been worried that the two numbers she’d felt comfortable enough singing—“A Sleepin’ Bee” and “When Sunny Gets Blue”—were both ballads, and he knew the crowd at the Lion tended to go for more up-tempo show tunes. But there’d been no time to practice anything new, so they’d gone with what they had. Terry had dressed Barbara in a feathered boudoir jacket and layered skirt, all in shades of lavender—appropriate, given the venue. But then, on the way to the club, she’d gotten the jitters, and Barré had had to talk her through them by reminding her that a good actress could play any part, even a nightclub singer.

The place had been packed. The talent shows, held Tuesdays at eleven pm, were very popular. Given that Barbara’s competitors that night were a couple of typical comics, Barré figured she had the thing aced—until he’d looked up to see a striking young woman stride into the club, all legs and self-confidence. She was Dawn Hampton, a jazz singer and dancer who was tight with Burke McHugh, the club’s manager. She was also part of a family of musicians well-known in the world of jazz, and she had performed at the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. McHugh thought Hampton “sang like there was no tomorrow.” With her expressive eyes, spirited laugh, and gorgeous legs, Dawn Hampton was everything Barbara was not: experienced, polished, and lovely. Plus she had connections. Barré’s heart had sunk.

Hampton had indeed been spectacular when she got up on stage, bringing down the house with her hot jazz. But Barré had noticed a very different alchemy when Barbara took the microphone. Maybe the gay men in attendance had been rooting for the homely girl over the pretty one, the underdog over the luminary. Whatever their motivation, the audience had responded to her intimately. Their usual raucous bar behavior had been stilled. There’d been something about the simplicity of it all, this small girl in purple feathers, standing beside a piano, singing an uncomplicated song about a sleeping bee. Dawn Hampton was a polished pro. Barbara was a tenderfoot, though she made it all seem so terribly easy. The lyrics that came from her lips were “liquid and languorous,” Barré thought, and even when she’d decided to improvise a bit, taking the mike and walking among the tables—plunging herself into darkness when the spotlight couldn’t find her—she hadn’t lost the audience. She’d kept right on singing. Even tripping over a patron’s chair on her way back to the stage hadn’t stopped her from ending with the big finish she’d practiced in Barré’s apartment. The room had exploded into cheers for her, and she won the contest.

Cheers meant something for a girl like Barbara. Dawn Hampton had heard them many times before—at Carnegie Hall, no less. The comics and pianists at the Lion had also basked regularly in the hoots and whistles of the crowd. But for Barbara, this was something very new. She’d taken her bows for Picnic and Driftwood and The Insect Comedy—but she’d been part of ensembles then, and the audiences had been cheering for everyone, not just her. That night at the Lion, however, the cheers had been solely for her, and they went on and on. Suddenly the invisible girl from Brooklyn was being seen by everyone in the room. What’s more, they liked what they saw.

The Lion expected her to appear again, on Saturday night, and sing on a bill with three other acts. Barbara was leery about being roped into a gig that might keep her from auditioning for roles in the theater. She told friends that she only agreed to the Lion’s request because they promised dinner—a line that quickly became a running joke among Barré’s friends, that Barbara could be had for a baked potato. But Barré had convinced her that a gig at the Lion would be great exposure for her, as both a singer and an actress. And he pointed out that they had nearly a week this time to prepare a really strong repertoire.

That was why they’d come to the Roundtable. In between rehearsals for Henry V in Central Park, Barré had been playing his records nearly nonstop for Barbara, seeing if anything from Ethel Waters or Ruth Etting might tickle her fancy. He instructed her to listen to the way they all told stories with their songs. As an actress, she could do that, too. “A Sleepin’ Bee” could be a three-act play, Barré suggested, told first by a young girl, then by a grown woman, then finally by an old lady looking back. Barbara responded well to the technique. But she insisted she couldn’t “learn from a record,” and Barré agreed. So he’d brought her here to the Roundtable so she could watch and listen to someone on whom she might model her act.

By this point, Mabel Mercer was an old crust of a chanteuse, sitting like a dowager queen on a throne before her audience, her voice croaky and tattered from decades of singing in smoky rooms like this one. Barbara watched closely as Mercer came out onto the stage wearing a brocade gown. A soft pink light picked her out in the dark mahogany room. At sixty, she looked much older. Her cinnamon skin had turned to leather. With perfect posture Mercer sat down in her chair, barely moving at all as she started to sing. The most she did was occasionally lift a shaky hand toward the audience.

Mercer began her first song, and Barbara wasn’t impressed. “She can’t sing,” she whispered to Barré.

Barré understood that Mercer was “an acquired taste, like certain ripe cheeses.” So he tried explaining to Barbara that the old pro was a “song stylist” and that she should concentrate on her phrasing, not her voice.

Barbara complied. She listened to Mercer rasp her way through a couple of ballads, a storyteller as much as a singer. “I can do this,” she whispered to Barré at last. It was the same conviction that made her sure that she could play Liesl or Hamlet or Juliet—the belief that she could do anything if just given the chance.

Mercer ended with Bart Howard’s “Would You Believe It?” Looking out over the audience with half-lidded eyes, she suddenly snapped her fingers, just once, as she was finishing the song. Barré had never seen Mabel Mercer snap her fingers before, and he was overjoyed, leading the applause with enthusiasm.

Barbara was less enthusiastic. But Barré had seen how she’d observed the old pro, taking note of the way Mercer had turned her head, the way she’d sung her songs with beginnings, middles, and ends. It was exactly the way Barré had been coaching Barbara to do. He hoped she’d picked up enough bits and pieces to make into her own.

Barbara, however, when she was asked, insisted that watching other performers taught her absolutely nothing—except “what not to do.”


The first time they’d tried to make love Barré had stopped midway through because he didn’t have protection. He’d made that mistake before, and he told Barbara they should plan their first time carefully. They should pick a night, he said, and he’d buy some rubbers, and she’d bring some baby oil. Barbara complained that this didn’t feel very spontaneous, but she went out and bought the baby oil.

Now, watching Barré lather his face in the bathroom mirror, wrapped only in a towel, she told him she’d never seen a man shave before. Sheldon had been out of the house by the time she was paying attention, and she’d certainly never looked at Lou Kind for any longer than she absolutely had to. That Barré’s beard was so heavy intrigued her. Barbara found it “very masculine,” she said, so much so that she couldn’t resist lifting a corner of Barré’s towel and purring like Mae West, “Whaddya got under there, big boy?”

Barré had told her that he was bisexual. While other girls might have been taken aback by such an admission from a boyfriend, Barbara had seemed to view it as a challenge. In the last few weeks she’d become increasingly sexually aggressive, quite a step for a girl whose mother had done her best to instill in her a fear of sex. “You don’t screw anybody until you get married,” Barbara remembered her mother saying, or words to that effect. And Barbara was hearing such admonitions from her mother more frequently these days. Her lack of funds had forced her into the once-unimaginable scenario of retreating back to Brooklyn several nights a week.

Making love to Barré was the logical next step, and a little bisexuality shouldn’t prove to be an obstacle. They were always flirting, throwing around Mae West double entendres that they had picked up from late-night movie viewings. And so Barbara kissed the back of Barré’s neck and played with the towel around his waist. “What’s the matter with your animal?” she cooed, using their favorite West line. But Barré once again begged off, arguing he’d be late for rehearsals. Barbara wanted to know when they’d finally make love. He promised her soon.

He kept that promise. On a night after Barbara had wowed them yet again at the Lion and agreed to defend her title once more the following Tuesday, Barré took out a canister of marijuana, rolled a couple of joints, and taught Barbara how to smoke. Soon they were both high, and naked, and making love. Nothing the matter with the animal now.

Barré believed that he was Barbara’s first lover. She told him he was, and that she was giving herself to him. Holding her in his arms, he felt her tremulous vulnerability. During daylight hours she might believe fervently that she could do anything and be anyone. But at night—naked in Barré’s arms—the little voice that insisted she wasn’t good enough, or beautiful enough, was as real as anything else. In these more vulnerable moments, Barbara needed reassurance, and Barré did his best to give it to her. Lying there with Barbara in his arms, he felt the enormous weight of the trust she had placed in him, and he hoped he would never hurt her.

Of course, she wasn’t entirely vulnerable. With sensuous strokes of her long fingernails, Barbara caressed Barré’s back, a sensation both relaxing and arousing, but occasionally painful, too. Barré realized that Barbara’s nails—by now three inches long, forcing her to use a pencil eraser to dial a phone—would forever “prohibit a certain degree of intimacy” between them, or between Barbara and anyone else. Never could she fully touch another human being with her hands. And if her nails symbolized her own reluctance to get too familiar, they were also ever-present reminders that if anyone trespassed too closely, she could, and would, fight back.


Burke McHugh ran the Lion like his own little Vegas showplace. It didn’t matter that the club was just a cubbyhole in a brownstone on West Ninth Street near Sixth Avenue, the kind of place that never saw its shows listed in the calendar section of the Times.McHugh still populated his stage with people he considered stars, such as Dawn Hampton, whose hot jazz regularly burned up the back room. The Streisand kid—the one who’d been winning his contests for the last few weeks—also had potential. She was back again tonight, handing her music to pianist Pat McElligott, telling him that she’d added a couple of new numbers. If she won again tonight, McHugh had decided, he’d have to retire her from the contest so somebody else could have a chance. He regretted having to put an end to Barbara’s run, however, since the little waif had been good for business. Word had gotten around that she was special. “Talented in a way nobody else is,” patrons were saying. And what showman didn’t love discovering someone like that?

She was a sharp cookie, that Streisand. After winning her second contest, she’d told McHugh that she wanted three pictures of herself, not just one, on the sign promoting the Saturday night show. She wasn’t beautiful, but she had a look, McHugh thought. He would know. With his classicall-American handsomeness, he’d been one of the nation’s top male models. For several years he’d been the man shaving his face in the Gillette razor television commercials. He’d also managed his own modeling agency, where he’d learned that beautiful people weren’t always the best salespeople. “Perfect” models didn’t have the same appeal, McHugh believed, as those who looked “real,” who were “believable,” and thus “saleable.”

Barbara was as real as they got, and the Lion’s regulars had taken to her. She’d been hired to work the coat-check room during the week. The offbeat characters who patronized the club all adored her. Barbara had quickly figured out that the clientele was largely gay, but had nonetheless been surprised to learn just how gay. That first Saturday she’d performed, Cis had come to cheer her on, and Barbara had pointed out that they were the only women in the house, as if Cis couldn’t have seen that herself.

For tonight’s competition, Barbara was adding “Why Try to Change Me Now?” and “Long Ago (and Far Away),” both Sinatra standards, to her set. She and Barré had been practicing them all week, giving the songs as many unusual touches as possible. It was Barbara’s offbeat personality as much as her gorgeous voice that drew other performers to the Lion to check her out. Popular stage and television actor Orson Bean was brought by some friends one night, and he’d thought she was “simply fabulous.” Paul Dooley, who’d recently made a splash in Fallout, a revue at the Renata Theater on Bleecker Street, was another who’d heard about this “crazy girl with the beautiful voice” and came by the Lion to see for himself. Dooley was struck by the fact that Barbara “had the poise of a forty-year-old saloon singer” when she was only eighteen years old. Of her audience she seemed to demand, “Look at me!”—and, indeed, Dooley found that he couldn’t look away. “Young people don’t usually have that kind of confidence,” he said. “They don’t usually trust their talent.”

Yet Barbara was so unusual that not everyone responded to her in the same way. While Bean and Dooley saw her as fabulous and confident, Walter Clemons, who played piano for Mabel Mercer and, like the others, had slipped in to see what all the fuss was about, perceived her as “terribly nervous.” In Clemons’s view, Barbara was “hostile” to her audience, with none of Mercer’s legendary generosity. Her eccentric syntax seemed to him “convoluted and interior,” leaving him confused as to what she was talking about. All he could feel coming from her was the “terrible resentment of an ugly girl.”

But Clemons was in the minority. That night Barbara won the contest once again, and Burke McHugh made much hoopla over the fact that he was retiring her as the Lion’s “undefeated champion,” which, of course, only prompted more hoots and hollers and whistles from the crowd. Barbara would perform one more week as the winner, then it had to be someone else’s turn.

Standing off to the side, Barré noticed the look in Barbara’s eyes. He’d seen it every time she’d been declared the winner, the champion, the best. Her face would come alive as if she’d been “plugged into the wall,” an “electric” look generated by the power of the applause. Barbara had been so hungry for attention, so desperate for praise and affirmation, Barré thought—and “now she was getting it.” And the look in her eyes told him that she believed “she could go on getting it for the rest of her life.”


In the cab on the way over to one of her final performances at the Lion, Barbara told Terry Leong that she was changing her name. He was surprised. He didn’t think she’d ever do such a thing.

Not her last name, Barbara told him. Her first.

Terry had always known his friend wanted to be unique. But he also knew that she didn’t want some made-up stage name such as Joanie Sands, which some people had been suggesting, “because that was too false.” The name Barbara had never thrilled her—in fact, she said that she “hated” it —but ditching it entirely seemed too drastic, an indication that she was “losing touch with reality.” So she told Terry that she had come up with a different idea.

When they got to the club, she strode over to Burke McHugh and instructed him to change the spelling of her name on her posters. “I wanna take an ‘a’ out of Barbara,” she said. An “a,” he repeated, not understanding. “Yeah,” she said. “The second one.” From now on, she insisted, her name would be spelled B-A-R-B-R-A.

There were millions of Barbaras out there, she reasoned. But by dropping one little vowel, she would become “the only Barbra in the world.”

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