Barbra Streisand burst on the national scene right around the time I was finishing high school. I could have used her sooner: as the only Jewish girl among my Irish and Italian classmates, I never saw my ethnicity reflected in other faces, which only added to and complicated the usual adolescent insecurity.
My mother and aunts went mad for the Jewish girl with a voice to die for and a sense of humor to which they–dayenu!–could relate. They declared, as one, that I looked just like Babs—which was not altogether complimentary. Maybe Barbra was eventually considered attractive—but back then she was perceived as almost grotesque. Until she opened her mouth to sing.
I played her albums endlessly and saw every movie multiple times. I especially related to her shtick, presented in Funny Girl and repeated with variations in every film thereafter: a strong, ambitious yet vulnerable woman who might lose the guy but never her integrity. And those early songs! Barbra belted out lyrics of female rebellion like Never will I marry!, and I want much more than keeping house! She’s never gotten the credit she deserves for it, but Barbra’s feminist proclamations pre-dated the contemporary women’s movement by more than a few years.
Flash forward to 1972: I was a divorced mother of two living in upstate New York. Every other weekend I delivered the kids to a destination halfway between my home and their father’s—a Howard Johnson’s off the Tarrytown exit of the New York State Thruway. By this time I’d been following, or, rather, worshipping Barbra Streisand for nearly a decade. One Sunday I was waiting outside for the ex- to return the kids when a woman wearing a leopard skin coat and hat, a small boy at her side, strolled right past me to the entrance, followed by a couple of burly men.
“That woman,” I thought, “looks just like Barbra Streisand.” I then entered what can only be called a trance, and dreamily followed the entourage into the restaurant. Barbra was standing in front of the cashier, no doubt arranging for a private table. I floated over and touched her arm, about to tell the woman she looked like Barbra—but the moment she turned to face me, I realized It was really her! My hand, beyond my conscious control, gripped her arm and trembled as I murmured in disbelief, “You are...” It was the closest I’ve ever come to swooning.
Barbra instantly pulled free of my grip, turned her back on me and stomped into the dining room at the rear of the restaurant. Still in a semi-coma I followed, desperately wishing to undo my blunder, wanting only a moment to explain that I wasn’t just any casual fan, nor was I deranged, that we had important matters to discuss, Jewish girl to Jewish girl. I looked her straight in the eye and blubbered, “I don’t wanna bother you, but…” Posing with one hand on a defiant out-thrust hip, she enunciated each syllable as distinctly as when she sings. “Why don’t you just cool it?” she spat.
No argument was possible. Barbra had perfected her armor, designed precisely for moments like these, and it was impenetrable. Beside myself, I ran outside and telephoned the second-biggest Streisand fan in America. My mother didn’t quite believe me at first, but when I finally convinced her that Barbra was indeed sitting in the HoJo, she urged me to do something, anything. (You can see how I became who I am.) There was nothing I could do, however, short of jumping a waitress and stealing her uniform–which I briefly considered–so I went home, defeated. To this day I entertain people with the “funny story” of my chance meeting with Barbra Streisand. I don’t tell them that the next day I cried for eight hours straight.
In later years, as I learned something about the creative process, I came to understand why Barbra treated me—had to treat me—as she did. The intense place she goes to when performing cannot simply be carried into the Ho Jo and offered up to random takers. That armor of hers guards an intensity reserved for her private process. If she let herself be even half that vulnerable in public, her fans would eat her for breakfast—and rob her stuff.
For a long time the memory of my chance encounter with Barbra caused me great pain. From a distance she shares her deepest emotions, and her refusal to share even a smidgeon of herself up close was, at the time, a tremendous loss. But in the long run, her lack of grace at the HoJo matters less than the hours of joy she’s given with her magnificent voice–and the sense of validation she brought to awkward Jewish girls everywhere.
Isn’t this something? And not even half of Barbra’s albums and films are represented here.
Top 3 films: The Way We Were, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Funny Girl. Some of her movies aren’t very good; The Main Event is downright awful.
- Great Guilt Trip With Babs (marcys.wordpress.com)