Dear Ms. Streisand,
My humblest apologies.
I initially had no intention of reading your recently released autobiography MY NAME IS BARBRA. I had gotten some tepid feedback from friends who lamented plunking down $47 for nearly 1000 pages of your stories, many of which they found to be written from the perspective of someone who lives in a world that almost none of us will ever get to experience. And, to be honest, that’s far too steep a price for me to consider these days.
And in equal candor, I’ve long had mixed feelings about you. Virtually every Jewish girl I ever knew as a teen and young adult, especially the ones who grew up in Brooklyn as you did, revered you and your music, some to the point of obsession. They loved not only your talent, but your uncanny ability to attract “gaw-geous” men into your life. One gal I briefly dated around the time you were involved with Don Johnson would gush at how “freaking fantastic” you two looked arm in arm, and lamented why I couldn’t pull of a Miami Vice-like wardrobe like he did. There wasn’t a white suit with that much material being produced at an affordable price at that time, and I probably would have looked more like the Maytag repairman if I worn it.
But my mom shared your name; indeed, your actual original name–which has two As–as well as your middle name Joan. That and your religion are about all you two have in common–or so I thought. By your own admission, which you offer at many points in your book, you love food. You just happen to be blessed with a far better metabolism than she had. She, like so many others. revered your music, and admired your moxie. We would go to see every one of your movies, even the ones that by your own admission were your lesser ones, such as THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and WHAT’S UP DOC? We bought your albums and soundtracks. Whenever EVERGREEN would come up on a radio playlist she’d lipsync and attempt to emulate your soulful moves with a microphone. Thankfully, she rarely let her voice ruin the moment. My Barbara Joan sounded much more like your uberfan Linda Richman, a thick raspy bray that was even more phlegm-filled thanks to decades of smoking two packs of Marlboro 100s a day, an addiction that on top of her relationship with food ultimately took her from us shortly before her 58th birthday–and just around the time when the Richman character that Mike Myers made popular on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was taking off.
At times like these, lonely holidays where her memory is all the more distant, for both good and bad reasons, I think wistfully about her. And when I got an alert on my Audible app that I had apparently several unused credits that I could use for an audiobook version of MY NAME IS BARBRA, the barrier of cost and a three pound physical tome was made moot. I downloaded it, and heard you tell your story in your speaking voice. A voice that unlike your singing voice, the one you describe as “good” in the same understated manner that, say, Michael Jordan might say he played basketball OK, one that G-d bestows perhaps once in a generation on a chosen one like yourself, is remarkably accessible.
So I started listening earlier this week. And, save for sleep, I still am. And I’m hooked. I’m sympatico with the kind of rave that the NEW YORKER’s Rachel Syme bestowed:
All the usual memoir forms rear their heads. There’s the sob story, the gallant bildungsroman, the louche chronicle of various addictive behaviors, the righteous making of an activist, the victory lap. Streisand’s book, in its sheer breadth and largesse, attempts to be all of these things, and thus becomes something incredibly rare. Call it the diva’s memoir, an act of bravura entertainment and impossible stamina. Streisand is not here to apologize or to excavate her pain (she stopped going to therapy a while ago; “I had learned enough,” she writes). No thought is out of bounds. She dedicates the same amount of space to the time she met John F. Kennedy (she told him, “You’re a doll!”) that she does to her favorite type of TV dinner (Swanson, with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, along with a side of Sara Lee chocolate cake warmed under a broiler).
Save for the fact my Barbara Joan preferred Sara Lee’s pound cake with a scoop of Light n’ Lively ice milk and Cool Whip, you two could have been twins. Well, at least in the same manner than Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are.
You told so many stories. Some of which were unfathomable. THE NEW YORK TIMES’ book review chronicles several of them. They’re at times a tad elitist. But in your voice–your still-thick Noo Yawk accent with a take-no-bullsh-t ‘tude–, they’re wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly relatable.
We’ve never met, and I doubt we ever will. But I did come one degree away, right around the time that Linda Richman’s star was rising, right around the time my Barbara Joan ceased to exist, that I’d like to share.
One of the few privileges I’ve had in Jewish Hollywood was to attend a Shabbat dinner with the onetime head of the local Chabad, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz. “Schwartzie”, as he was known, considered it a mitzvah to extend an invite to someone who was recently bereaved. The first Friday night that I returned to Los Angeles after burying my mother, I was a guest at the storied, endless table set up in the massive dining room and kitchen that Schwartzie, his wife and his (at the time) 11 children would gather around to eat, schmooze and pray, even for random lost souls like me. Out of respect for the Orthodox home I was a guest in, I wore a kippah (yarmulke). The person across from me not only wore that; he also sported tzitzit, which more religious Jews wear under their shirt to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering G-d and the commandments.
And, being it was Hollywood, that person, accompanied by a clearly religious female date, just happened to be Elliott Gould. The father of Barbra Streisand’s son.
And once the shock of seeing someone famous dressed up as his ex was in YENTL wore off, I stared embarassingly at him, all the while thinking–“you’ve seen Barbra naked”.
Just as the main course was being served, Schwartzie encouraged everyone to introduce themselves to each other. Reluctantly, Gould extended his hand and said “Hi, I’m Elliott”. I mumbled, “Yeah, I know”. A few more minutes of silence ensued.
I then tried to break the ice. “Forgive me, Mr. Gould. My mom passed recently and she was a huge fan of yours, and an even bigger fan of your ex-wife’s. Seeing you here felt like G-d’s version of some kind of triggering joke. It’s a honor to share a Shabbas with you”.
He smiled a bit more warmly, and responded “Your mom had great taste. Which is more than I can say for Schwartzie’s chicken”.
I nodded in agreement. “The kugel’s not too bad, though”. He nodded.
Then his date whispered to him, with a look of disdain across her face. We never said another word to each other all night.
Nope, it’s nowhere near as riveting as your stories, Barbra. But it’s at least one connection we share besides your love for greasy TV dinners.
Mazel tov on your book, gorgeous. I wish my mom were still around to read it. Or at least listen. She would have loved audiobooks.
Until next time…