Editor’s Note: Last month, UCLA announced that Barbra Streisand has donated funds to create the Barbra Streisand Institute, which will include four research centers–one in each of these fields: truth in the public sphere; the impact of climate change; the dynamics of intimacy and power between men and women; the impact of arts on the culture. “While it’s easy to reflect on the past, I can’t stop thinking about the future and what it holds for our children, our planet and our society,” Streisand says. “The Barbra Streisand Institute at UCLA will be an exploration into vital issues that affect us all…and the fact that my father, Emanuel Streisand, was an educator makes this Institute even more meaningful to me.”
To mark Streisand’s significant contribution, we’re republishing Sheila Weller’s excellent portrait of the iconic star.
A few years ago, I was waiting by the phone—nervously, I admit—for what I thought would be a call from an assistant of an assistant who would say, before a three-part patch-through process, “I have Miss Streisand for you.” After all, even minor agents have phone calls made for them these days; of course, the woman who is so tiresomely called a “diva” would, as well. The call for the interview I was writing about her came at precisely the appointed time. But when I picked up the phone, I heard not an assistant’s voice but the you’d-know-it-anywhere rushed, high still-Brooklyn voice: “Hello? Sheila? This is Barbra.”
What celebrity—let alone icon—calls you, directly, herself, these days? She does. And she did twice: the second time, spontaneously after our talk, to clarify something she’d said.
The indefatigable Barbra Streisand—singer, actor, director, producer, writer, lifelong political activist and feminist, and major philanthropist for ecological, academic, political, and medical causes—is spending much of her time now tweeting passionately against many policies she thinks are unfair and hailing what she feels are triumphs. On her website, she posts articles not about herself but about politics, about women and sexual harassment, and about women running for office.
Why Doubt is a Motivator
“It’s still a male world,” she told me when we talked. Saying what was true then and is truer now, she’d added: “It’s time for a woman to be president. There are so many women who have led countries: Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Mary Robinson. We need a more nurturing perspective and a less violent approach.” Barbra, whose political activism dates back 45 years—to the McGovern presidential campaign of 1972—told me that her heroes included Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders—and the Pakistani girl who was shot in the face for daring to go to school: Malala. Barbra had particularly loved her words about “education being the enemy of hate” and her great sentence about pens and pencils that can fight wars.
She is also in the midst of writing her deliciously anticipated autobiography. If the book is at all like our conversation, it will include quirky wisdom. One of the first things she said to me, about how she got where she is, was this: “Being self-confident is not cut and dried. There’s an enormous amount of doubt that goes with [success]. To me, doubt fuels ambition. It fuels the desire to work hard. Doubt can motivate you. It’s half of the equation. Confidence and doubt are two ends of the scale; they balance each other like male and female—they co-exist in the same person.”
This makes sense when you think of her as the Jewish girl in Brooklyn who rose with no support from her parents. Her mother wanted her to be a secretary; her stepfather once said, “you’re not pretty enough for ice cream.” Her ambition to lift herself far out of that provincial borough in the 1950s was so intense, its dynamism resonates to this day.
Barbra Streisand Now: The Diva Myth
Her good friend, Richard Jay-Alexander, who has co-directed all her stage performances for 17 years, always pictures her as the Young Barbra whenever he sees her with Marty Ehrlichman, who has been her manager for 57 years (talk about loyalty!). “You see the ‘house’ [of success] that those two scrappy Brooklyn kids built together. I picture teenage Barbra, sleeping on couches” in those borrowed apartments “while the land across the Brooklyn Bridge must have looked like Oz.”
“She’s still got fire in her belly,” Jay-Alexander says, referring to her 13-show tour—Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, the Magic—that they completed last year, which is streamable on Netflix. “Nobody works harder to make it better every day,” Alexander continues. “She always has a plan.” And she’s plan-conscious. She knows you have to have a plan to out-plan others. “I see her determination in those bright blue eyes. She’s always saying [with a motivating anger] ‘the Republicans have a plan!’”
“Confidence and doubt are two ends of the scale; they balance each other.”
“Barbra has gathered no moss,” Jay-Alexander says, but he is adamant that the myth of Barbra as a diva is “preposterous,” giving two reasons. “First of all, she wants everyone—especially women—to know that perfectionism is good. I saw Barbra talking to a group of young girls in Israel and she said, ‘People say the devil is in the details—but I like to think that God, not the devil, in the details.’” Barbra herself talked to me about the sexism of striving for excellence. Once, in overseeing an addition in her beautiful Malibu home, she’d noted that “the beams were too disparate in size.” The carpenters had “perceived me as telling them what to do. It would have been so different if I had been a man.” Then, she maintains, such remarks to the carpenters would have been acceptable.
But there’s another reason the word “diva” is so wrong for her, her friends say. And that is: Barbra cares. “We’ve had deep discussions,” Jay-Alexander says. “When people we know have passed away—like Marvin Hamlisch, or when I lost my parents, she’s stopped everything to talk. Barbra’s right there. Barbra understands life.” And she understands the importance of not taking things for granted. Especially love.
She quotes the rabbi who presided at her wedding to her present and second husband, James Brolin, in 1998. “The rabbi told me that if you diminish your partner you diminish yourself. And that the opposite is true: If you want to be happy, then make the other person happy and they will treat you better as well as being happy themselves.
Barbra’s and James’s marriage is considered an epitome of rare Hollywood second-time-around happiness. “We work on it; we work hard on it and we try,” she told me. “We take road trips. We eat in the car on a road trip. We spend a lot of time in bed: breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the weekends.”
“The rabbi told me that if you diminish your partner you diminish yourself.”
Barbra’s close friend Lyndie Benson, a vibrant and much-adored Malibu woman who just launched a chic, sustainable new clothing line, Bleusalt for women and men, reports that she and Brolin have a marriage “that is completely inspiring; they figured it out! They enjoy each other!” What’s more, Barbra alone gave Benson sensible, realistically conservative advice when, five year ago, Benson was separating from her husband of many years, superstar musician Kenny G.
“A lot of other people had a ‘Hey, if things are going really badly, get out of the marriage’ attitude’”—a typical, well-meaning, and ostensibly supportive point of view to a woman in pain. “But Barbra was the only one who said, ‘No. Think hard. Maybe you shouldn’t divorce. Because of the kids, only do it if you have no choice.’ She really made me stop and think about it.”
When Benson made her decision to divorce, she says it felt—and still feels—right in large part because of Barbra’s cautious counsel, her double-checking approach. “She was, and is, a wise person who is fully present every single day of her life. I don’t feel she’s ever gotten hard. She’s been through all these things you go through.” And those would include: early struggle and insecurity; being relentlessly derided for the ethnic nose she pridefully refused to alter (“I didn’t want to change myself; It was what I was born with—my heritage, my roots—and I wanted to live with that,” she told me); a short-lived marriage to Elliot Gould; massive stardom, which can be disorienting; even career struggles as a superstar with two Oscars, five Emmys, eight Grammys, and a Tony.
“It’s time for a woman to be president. We need a more nurturing perspective and a less violent approach.”
When I spoke to her she was trying to get a movie project off the ground—she would be the director—and she told me that financing and green-lighting was hard. Wait? Hard for Barbra Streisand? In a field where you’re never supposed to admit vulnerability, she volunteered this information more frankly and undefensively than a moderate player in Hollywood would have. “She’s been through all that,” Benson says, “and has come out as polished and shiny as a diamond. She’s got work going all the time—films, albums, building projects: she does so many things. That’s part of what makes her so youthful and relevant still.”
The Value of Laziness
Still, Barbra Streisand surprises. As perfectionistic as she is, she also said she was “always kind of lazy” and sensual—and only half-humorously views it as the key to her success. “I didn’t want this role; I didn’t want that role. Some I turned down because I was having a love affair! And who’s to say which was the better experience—receiving love and giving love [or] a piece of celluloid? Even though [some of those love affairs] didn’t have a lasting effect [like a movie], it did have an effect on my heart, my mind, my body, and my soul.” And as enormous as her career has been, and as much of a feminist as she is, she says her “greatest accomplishment” is her son. “There is nothing like being a mother,” which she became at age 24 when she gave birth to Jason Gould, now a singer-songwriter-actor whom she calls “a wonderful, thoughtful, sensitive human being.”
At this point in her life she especially cherishes the intimate bonds in her close circle. “I have a few great friends, I have one sexual partner, I have my darling child, and I have my beautiful dog Samantha,” she told me. Then she’d mused: “When I was making Funny Girl [her breakout 1964 movie, featuring the iconic hit People, I thought it was about vulnerability, in a positive way, to say I need people with a global [largeness].” The key line was “People who need people/are the luckiest people in the world.” But now she says, “I’m wondering if I’m going in the other direction: wondering how many people we actually need.”
While her personal life may be pared down, her social reach is huge, and much of it has a feminist touch.
While her personal life may be pared down, her social reach is huge, and much of it has a feminist touch. She recently funded the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, in conjunction with a women’s heart-health program at UCLA because she was “shocked” to learn that heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined, that more women than men die of heart disease, and that heart disease diagnostics were created in the male model even though “we have a totally different microvascular system” with smaller vessels. She also has long endowed a scholar’s chair for the study of intimacy and sexuality at USC. And her Barbra Streisand Foundation supports Planned Parenthood, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Brennan Center for Justice, Mother Jones magazine, and the IAVA: American Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
Barbra Streisand is perfectly entitled to call herself lazy, to say she’s been motivated by doubt, and to talk about the movies she can’t get funding for. But she should be careful. Someone might forget that she’s supposed to be a diva.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2018.