Sometimes the best way to tell a big story is to focus on one compelling part of a tale and use that information to paint the larger, truer picture.
Celebrity biographer William J. Mann (Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor) follows that old journalism rule to paint the Barbra Streisand portrait and, in his masterful Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, he captures one of the most fully realized pictures of the multi-hyphenate superstar to date.
Mann opts to tell the story by pinpointing a small segment of her life: the period from 1960, when the Brooklyn-born “street urchin” first landed in Manhattan bent on becoming a great actress, to 1964, when she conquered Broadway in her Tony-nominated turn in Funny Girl.
But these four formative years, Mann insists, formed the basis of the woman Streisand, now 70, would embody ever after. She sought greatness, not mere fame, Mann observes. And Streisand’s not done. She’s on an arena tour, and she opens a movie with Seth Rogan in December. Last month she extended her Top 10 streak of albums to 32. Only the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra have had more.
Mann, who claims to have been a casual fan before he embarked on writing this lengthy bio, had a daunting task. Many books have been written about Streisand but few, if any, put readers as close to the subject as Mann does. The author uses meticulous research, intelligent analysis and a gift for depicting time and place. Most previous bios focused on tabloid stories: clashes with directors and co-stars, romances with famous men, a chronological laundry list of hits and misses.
But Hello, Gorgeous delves deeper into theater, nightclubs and television in the early 1960s. Mann sets the stage to help readers understand the drive that pushed Streisand to escape a dreary existence in Brooklyn — from a mother who could not support her ambitions and a miserable stepfather — to scaling mountainous odds against her plans.
History would suggest everyone was immediately awed by Streisand’s oversize talents; actually, few wanted to give her a shot. She was no one’s first choice to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and had to fight for the part. The imperious president of Columbia Records, now Streisand’s home for 50 years, turned her down more than once.
Even when Streisand caught a break, Mann details, she still had to convince naysayers. When Streisand, 18, landed a gig at Bon Soir, a prestigious Manhattan nightclub, her mother traveled from Brooklyn to catch opening night. During a break, Streisand, clad in a chic white-lace Victorian jacket, asked her mother for her opinion.
“ ‘What did you think, Mama?’ Barbra asked.
“ ‘You were good,’ Diana told her.”
Streisand froze. Her mother paid her a compliment? She appeared on the verge of tears, Mann reveals. But Mama couldn’t resist getting in a dig. And then another.
“ ‘Now, look, your clothes. You should let the world see you sing in your nightgown?’
“ ‘But you thought I was good?’ Barbra asked.
“ ‘Yes. I thought you were good. Sometimes the voice was a little thin,’ Diana added. ‘Maybe you should see a vocal coach.’ ”
Streisand’s peculiarities were such that sharp-eyed producers realized the only way Funny Girl was going to work was if writers worked more of Streisand’s persona into the musical rather than relying on Brice’s less interesting story.
The song If a Girl Isn’t Pretty features a group of cackling hens who derisively sing of Brice’s unconventional look. Nonplussed, Streisand responds I’m the Greatest Star with gale-force conviction, willing it into being. By 1964 her fourth collection of show tunes and standards, People, dethroned the Beatles at the top of the Billboard album chart.
Mann’s conversational style makes Hello Gorgeous a brisk, compulsive read, and he leads readers to empathize with and grasp how the singing actress accomplished the impossible. Throughout this marvelous book, we witness this kooky, original, charming, infuriating, sensuous, insecure and confident mass of contradictions coalesces into one of the greatest talents of the 20th century.
Howard Cohen is a Miami Herald staff writer. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.