Jewish Literary Festival: William Mann
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
D.C. Jewish Community Center
1529 16th Street, NW
It’s an interesting time for Barbra Streisand fans.
She’s on tour and played New York last weekend (no D.C. dates scheduled).
A (sort of) new album dropped Oct. 9 called “Release Me” that collects 11 previously unreleased outtakes from various album projects going back to the beginning of her career in the early ‘60s. The faithful legion, of course, are beside themselves finally getting to hear rare cuts like her interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” and “Home” from “The Wiz.” Her MusiCares tribute concert, in which she was serenaded last year by Diana Krall, Barry Mainlow, Seal, Stevie Wonder and others, is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory Nov. 13.
But just as interesting is the new book “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand,” also released this month from gay author William J. Mann, who, in addition to several novels, has penned well-received bios on William Haines, John Schlesinger, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Mann, an iconoclast who doesn’t smash his subjects but delights in deconstructing widely parsed anecdotes of show biz folklore, zeroes in on Streisand’s early years from early 1960 (when she was 17) to the spring of ’64 by which time she had opened in the long-delayed “Funny Girl” on Broadway and recorded three platinum-selling albums for Columbia.
Mann focuses on her early years because he says “everything we think we know about her can be traced back to this seminal period … She arrived in New York in 1959 as a penniless teenager without any connections or experience. Less than five years later she was the top-selling female recording artist in the country and the star of one of Broadway’s biggest smash hits. Going in as close as I have in this book has allowed me to really shed light on how she accomplished such a feat.”
Mann’s in Washington Wednesday on his book tour at the D.C. Jewish Community Center for a 7 p.m. Streisand presentation after which he’ll sign copies of the book. During two phone chats this week, the 49-year-old author talked about the process of bringing the book — he wasn’t particularly a Streisand fan before — to fruition and how writing it compared to his mammoth Hepburn and Taylor tomes.
Mann says focusing on Streisand’s early years turned out to be an unexpected advantage. Because few of the key players are still in touch with the notoriously private and exacting legend, they felt freer, Mann says, to cooperate. He wasn’t on a mission to bash Streisand, but he did want an honest and fresh take.
“These very, very famous people really live in a bubble,” he says. “It becomes virtually impossible to get an unvarnished opinion because any colleague you talk to is going to have nothing but superlatives and that becomes very difficult. … About 90 percent of the people I spoke to didn’t continue on with her. … so they could be candid. They didn’t have to think, ‘Gee, is Barbra gonna be pissed at me, I have to work with her next month.’”
Despite calling the book “notable for its breadth of detail and fair mindedness,” biographer James Gavin writing for the New York Times said “little” of the book is new, a point Mann counters with his biggest coup — being granted the right to delve into the Jerome Robbins (the Broadway legend who worked on “Funny Girl”) papers at the New York Public Library, which had not previously been plumbed for any Streisand book and are not available to researchers (Mann got an exception through the Robbins’ estate).
And even though Streisand’s first boyfriend, Barry Dennen has written an entire book (1997’s “My Life with Barbra”) on their relationship, Mann says he got fresh material from the gay actor for “Gorgeous.”
One of Mann’s favorite experiences was visiting Phyllis Diller, who became a pal and mentor of the young Streisand during their time performing at seedy New York nightclub the Bon Soir in the early ‘60s. (Diller died in August.)
“She was such a hoot,” Mann says with a laugh. “That interview was probably the most enjoyable of the process. I got to go to her house and she was flirting and laughing. I asked her if she’d give me one of her trademark laughs and she did. I just sat there thinking, ‘I love my job.’”
Other “gets” weren’t so splashy but proved equally invaluable. Though scads of Streisand material has been released and is on YouTube, Mann says the Streisand aficionados — almost all gay — were helpful. He thinks his track record on the Hepburn and Taylor books helped open doors on several fronts.
“There’s one fan, and of course he’s made me promise never to reveal who he is, who had some really amazing stuff. There was a DVD (Streisand) was planning to put out maybe five-six years ago of all her old TV appearances but for whatever reason, it never came out. This guy had a bootleg copy of it, which was extraordinarily helpful. Another fan had some of her original contracts. Which is crazy. Who knows how they get this stuff. You’d think she’d have those herself, but somehow they had them and those were very helpful as well. And of course once you get in those fan circles, one things leads to another and another. I didn’t write it for the fans, because then you’d end up censoring it to please them, but they were a great help.”
Early signs are good.
According to Nielsen BookScan, the book has already sold about 2,000 copies. And a glowing USA Today review said Mann’s “meticulous research and insightful analysis go deeper than any previous (Streisand) biography.” Liz Smith called it “excellent.” Amazon reader feedback has been highly positive and perhaps the surest sign that the writer did his homework, there’s been nary a peep, at least so far, from the Streisand camp (she devotes a whole section of her official website to debunking what’s written about her — check out the juicy reads on her tangles with Larry Kramer over a never-made film adaptation of “The Normal Heart” she wanted to do).
At more than 500 pages, “Gorgeous” makes for a lengthy yet brisk read. Mann, who splits his time between New York and Provincetown (where he does most of his writing), is happy to engage a few questions the book inspires, one common enough that he’s written a Huffington Post piece on the topic: that is, surely it’s no coincidence that Streisand, who had several key gay men in her life very early on in her career, ended up one of the biggest gay entertainment icons of all time, right?
“It’s not a coincidence at all,” he says. “She was shaped by so many gay influences … in various ways. The way she dressed, the way she put a song across, the way she styled her songs, they way she interacted with an audience, it’s so obvious all her early mentors were gay and I believe that when those early audiences went to see her, they responded to something familiar. The way she laughed, the way she moved, her campy humor. There was something there gay men recognized and thought, ‘Oh, we can relate to this chick.’ And she was not the first one to have this happen either. It goes all the way back to Mae West and the drag queens she worked with in New York. You see it with Judy (Garland) with Roger Edens, with Joan Crawford and Billy Haines … with Madonna it was the same thing.”
And since Mann, with the Taylor and Streisand books especially, has focused on the nature of fame and how it was achieved — a dissection of the lucky breaks versus the raw material — another question occurs: given Streisand’s undeniable talent and famous drive, was her legend and success inevitable?
Mann says no.
“She would like us to think that, but no, I don’t think it was at all. I think she benefited form some really shrewed salesmanship and a degree of luck. Just the fact that there were some major parts with ‘I Can Get it For You Wholesale’ and “Funny Girl’ for unusual looking Jewish girls, she was lucky that she was there for those parts at the time they came along. Of course she’s brilliantly talented but there are lots of people who were. You hear some of these other singers from the nightclub era like Blossom Dearie or Joanna Beretta and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re every bit as good as Barbra,’ but they lacked something — either a very shrewd publicity campaign on their behalf or perhaps their own ambition … it took a terrific amount of PR to make it happen.”
Game time: Kate, Liz or Babs?
William J. Mann has written well-received bios of three of the most famous legends the 20th century produced: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and now, Barbra Streisand. At the end of an interview, Mann was game for a “lightening round” in which he considers how the three icons stack up. He had to answer each question with one of the three names.
Of the three, which had:
- the most raw talent? “Streisand”
- the most career triumphs? “Taylor”
- Was the most personally content? “Taylor”
- Whose personality evolved the most over the decades? “Hepburn”
- Which was the most fan friendly? “Taylor, by far.”
- The most private? “Streisand. Hepburn was private, but she also put things out there, although not always her true self. So I guess Streisand.”
- Whose work has best stood the test of time? “That’s kind of a draw. They all have. You look at Hepburn in a film like “Alice Adams,” which is this beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking film that totally stands up. Or Elizabeth in ‘Virginia Woolf’ and you just think, ‘Wow, nobody could have done that better.’ Or one of Barbra’s albums.”
- Which had (or has) the most ardent fans? “Streisand”
- Was the toughest to research? “I suppose Hepburn but she had just passed away so that opened some doors. The other two were alive when I was writing.” (Taylor died shortly after the Mann book came out.)
- Had the most gays in her personal life? “Taylor”
- Had the easiest path to stardom? “Taylor. It was practically handed to her.”
- The toughest? “Streisand, even though it was really fast.”
- And just for fun, any word on how Streisand or Hepburn felt about tying for the Best Actress Oscar in ’68? “They both probably hated to share it,” he says. “Hepburn made a big show of not caring about the Oscars but of course she cared a great deal. … Streisand was very gracious when she accepted (Hepburn did not attend) and said she was ‘in great company.’ It was probably unlike either of them to send the other a congratulatory note, but I don’t fully know the answer to that or whether anybody ever tried to get them together for a photo. I suspect neither of them would have been too wild about that.”
— Joey DiGuglielmo