Some deaths make you feel as if the sky that has been there all your life has disappeared. That’s how it’s been for many of us since the Tony Award-winning soprano and iconic cabaret performer Barbara Cook died Aug. 8 at age 89 from respiratory failure in Manhattan. Especially, for the LGBTQ community.
To be sure, Cook has many hetero fans. One of my earliest childhood memories is of the night in 1957 when I heard my parents humming “Till There Was You.” They’d just seen Barbara Cook, who that year on Broadway originated the role of Marian the librarian in “The Music Man.” (Cook won a Tony for the role.)
As Cook was dying her friends and fellow performers, hetero and LGBTQ, flocked to her bedside to express their love and sing for her. “We started singing and she lifted her finger up to her mouth,” singer Jessica Molaskey told the New York Times, “she tapped her lips twice and I thought she was singing with us.”
Yet Cook has a special resonance for the LGBTQ community. In 1985, as more of us were dying from and losing our friends to AIDS, I heard Cook perform, along with many other stars, with the New York Philharmonic in a concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” Listening to Cook sing “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind,” I felt as if she were singing to, for and with every LGBTQ person in the room and beyond.
Why do so many of us identify with Cook? Because like the queer community, she went through much adversity, yet after much struggle, not only survived but thrived.
Cook’s career was dazzling. She received Kennedy Center Honors from president Barack Obama in 2011. Yet her magnificent success took place against a backdrop of adversity.
Cook had a childhood from hell. When she was three, Cook had whooping cough and passed it on to her sister. After her sibling died from the illness, her mother made Cook feel as if she had, as she wrote in her memoir “Then and Now,” “killed my sister.”
After her early stellar success, Cook’s career nearly derailed as she descended into years of alcoholism. She gained huge amounts of weight. “I did a lot of good work in the theater…And then I became a drunk. I was depressed and unemployable,” Cook wrote.
Yet, Cook stopped drinking in 1977. Through her professional partnership with the late pianist and arranger, Wally Harper, she staged a comeback. She performed everywhere from the White House (in 1978) to Broadway (in 2002 in her solo act “Mostly Sondheim”) to Carnegie Hall to mark her 85th birthday.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: ‘there are no second acts in American lives,” Cook wrote in “Then and Now.” “Well, he was wrong. That’s what happened to me.”
As with other female stars such as Judy Garland, Cook had a major following in the gay community, longtime Washington, D.C. gay activist Paul Kuntzler emailed the Blade. “On a Thursday evening in April 1976, Barbara did a benefit for me at the Way-Off-Broadway, a cabaret on L Street, S.E.,” he wrote. “I was a candidate then for the D.C. Democratic Committee and a delegate candidate for the 1976 Democratic Convention.”
Kuntzler and his late partner Stephen Miller saw Cook perform at the Café Carlyle in New York. “Barbara did benefits for the gay community early on,” he told me, “she did a benefit during the Anita Bryant era when the religious right was just gearing up.”
When he saw Cook’s obituary in the Times, Kuntzler felt a profound sense of loss. Garland was great, he told me in a phone interview, “but unlike Garland, Barbara survived and thrived. I can’t think of any performer except Tony Bennett who performed so late into their life.”
Thank you, Barbara for helping us survive and thrive. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.