It is hard to know where to start with My Name Is Barbra, the much reported on 1,000‑page memoir that took Barbra Streisand 10 years to complete. Most celebrity memoirs rely on a certain amount of pre-existing goodwill to shunt readers through the more banal parts. With Streisand, this principle is stretched to such a degree that by the end of the book, one is left in a state of wonder – at the accomplishments of an American icon, yes, but also at the sheer volume of detail passed on. While visualising the star in her various guises, another image came to mind as I was reading: that of an editor in an office in midtown Manhattan, quietly burying her head in her hands.
The extent to which you are able to find this endearing will probably come down to how endearing you find Streisand herself. Personally, I’m a fan. And for the first half of the book, the story races along with all the charm and energy of its protagonist. Even those familiar with the Streisand back story may startle when reminded of her improbable rise. Born in 1942 into middle-class Brooklyn, Streisand’s life was sharply altered at the age of 15 months when her father, a teacher and by all accounts a wonderful man, died suddenly of respiratory failure. The family was plunged into poverty, moved to the projects, and Streisand’s mother got remarried to a man who was cruel to her. Louis Kind ignored and belittled his stepdaughter, mocking her looks, while her mother was scarcely less abusive. Out of such conditions great stars are born.
She relates how the press described her as looking like a “Pharoah”, a “hound” and a “seasick ferret”
Streisand relates all this lightly and with good humour, while giving the impression of not wanting to linger. It is only towards the end of the book that the emotional denouement arrives and, for all the absurdity of the wait, I would suggest it’s worth it. In the meantime, there is an awful lot of fun in these pages, particularly in the book’s opening half. As a teenage singer at the Bon Soir nightclub and a few years later, in her Broadway debut in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Streisand was thoroughly confusing to critics. Gleeful in tone and breezy in delivery, she relates how the press described her during those years as looking, variously, like a “Pharoah”, a “hound” and a “seasick ferret”. “Yikes,” writes Streisand. “Was I really that odd-looking?”
The persona in this half of the book feels entirely aligned with the young Streisand’s image – chatty, funny, flippant, and eccentric – and it is in this style that the adventures unfold. Despite early bookings at the Bon Soir and other Manhattan nightclubs, the young Streisand was repeatedly told she was too unruly, too untrained, too obscure and too peculiar looking to win an agent or any serious roles. Eventually, her singing would lead her to the big time, first on Broadway and later in Hollywood, but meanwhile there were a lot of slammed doors. A delight of the book is that Streisand apparently hasn’t forgotten, or got over, any of them. Of a leading lady in a theatre company who dismissed the young Streisand, she writes, “Years later I was happy to get her a small part in the movie The Way We Were, handing out antiwar leaflets at a table across from the Plaza.” Take that, Emily Cobb, whoever you were. The late writer and director Arthur Laurents, who was vile to Streisand when he directed her in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (“You’re never going to make it,” he hissed at her one day. “Never!”) and only partially redeemed himself by writing The Way We Were for her, is never entirely forgiven. In 2011, in the midst of negotiating a sequel to that movie, Streisand writes, flatly, “he died at the age of ninety- three, with the deal still uncertain”. No RIP for Arthur!
This is a recurring theme of the book – the terrible men Streisand has dealt with over the years, from Walter Matthau and his gross bullying on Hello, Dolly! to various crew members undermining her when she became a director. It’s to her credit that she doesn’t shrink from exposing them. How do you like Mandy Patinkin, sulking his way through the entire Yentl shoot because, per Streisand’s account, he thought the two of them were going to have an affair? (She grew so irritated and repulsed by the man she literally rewrote the ending of the movie so she didn’t have to do a love scene with him.)
Or the icy misogyny of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote the short story on which Yentl was based and made a bunch of snide comments about Streisand when the movie came out? Or Nick Nolte, my god. On the set of the movie The Prince of Tides, which she directed in the early 90s, Streisand writes that she found herself obstructed by a male cinematographer and crew who refused to do as she asked and with whom Nolte, her leading man, sided. (He later apologised.) Streisand backed down, because, she writes, “I didn’t have the chutzpah. I didn’t want to be disliked.” Wryly, she adds, “I doubt that this kind of thing happens to Martin Scorsese.”
You can’t argue with the numbers. Streisand has sold 145m records and won Emmys, Oscars, Grammys and Tonys
Another thing that doesn’t happen to Martin Scorsese: Nick Nolte inviting him to sit on his lap, as he apparently did of Streisand multiple times during the shoot. “I didn’t always feel comfortable sitting on his lap,” she writes, “but if that was what he needed in order to feel safe and comfortable … then fine. I could do it.” And yet this is the person who asked Stephen Sondheim to rewrite some of his lyrics before she would condescend to sing them.
The contradictions are fascinating and rooted in the usual complexities of highly talented people who are also highly insecure. As the story rolls on and fame takes its toll, the tone of the narrative changes. “Looking back,” writes Streisand, “it was much more fun to dream of being famous than to actually be famous,” and the same might be said of the relative fun of reading about it. By the halfway mark, the brio of the early pages has started to thin into something more brittle and manic and Streisand, inevitably, has grown gushier. Endless pages of encounters with other famous people go by – the Clintons; Shimon Peres; Prince, now King Charles (he sends her organic oat biscuits from his Duchy Originals range) – along with every compliment they gave her.What rescues the story from a collapse into tedium is the startling character study of Streisand herself – a woman who can’t let go of anything, ever. She writes about her fight to restore three cut scenes to The Way We Were, decades after its release, with the urgency of someone quelling a fire. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that people are now going to be able to see this film the way it was originally conceived. It’s only taken fifty years, but my dream has finally come true!” Ditto her re-edit on A Star is Born, her 1976 movie with Kris Kristofferson, which, she writes, she kept reworking and reworking so close to the deadline that, “Netflix practically ripped [it] out of my hands.”
But you can’t argue with the numbers. Streisand has sold 145m records worldwide and won Emmys, Oscars, Grammys and Tonys. Still, before every live performance, she writes: “I always think nobody is going to show up.” This is the echo of her childhood, and I believe her. She writes that for the majority of her life she has never really been happy, and I believe that, too. In late middle age, she has a sudden realisation; that nothing about her mother was “normal”.
And here it comes, the reckoning, to moving effect. Streisand rakes over Diana Kind’s worst outbursts, the way she screamed at her daughter, missed her opening nights, put her down and undermined her. In one extraordinary story, Streisand recalls that, early on in her career, her mother used to cut out negative press cuttings and mail them to her. “I called her up one day and said, ‘Mom, why do you send me these things? Do you want to make me feel bad? Please don’t send me these articles. I can’t take you hurting me anymore.’ After a long pause, and for the first time in my life, she said, ‘I’m sorry. I won’t do that again.’” It takes more than 800 pages, but Streisand eventually makes some kind of peace with the fact that this damaged, abusive woman loved her as best as she could.
You root for her. When she meets the actor James Brolin and gets married at the age of 56, you cheer. Between the lines, and despite the book’s length, you can see the outline of various stories untold – there’s not much in the book about her son, Jason, for example. But at heart this is a story so bursting with life, fury, unbelievable ambition and food (Streisand loves to eat) that you come away from it exhausted but smiling. “I was always an odd duck,” writes Streisand. “And I wanted to make it on my own terms. I didn’t want to change and pretend to be someone else.” She hardly needs more praise at this point, but hear hear!
• My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand is published by Century (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.