It was time to get serious again. That’s what Barbra was telling her new friend Bob Schulenberg as they strolled through Times Square. She was pointing up at the marquees—Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker at the Playhouse Theatre and Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie at the Martin Beck—and wishing her name was up in those lights. This was where she wanted to be, not in some little club on the first floor of a brownstone in the Village.
Bob seemed to understand her like no one else did. He was so different from Barré, who in his push for Barbra to sing seemed to have forgotten that what she really wanted to do was act. In fact, Barré had seemed to forget her entirely of late. He’d been spending most of his time up in Central Park, where Henry V had opened on June 29. Barbra felt his absence keenly, especially since most nights she had to trek back to Brooklyn and stay with her mother if she wanted a roof over her head. She had never been very good at playing second fiddle, even to William Shakespeare.
That summer day, she was lonely and feeling not a little bit insecure, her friends believed. Here she had given herself to a man she thought truly loved her, and now suddenly he was gone for long stretches at a time. Her fears weren’t difficult to understand. The knowledge of Barré’s bisexuality “was always there in the back of her mind,” said one friend. When he wasn’t with her, Barbra wondered, where was he?
One friend also believed that a certain amount of professional jealousy had bubbled to the surface. When the Times review came out the day after Henry V opened, Barré had been ecstatic to see he’d gotten a mention. Critic Arthur Gelb had felt that Barré’s scene was “as funny as Shakespeare intended.” Getting his name in the New York Times was thrilling—and even the omission of the accent aigu hadn’t dampened his excitement. Of course Barbra was happy for him. But it wasn’t long after this that she resolved “to once again get serious about her own acting career,” her friend observed.
And no one seemed to encourage her as much as Bob did. He was an old friend of Barré’s whom Barbra had met late one night just after he’d arrived in New York from Los Angeles. Bob was staying with Barré until he could find a place of his own. He was a good-looking young man who, when Barbra first met him, was wearing a conservative suit and glasses. But when he’d looked at Barbra’s outfit, he’d revealed a rather eclectic interest in fashion. “Are those authentic T-strap shoes?” he had asked with excitement.
Barbra had smiled and told him that they were indeed. Bob adored the shoes, as well as Barbra’s knee-length velvet skirt of mulberry violet and her pink nylons. “Who knew there were pink nylons!” Bob exclaimed. Heading over to the Pam Pam, an all-night diner on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, the three of them had talked until nearly dawn about clothes, theater, and ambition. Bob was an artist; his tattered sketchbook was rarely out of his hands. He’d come to New York to be an illustrator, though in the interim he was paying his bills by working for the advertising agency Ellington & Co. at their Fifth Avenue offices. Like Terry, Bob was an artist stuck, for the moment anyway, in a nine-to-five job.
Yet it was precisely that nine-to-five schedule that allowed Bob to spend more time with Barbra lately than Barré was. And now that Bob had found his own apartment on Gay Street, Barbra found it easier to store her clothes at his place than at Barré’s, since she never knew when Barré would be home. The sequined skirts sparkling next to Bob’s tweed jackets had led more than one of his friends to inquire jokingly if he’d become a transvestite since moving to New York. “No, just the friend of a girl who’s going to be a big star,” he would reply. Barbra, of course, was enchanted.
A measure of relief washed over Barbra. She’d been asked by Curt Conway to take over the part of Hortense the French maid in The Boy Friend, slated for the following month at the Cecilwood Playhouse, the Theatre Studio’s summer theater in Fishkill, New York. To be chosen to perform at the Cecilwood was quite an honor. Although all Theatre Studio members were eligible, no student was “promised participation as a condition of his training.” Barbra was ecstatic that her teachers seemed finally to be recognizing her talent and hard work.
But before she did anything else, she had to see Barré in Henry V. For weeks she’d been saying that she would and now it was Saturday, July 16, closing night. Although Shakespeare Festival productions were free, Barré had arranged for Barbra and Bob to be given special house seats up close to the stage. He desperately wanted Barbra to see his “first real moment of triumph on stage.” Scoping out the sight lines, Barré had assured himself that his ladylove would be able to view him perfectly.
For the occasion, Bob was giving Barbra a whole new look. At her temporary house-sitting digs on West Fifty-fourth Street, Bob painstakingly glued false eyelashes to Barbra’s lids, extending them around to the sides of her face the way Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn had popularized in the 1930s. From studying photographs of movie stars, Bob knew it wasn’t the length of a woman’s eyelashes that made them beautiful, but the thickness. So he cut a second pair of lashes very short and glued them just above the first pair, providing the fullness Barbra’s eyes needed to really pop out.
This wasn’t the first time Bob had experimented with different looks for Barbra. When they went out on the town, he sometimes glued sequins to her eyelids, a trick he’d learned designing Ice Capades shows at UCLA. Another time, while having herring for dinner, they’d both admired the fluorescent skin of the fish and wondered if it might work better than the sequins. So they tried cutting it up with the idea of gluing it to Barbra’s eyes, but the skin stunk so much that they soaked it in perfume overnight. In the morning all the color was gone. They stuck with the sequins.
Another night, on a whim, Bob had told Barbra to pick out everything she had in red. Out came a knit dress, a belt, shoes, and a cloche hat. Sitting Barbra down in front of a mirror, Bob applied her makeup in similar shades of red. Not just her lips and cheeks, but also her eyelids, which “made it seem as if red was her natural color,” Bob said. The whole look was finished off with a classic black trench coat.
Of course, such glamour needed to be shared, Bob declared. Even though it was close to midnight, they ambled over to the all-night Brasserie in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Along the way, people stopped and stared at the woman in red with the gorgeous legs, long neck, and tiny waist. At the brightly lit Brasserie, the usual clientele of artists and sophisticates cast their eyes in Barbra’s direction as she sauntered in, dramatically flung her coat over a chair, and ordered choucroute garnie—sauerkraut with sausages and potatoes. A man came by the table and told her he’d loved her at the Lion. He asked her to sign his napkin. Barbra was thrilled. Bob, she felt, was turning her into a star.
At long last people were seeing her as she’d always believed she should be seen. Bob was bringing out an inner beauty that even Barbra hadn’t suspected was there. When Bob had first turned her around in her chair to face the mirror, she’d found herself liking what she saw reflected there. No Method acting was required, no exercise in self-persuasion. She honestly saw how beautiful she could be, and the sensation was intoxicating.
In the last couple of weeks, Barbra and Bob had grown very close. Barbra sensed her new friend had something more in common with Barré than just their years together at UCLA. Bob eventually admitted that he, too, was gay to Barbra, though, like Barré, he wasn’t fully open about it yet; telling friends back in L.A. that he lived on Gay Street in Greenwich Village was never easy for him. As she did with Barré, Barbra accepted the information placidly, though she rarely brought it up.
Bob found that, free of the kind of sexual tension that existed between Barbra and Barré, he could take real pleasure in shaping his protégée, who was making remarkable progress. Not so long ago, he wouldn’t have risked taking Barbra to the Brasserie. When he’d first met her, she didn’t have what he called “restaurant smarts.” The napkin never went into her lap, for example; instead, Barbra would clumsily set her plate on top of it. If a vegetable was unrecognizable, she’d pick it up and dangle it across the table between her long fingernails to ask Bob what it was. Horrified, Bob realized that Barbra’s mother had never taught her the fine points of etiquette that had been so meticulously imparted to him. But instead of embarrassing Barbra by alerting her to her mistakes, he just made sure that she saw everything he did, from putting his napkin in his lap to keeping his elbows off the table. It was difficult, Barbra admitted, training herself “to keep one hand” in her lap. But eventually, to Bob’s great admiration, she caught on.
This night their outing was supposed to be very simple. No restaurants, no nightclubs, no particular etiquette. Just a trip to Central Park to see Barré’s show. Still, Bob wanted Barbra to look striking. He dressed her in a black turtleneck and black Danskin tights under a black cardigan. He applied her makeup in shades of ash and gray. It took time to get her look just right. Bob would step back and look at his creation, who would sometimes turn to catch glimpses of herself in the mirror. “Patience,” he’d tell her, and Barbra would giggle in anticipation. She was never happier than when a man was fussing over her. A little more blush, Bob decided, then another layer of mascara.
Meanwhile, the hands on the clock behind them continued to turn. Neither of them noticed the time, or at least neither of them commented on it.
Uptown in Central Park, however, Barré did notice the time. It surprised him how much it mattered that Barbra see him in this play. Maybe it was because of all the time he’d spent preparing her for the Lion, and he wanted some acknowledgment, some support, in return. Barbra always seemed so indifferent to Barré’s own work, his own goals. As showtime neared, he kept peeking out to see if she and Bob were there yet. As the curtain went up, their seats were still empty.
It was a warm evening. Temperatures had reached eighty degrees that day, with humidity near seventy percent. People sat on the grass that surrounded the stage fanning themselves with their programs. The sun was dropping lower in the sky, turning the waters of Belvedere Lake pink. By the time Barré made his entrance in the second act, long blue shadows had stretched across the park. Taking “a quick gander” out at the audience, he could see through the dusky night that the house seats he’d reserved for Barbra and Bob were filled. Barbra must be there watching him, Barré thought. He felt that he played his scene better than ever that night and that the applause went on even longer than usual.
But when the play was finished and the footlights went out, he realized he didn’t recognize the two people in the house seats. Barbra and Bob must have been too late, Barré realized, and their seats had been given away. Scanning the crowd, he spotted his errant friends hurrying toward the stage, “fighting their way upstream against the exiting crowd” as if they had just arrived.
As Barbra neared him, Barré asked her, “You just got here?”
“Uh, yeah,” she admitted.
Bob stepped up, blaming their lateness on the subway and on how long it had taken him to get Barbra’s clothes and makeup just right. “But she looks great, though, Barré,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
Yes, Barré thought to himself, she did look great. And looking great, he realized, had meant more to her than making it to his show on time. This show was the first thing he had done in New York “that had made any kind of a dent,” he kept repeating to himself, “and she couldn’t be bothered to come.”
Unable to speak, he stood there “chewing on his fury.” Meanwhile Bob kept up a running commentary in Barbra’s ear about all the people who were admiring her. “There’s a handsome man across the way staring at you,” he whispered. “And another one over there. Look away. Look bored.”
And Barbra, sweltering in her black turtleneck, did just that.
Not long after, a contrite little girl knocked at Barré’s door.
She didn’t apologize—Barbra rarely said she was sorry—but she was clearly wrestling with guilt. Barré let her in. She seemed scared, unsure of herself. The insecurities she usually kept so well hidden were suddenly bubbling up into view. She seemed to need to talk. So Barré let her ramble.
She felt farblunget, she said. “All mixed up.” The owner of the Lion, Ernie Sgroi, had persuaded his father, the proprietor of the Bon Soir, one of the most important nightclubs in the Village, to give her an audition. But did Barbra really want to keep singing for a living? Would it take away from learning her part for The Boy Friend, which required a French accent? Pacing around Barré’s apartment, Barbra was confused, indecisive, and a little bit teary—a far cry from the poised creature in black who’d swaggered across the grass of Central Park just a few days earlier.
But it wasn’t just her career that left her feeling farblunget, Barré sensed. Barbra’s head was filled with thoughts, she said, and her tinnitus was ringing in her ears. She’d taken Barré’s absence during the last few weeks of Henry V very personally. He knew that, but he couldn’t decide whether Barbra’s state of mind reflected the genuine feelings she had for him or just the narcissism he’d come to recognize in her,
Others, however, were inclined to be more sympathetic. Bob had come to believe that Barbra was “very much in love with Barré.” Another friend thought Barbra’s guilt over missing Barré’s show had made her realize “how much she cared about him and how much she didn’t want to lose him.” After all, Barré was Barbra’s first lover, which was a powerful connection for an inexperienced eighteen-year-old girl. She had come back to Barré now with as much humility and contrition as she could muster—never much in Barbra’s case—but the fact that she was there at all spoke volumes.
She also needed him. She had the Bon Soir audition to prepare for.
Barré took her in his arms. He blamed Bob for “seducing” her into missing the show. Barbra had been “carried away” by her new friend, Barré believed, spellbound by the way Bob could transform her from an ugly duckling into a swan. So, sitting her down on the couch, he reassured her that he was still committed to helping her in any way he could. That seemed to make her relax, and for the rest of the afternoon they snuggled on the couch, practicing the French accent she was going to need for The Boy Friend.
But something else was bothering her. It may have been that day, or one very much like it, that Barbra announced she wanted to have her nose fixed. Having had a taste of what being beautiful felt like, she seemed hungry for more. All she would need to do, Barbra believed, was “change the tilt . . . and take off a little bit.” The bump in the center of her nose, she said, would be left intact because Bob had told her if she changed too much of her nose, she’d have to change her chin, too. Besides, she “loved her bump,” she said. Her nose was her father’s nose. When she thought about changing it, she felt disloyal.
Barré told her that she shouldn’t change a thing, that she was perfect as she was. No doubt that’s what she wanted to hear. It’s what Bob had told her too, but no doubt she really wanted to hear it from Barré. Cuddling next to him on the couch, she wanted very much for their relationship to work out. By the middle part of the summer of 1960, all of their friends knew that Barbra had fallen deeply in love with Barré. And not a few of them wondered if that was really such a good thing.
Walking back from lunch with his sister, Sheldon Streisand told Barbra to walk a few feet behind him. He was joking, but the runs in the backs of her stockings did embarrass him. Never one to take jokes at her expense very kindly, Barbra bristled. “They’re not ripped in front and I don’t see them in back, so they don’t bother me,” she told her brother, and walked on ahead of him defiantly.
For a girl who was usually so fastidious about her appearance, the runs in her stockings bespoke just how strapped for cash she was that summer. The money from the Lion was over, and The Boy Friend was still weeks away. Sheldon had come to her rescue, securing her a job at the ad agency he worked for, Ben Sackheim, Inc. But Barbra could take only so much of his help. When Sheldon offered to buy her a new pair of stockings, Barbra adamantly refused. She was already in debt to her brother enough as it was, and being in debt to Shelly was too close to being in debt to her mother.
With a halfhearted gait, Barbra trooped back up the steps of the Plaza Hotel at Central Park and Fifth Avenue, where Sackheim had its offices. Stepping into the elevator, Barbra was well aware that Shelly shared their mother’s concerns that she’d never make good. To a coworker, he called his sister “uncontrollable.” The two siblings, so far apart in age, had little in common. They probably exchanged few words as they rode the elevator back up to the twenty-first floor. There, Shelly went one way, heading back to his office, where he worked as an art director, and Barbra went the other way, trudging glumly to the front desk. She’d been put in charge of the switchboard for two weeks, replacing the regular operator who was out on vacation. To alleviate the boredom, Barbra often answered the phone using different accents, usually French, practicing for The Boy Friend—a way, she said, to keep her “acting alive.”
It may have been that day, or one very similar (they all blurred together for Barbra anyway), that Shelly suddenly reappeared over her shoulder and told her there was a problem. Barbra, it seemed, was keeping callers on the line so long, rattling on in all her “made-up foreign languages,”that Sackheim employees couldn’t get calls in or out. And if the problem wasn’t her practicing accents, it was her penchant to gab with Bob, who was always amused by Barbra’s inept mastery of the switchboard. Never entirely sure which person’s extension was which, Barbra would be gabbing away with Bob when she’d suddenly announce that one of her lights was flashing. Bob would eavesdrop as she’d say, “Good afternoon, Ben Sackheim agency” and then connect the caller as best she could—a process she often got wrong, plugging people together who hadn’t called each other. Many times Bob listened in as Sackheim employees ordered lunch from a nearby deli, covering his mouth to muffle his laughter as the deli’s return call got routed to a person who insisted that, no, absolutely no, he had not ordered herring for lunch. Dissolving in laughter at his office fourteen blocks downtown, Bob couldn’t help but imagine Barbra playing the tangled-up switchboard scene from Auntie Mame.
They had become regular events, these little concerts in Barré’s apartment. Barré would arrange and orchestrate Barbra’s numbers, and Bob would do her makeup. Carole Gister sat among the usual UCLA clique in the living room, waiting for the show to begin. Barbra was on a stool in the kitchen, where Bob was touching up her lipstick. Carole understood these concerts were dry runs for Barbra’s upcoming gig at the Bon Soir. The shy little runaway had certainly blossomed, Carole thought.
At her audition, Barbra had wowed Ernie Sgroi Sr. The Bon Soir was the closest the Village came to a posh supper club, the “Greenwich Village version of uptown Blue Angel,” according to Variety. The New York World-Telegram called the venue “one of the lead funspots” in the Village, a “yock-laden place” given the number of comedy acts that alternated with the torch singers and jazz artists. Every night patrons would line up down the block from the Bon Soir’s front door. Downstairs in the club’s dark interior, regular joes rubbed shoulders with celebrities. Frequent headliner Kaye Ballard never knew who she might spot sitting in her audience. Sometimes it was Gregory Peck, other times it was Marlene Dietrich. Shows at the Bon Soir generated a real buzz, with patrons often returning two or three nights in a row.
For her audition, Barbra had brought along Barré, Bob, and Burke McHugh to provide support. Not surprisingly, she’d sung “A Sleepin’ Bee,” since all the arrangements had already been worked out. It was the first time Bob had ever heard Barbra sing. He was so impressed, so moved, that when they all decamped afterward to the Pam Pam for French fries and coleslaw, he’d been unable to speak.
Sgroi had been equally impressed, but he’d wanted to make sure this ambitious little tyro could actually work an audience. So he’d told Barbra to come back that night, where he’d slip her in as a “surprise guest” on the bill. In between numbers by comedian Larry Storch and the jazz trio the Three Flames, Barbra came out on stage to sing “A Sleepin’ Bee” as well as one other song, a new orchestration that she and Barré had worked out. It was a strange, whimsical choice, and it was this song that she came out of the kitchen singing at her little concert in Barré’s apartment. Carole Gister and the rest of the UCLA contingent were stunned. The song on Barbra’s lips was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from the Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs.
It had started as a joke. One day while rehearsing for the Bon Soir audition, Barbra had said she “wanted to do something completely wrong” and out of place for the “sophisticated, posh little nightclub.” Sophistication “annoyed” her, she told Barré. She felt like going in there and singing “a nursery rhyme or something.”
A bell went off in Barré’s head. He knew part of the reason Sgroi Jr. had recommended Barbra to his father was her irreverent style. So he located the sheet music for “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” in an old record shop, brought it home, and was stunned by how “double-entendre” the lyrics were. Barbra would sing them just as they were written, he decided, but with a little of her own razzmatazz.
That razzmatazz was evident from the moment she stepped onto the stage the night of her surprise tryout at the Bon Soir. As soon as the spotlight was on her, Barbra removed the gum she’d been chewing and stuck it on the microphone. It was something she often did during practice, and both Barré and Bob had suggested she keep it in the act. As they predicted, the audience howled with laughter. Barbra would tell people she’d forgotten the gum was in her mouth, but that, too, was part of the act, part of the saucy, impertinent stage persona they were developing. So when she capped her set with her sexy rendition of “Big Bad Wolf,” the cheers went through the roof. “Kid, you are going to be a very great star,” headliner Larry Storch told Barbra. Right on the spot, Sgroi hired her for a two-week run starting September 9 at $108 a week.
For the crowd in Barré’s apartment, “Big Bad Wolf” went over just as well. Barbra bounded throughout the living room, looking into the faces of each person present, trilling lots of tra-la-las and rolling her r’s. “Forrrr the big bad, very big, very bad wolf, they did not give three figs!” Her voice was full and rich and utterly confident. But after she was finished and her friends all applauded, she covered her face with her hands and blushed a deep scarlet.
She was uncomfortable with their acclaim. Singing just came too damn easy. “It just seems the right sounds come out of me in the right way,” she said. Barré thought singing came so effortlessly for her that Barbra “didn’t consider it valuable.” At the end of the night, as people filed out of the apartment praising her voice as a “gift from God,” Barbra’s attitude in response was “Well, yeah, but that’s not what’s important.” Her voice wasn’t anything that she had worked on or studied for. To become an actress, she’d worked very, very hard, harder than she’d ever worked for anything else. But when she sang, Barré said, it was as if she were “on automatic pilot.”
He remained convinced her voice was her ticket to the top, however, and he tried to persuade her of the same. She wanted to be successful, didn’t she? She wanted to find a way to beat all those agents who wouldn’t take her on at their own game, didn’t she? She wanted the whole world to know who she was, didn’t she?
Barré pulled her close to him on the couch and kissed her forehead. “When you make your first record, promise you’ll let me produce it.” She nodded against his chest. “Promise?” he asked again, lifting her chin so he could look her in the eyes.
She returned his smile. “Cross my heart,” she said.
Transistor radios all over the city were blaring the summer’s number one hit “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” as Barbra lugged the last of her stuff out of Fifty-fourth Street and downtown to Barré’s via the hot and sweaty subway. Likely this was one of the times she dreamed about a future as a successful actress being “chauffeured around” the city. But for now, Barbra hauled her bags herself across the stifling subway platform then up the grimy steps to Sheridan Square.
By now, the concierge of Barré’s building knew her; the guy who ran the elevator greeted her by name. Since returning to Manhattan from her two-week run in The Boy Friend, Barbra had been living with Barré. His friends now officially considered them a couple. The only person who didn’t know they were together was Barbra’s mother, who thought Barbra was living with a girlfriend. But Cis was pleased to see Barbra looking and acting so happy for a change, even if, as was Barbra’s custom, she kept most of her friends separate from each other. Barré had met Cis only once, briefly at the Lion, despite Barbra’s describing her as her “best friend.”
The Boy Friend had enjoyed a good run. Audiences had applauded heartily for Barbra as Hortense, even if one of the other members of the company had quipped that if Hortense’s accent was French, it was “French from the moon.” Hortense had one number in the show, “Nicer in Nice,” which everyone agreed Barbra sang humorously and energetically. But in her spare time she could be heard out back practicing “A Sleepin’ Bee.” She’d come to understand that the Bon Soir gig was vitally important. Barré might pontificate about her voice being her ticket to fame, but Barbra saw other reasons to anticipate her appearance at the Bon Soir. She knew that some of the city’s most influential columnists were likely to be in the audience. A blurb from one of them would be extremely helpful in getting casting directors to take her seriously for parts on Broadway.
She’d had fun playing Hortense—she was an actress, after all, and needed to act—but Barbra was glad to be back in the city, gladder still to be back with Barré, hunkered down in their intimate little practice sessions. Barbra loved Barré’s apartment, loved calling it home even more. Even if she could have decorated it herself, she wouldn’t have changed a thing. The place evoked a nostalgia for past decades, especially the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties. Theatrical posters hung on the walls; a ventriloquist’s dummy was propped in a corner. Bookshelves were crammed full with old volumes and record albums, ornamented with fans and feathers. In the evenings, Tiffany lamps cast a soft amber glow over everything. Sitting cross-legged on the slipcovered Victorian couch, happily ensconced among Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Barbra seemed more at home here than she ever had anywhere else.
The summer was rapidly drawing to a close. More sunshine than people filled the Village streets, the usual throngs having decamped to Jones Beach or Fire Island for the long Labor Day weekend. But for Barbra and Barré, there was no such holiday. Less than a week stretched between them and Barbra’s opening at the Bon Soir. As they settled down in their living room for some last-minute polishing, they both hoped Barbra hadn’t forgotten too much during her two-week sojourn in Fishkill. Setting the needle down on the phonograph, Barré began singing the words to a song they’d been practicing almost nonstop since Barbra had returned, “Lover, Come Back to Me.” It was a Sigmund Romberg ballad from the operetta The New Moon, the same show from which Diana had chosen “One Kiss” when she and Barbra had made their records at the Nola Recording Studio. The words to “Lover, Come Back to Me” were simple, but one line had continually given Barbra trouble, leaving her tongue-tied: “When I remember every little thing you used to do . . .”
Maybe it was the idea of remembering things that tripped her up. Barbra rarely looked back and kept her eyes securely on the future. Whatever it was, the line always stopped her cold, and she developed what Barré called a “psychological block.” She insisted that she wanted to scrap the song from the act, but Barré argued it was too good to cut. They’d given it a faster beat, and when she got going on it, Barbra could drive the song “like a freight train,” Barré told her.
So he’d suggested that she not worry so much about the words. When she started to sing, he advised, she should think about his wet socks hanging in the bathroom, one of his habits that had driven her crazy since moving in. Smiling, Barbra agreed to give the technique a try. Now, as she sang along with Barré, she nailed it. They both let out whoops of triumph when they were finished.
Up went the needle and another disk dropped onto the turntable. This time it was “Nobody’s Heart” from the Rodgers and Hart musical By Jupiter. In the show, the song was sung by the tomboyish Amazon warrior Antiope, a misfit in the world of men: “Nobody’s heart belongs to me, heigh ho, who cares?” The emotion behind the words, Barré believed, came from the misery of lyricist Lorenz Hart’s own unhappy existence as a repressed gay man. Barré suggested that Barbra perform it very personally in order to make people believe she was singing about herself: “Nobody’s arms belong to me, no arms feel strong to me.” The irony was that for the first time in her life, Barbra felt loved by a man. But she understood all too well what loneliness felt like—and she’d benefit if waves of sympathy came at her from the audience, Barré argued. The misfit girl who wants to be loved had always been a successful character on stage and in movies.
Any pathos in Barbra’s stage presence, however, needed to be quickly offset by an even stronger sense of resilience and grit, and the next record that dropped onto Barré’s phonograph offered the necessary balance. By now Barbra had become very familiar with the Bronx-accented voice of Helen Kane, a popular singer of the Roaring Twenties and the inspiration for the cartoon character Betty Boop. As soon as she recognized Kane’s music, Barbra wrapped one of Barré’s feathered boas around her shoulders and started to sing along with the record: “I wanna be kissed by you, just you, and nobody else but you, I wanna be kissed by you, alone . . . boop boop a doop!”
But as he listened to her sing it, Barré nixed the song. It might have made a fun little addition to Barbra’s act, he said, but it was “too well-known to be surprising” and would probably just sound “camp and precious” if Barbra sang it at the Bon Soir. So they settled on a less familiar Kane tune, “I Want to Be Bad.” Rehearsing the song that Labor Day weekend, Barbra was the perfect reincarnation of Kane, a mix of sex and silliness with an overlay of New York character: “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, shake your shoulders and shake your hips, let a lady confess, ‘I want to be bad!’” When she finished singing, Barbra took her bows to her enthusiastic audience of one.
But the most important lady that Barré kept playing for Barbra that weekend was one who had no song in the Bon Soir lineup. From the phonograph came the creaky voice of Gertrude Lawrence, the eccentric musical-comedy star of the 1920s and 1930s, singing the songs of Cole Porter. When Barbra had first heard Lawrence, her reaction had been similar to her opinion of Mabel Mercer: “She can’t sing.” But as he had done the night at the Roundtable, Barré told her to listen to Lawrence’s voice “through the squeaks and the faulty pitch.” What they were working on was style and presence. Gertrude Lawrence was the “quintessence of vulnerability,” Barré explained, who, despite her less-than-mellifluent voice and rather plain appearance, made “every man in the audience think she was singing only to him.” Barbra asked how she was able to do that. “It’s called acting,” Barré told her.
During that summer of 1960, Barbra came to understand that when she sang a song, she was as much an actress as a singer. “If I can identify as an actress to the lyric and sail on the melody,” she realized, “it will be me.” The actual singing came easy. But the emotional backstory that went into the song required all the skills she’d been sharpening for the past two years at the Theatre Studio. So “Lover, Come Back to Me” became a miniature play about a woman who wanted to hang on to the love of her life, “Nobody’s Heart” the story of a homely girl who’s never known love, and “I Want to Be Bad” the chronicle of a girl finally set loose on her own to live her life as she pleased. All of them were aspects of herself, and Barré told her to make sure her audience saw that.
No doubt somewhere in that cluttered apartment there was a clip of the August 21 edition of Flatbush Life, a Brooklyn newspaper that her mother had saved for her. Cranking out press releases for The Boy Friend, the Theatre Studio had made sure one of them reached the city desk of Barbra’s hometown paper. The photo of herself that looked up at Barbra was one she had come to despise—with her rather pretentious dangling earrings and her hair piled up on her head. But the headline compensated for any disdain for the photo: FLATBUSH ACTRESS HEADS FOR STARDOM. The article, probably lifted verbatim from the press release, noted her work on stage in The Insect Comedy and The Boy Friend, as well as her upcoming appearance at the Bon Soir. If Barbra needed any affirmation—and occasionally, despite her fervent belief in herself, she did—there it was, spelled out in black and white. Barbra Streisand was “headed for stardom.”
Barré and Barbra had taken a break from their rehearsals and were sharing a BLT when the intercom buzzed. It was Bob, and Barré told him to come up. When Bob entered the apartment, he saw Barbra nibbling on the sandwich while Barré still held it in his hands. On the phonograph floated the strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s elegant piece for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Walking into this happy little love nest, Bob was unprepared for what he was about to discover. “Hey, Bob,” Barbra purred. “Guess what?”
“What?” he asked.
“Barré and I are talking about getting married.”
Bob was stunned. Barré and Barbra as a married couple was a concept he had a hard time “getting his head around.” Carole Gister, when she heard the news a short time later, had a similar reaction. For all his claims of bisexuality, Barré was essentially attracted to men, and both Bob and Carole knew it. They thought Barbra did as well. “They’re going to have to work very, very hard to make a marriage between them succeed,” Bob thought to himself.
Yet he dared not articulate such misgivings to the dreamy-eyed lovebirds who sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, eating from both ends of a BLT, the hypnotic sound of the violin from The Lark Ascending wafting through the living room.
A bit of a heat wave had settled over the city on the night of Friday, September 9. Temperatures that day had reached the high eighties and hadn’t dropped much since the sun had set. Summer wasn’t quite ready to release its grip on the city. Yet there was a sense that things were about to change. At that very moment, Hurricane Donna was lashing the Florida Keys, on target to swipe the entire eastern seaboard in the next few days. She’d bring torrential rain, massive flooding, and powerful gusts.
But Hurricane Donna wasn’t the only thing about to hit New York.
With careful steps in her white buckled shoes, Barbra headed out of her apartment and onto Sixth Avenue, Barré and Bob in tow. For her debut at the Bon Soir, she wore a long black dress under a Persian vest of silk brocade that Terry had found for her in a boutique on Ninth Avenue. Female nightclub performers were expected to wear evening gowns, she’d been told, but both Barré and Bob had felt that Barbra needed to dress to make a statement, to assert the quirky individuality that had set her apart at the Lion. So she buttoned herself into the vest and slipped into the 1920s-era shoes with the big buckles. Her eyes were ringed with Bob’s signature two rows of false eyelashes, and her cheeks and lips were painted in homage to Helen Kane and other ladies of the period.
The decade they’d just completed, all three agreed, had been dull and boring. “The twenties and thirties were where the real excitement was,” Bob insisted, and they hoped the sixties might have a little of those earlier decades’ style and polish. With Barbra’s closet full of vintage clothing and shoes, Bob’s assortment of old fashion magazines, and Barré’s collection of classic recordings, they’d been able to evoke the glamour of the past while making it all seem fresh and new. Barbra had slipped into the persona of a saucy Roaring Twenties chanteuse as easily as she had that vintage black dress. As Barré lugged his heavy Ampex tape recorder behind her, the onetime misfit from Brooklyn strode confidently through the streets of Greenwich Village, looking as if she’d just stepped out of the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, circa 1925.
The Village was teeming with eccentric, creative types like Barbra who dressed in fashions that, to the rest of the world, seemed outré, but here along these crooked and narrow streets were deemed trendsetting and cutting-edge. The Village was in the midst of a cultural renaissance, or so claimed the New York Times, “once again throbbing with talent” in a way not seen since the post–World War I era of the Provincetown Players. “Box offices are busy,” columnist Dorothy Kilgallen noted as the season got underway. “Taxis are spinning around Manhattan full of people pleasure bent.”
Many of those taxis were heading to the Village, where this new phenomenon called “off-off-Broadway” was coalescing. No longer was theater the sole province of Midtown. Now it could be found “tucked behind a façade of food and drink,” one critic remarked, a popular alternative due to “the felicitous marriage of the muse and booze.” And while clubs like the Bon Soir had been around for a long time, with some insisting they were past their primes, the new energy flowing into the Village signaled a “rebirth,” a sense of “florescence” that Barré believed was centered in the supper clubs. To Barré, it all seemed a replay of the glory days of André Charlot’s revues of forty years earlier, when Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, or Jessie Matthews sang the songs of Noël Coward.
What was more, the young performers dancing and singing in revues across Village stages were exceptionally talented, people such as Beatrice Arthur, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Dody Goodman. One could wander through Village cabarets and catch a young actor named George Segal playing tunes from the 1920s on a banjo, or a sarcastic comedian named Joan Rivers (who’d played with Barbra in that attic production of Driftwood) kvetching about men, or an amiable Englishman named Dudley Moore playing the piano downstairs at the Duplex. All of them were in this together, Barré believed, and any one of them had as good a chance as any other of becoming a star in the fertile proving ground of the Village.
Rounding the corner onto Eighth Street, Barbra and her boys found themselves in front of the Bon Soir. Down the thirty-one steep steps they went, Barbra slowly and deliberately in her high heels. It seemed as if they were descending into a pit of darkness, for the only light flickering below came from a single shaded bulb over the cash register. The walls of the Bon Soir were painted jet black. People in the club moved as if they were shadows.
Terry was there to greet her, throwing his arms around her and finding her “a bundle of anxious energy.” She had reason to be anxious. Entertainers in nightclubs faced challenges unthinkable elsewhere. “Customers who jam the darkened, smoky rooms to eat and drink up their $3 to $7 minimums,” the Times observed, “have a tendency to grow sulky if their funny bones are not tickled or their heartstrings tweaked at the rate of at least once every twenty seconds.” When the pace lagged, hecklers took up the slack.
At the Bon Soir, Barbra had awfully big shoes to fill. Here in this small, dark club—a “refreshing blend of Greenwich Village bohemianism and East Side smartness and sophistication,” one critic thought—some of the most exciting acts of the last decade had made their marks, many of them the “far-out females” for which the Bon Soir was famous. The cheeky ladies who played the club broke all the rules. The boisterous Mae Barnes, whose records Barré had played for Barbra, had become a sensation at the Bon Soir after dancing in all-black revues in Harlem. The brash-talking Sylvia Syms, who’d polished her bluesy style under Billie Holiday, had blown the roof off the joint a few years earlier, and Felicia Sanders, who made “Fly Me to the Moon” a standard well before Sinatra, regularly had patrons lined up out to the curb. The Bon Soir was a particularly good space for female performers, singer-actress Kaye Ballard thought, because of its small, intimate shape, but also because of “all the gay guys” who regularly patronized the club.
Ballard’s shtick—lying on the piano and delivering her monologue as if the audience were up on the ceiling—had earned her a place in the club’s hall of fame, but her record as the Bon Soir’s biggest moneymaker had been overtaken by the current headliner, Phyllis Diller, a crazy-haired housewife from San Francisco. Dorothy Kilgallen called Diller “the funniest woman in the world . . . a flax white blonde who comes out on the stage in a vaguely outrageous costume that might be chic on someone else, points a cigarette holder at the audience, and talks. When she talks, the audience screams. It’s as simple as that.” For all her wild hair and makeup, Diller was known as a clotheshorse, always wearing the latest designers—sometimes topped with a necklace of maraschino cherries that she’d eat, one by one, on stage. All this was done while taking potshots at her husband, whom she called Fang, and, most of all, herself. “Isn’t my fur stole pitiful?” she’d ask the audience. “How unsuccessful can a girl look? People think I’m wearing anchovies. The worst of it is, I trapped these under my own sink.” Then she’d let loose with her trademark fingernails-on-the-blackboard laugh—a gimmick that had originated from nerves, but which had stayed in the act after Diller noticed the laughs the laugh got.
When Barbra and her friends arrived, only a few customers were milling about the place. Sgroi emerged from the back office to greet her. Taking her by the arm, he escorted her to the women’s dressing room. Diller frequently grumbled that the room was the size of a peapod and that she and her fellow performers were forced to change clothes “butt to butt.” From a single window, a rusty old air conditioner dripped water into a bucket. Clothes hung from hooks on the wall since there wasn’t room for a closet or shelves. When Barbra walked in, Diller was sitting on a stool threading her maraschino cherries. Sgroi introduced them, and Diller told Barbra she liked her unusual shoes. “They cost me thirty-five cents,” Barbra replied. That was the extent of their conversation. Diller found the kid standoffish and deemed her way too young to be singing in a club.
Around eleven, the place started filling up and the band began to play. The Three Flames was a wisecracking piano, bass, and guitar trio who integrated the jive of the Harlem streets into their act. The Bon Soir was that rare place where blacks and whites mixed without tension and without rank, where three black guys from Harlem could share a stage with a white housewife from San Francisco and a Jewish girl from Brooklyn. On many nights a touch of class was provided by Norene Tate, a stately, silver-haired pianist who’d also played the Lion. The emcee was Jimmie Daniels, a Texan who’d sung in Parisian boîtes before the war. Always impeccably dressed and unfailingly polite, Daniels was famous for never uttering a bad word about anyone, a far cry from the often raucous acts he introduced. In the 1930s, he’d run an eponymous club in Harlem and was rumored to have been one of Cole Porter’s lovers.
Around midnight, the Three Flames gave way to the comics Tony and Eddie, whose act consisted mostly of mime and sight gags, using wigs, false teeth, and prop weapons. In one bit, Tony played a patient and Eddie a doctor, with the recording of a coloratura soprano giving voice to Tony’s pain each time he got a shot.
If Barbra had ventured to peer out from the dressing room, she would have discerned waiters weaving in and out among the tables carrying tiny flashlights in order to spot who needed refills. This produced a flickering, bouncing light that made the room seem, in the words of New York Times reviewer Arthur Gelb, “a-twinkle with glow worms.” Gelb wasn’t the only major newspaperman sipping vino and smoking cigarettes in the audience. Dorothy Kilgallen, one of the widest-read syndicated theater columnists, was out there, too. If the news made Barbra anxious, she could take heart that the Bon Soir’s pianist that night was Peter Daniels, the same friendly Englishman she’d met back when she’d auditioned for Eddie Blum several months earlier and who’d helpfully rehearsed with her at his apartment on Riverside Drive in the days leading up to this night.
Finally, it was Barbra’s turn to go on. Jimmie Daniels stood in the middle of the stage and introduced her as “a girl with a magical set of pipes.” Suddenly the bright white spotlight swung across the stage and caught Barbra, already seated on her stool and staring directly out into the audience. It was her moment, and she was ready for it. The applause she received was respectful, though hardly the enthusiastic greeting bestowed upon the more familiar Tony and Eddie. Hoping to fill in the spaces, Barré and Bob leaped to their feet, cheering as loudly as they could, nudging friends to do the same.
Once the applause died down and Barbra was sure all eyes were on her, she slowly and deliberately removed the gum from her mouth and stuck it on the microphone. It was by now a well-practiced bit of shtick that won the hoped-for snickers. Still, the audience, including those hard-to-please columnists, didn’t know quite what to make of the small girl in the spotlight with the queer shoes and absurdly long fingernails. She seemed both frightened and confident, her quivery smile revealing as much pluck as it did apprehension.
Barbra took a deep breath. Giving a nod to Peter Daniels, she launched into the first song of her set, Fats Waller’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” The little love ditty became a “sexy, playful, naughty” flirtation with the audience, just as she and Barré had worked out. The applause at the end was heartier this time, and sailing on a burst of adrenaline, Barbra segued into the song that had started it all for her. “When a bee lies sleepin’ in the palm of your hand . . .” The audience was riveted. Cries of “Gorgeous!” were heard when she finished the song.
Barré was sitting on the edge of his seat, mouthing the words to each song along with Barbra while his Ampex tape recorder, off to the side, captured the music for posterity. Bob sat sketching Barbra as she sang, preserving the night in his own way with pen and ink. When Peter Daniels’s piano introduction indicated it was time for “I Want to Be Bad,” Barbra stood from her stool so she could move her body seductively to the words. The audience hooted and whistled. “She’s killing them,” Barré whispered. “They love her!” Three songs in, Barbra had them eating out of her hands—those lovely, exquisite hands that Bob watched in a sort of awe that night as they moved through the air with all the grace and precision of an orchestra conductor.
At the beginning of her fourth number, Barbra closed her eyes. For the sad ballad “When Sunny Gets Blue,” Barré had told her to think about a classmate of hers back at Erasmus Hall who’d been even more of a misfit than she was. Picked on, lonely, the girl had elicited sympathy from Barbra, who would smile at her in the corridors. Barré had told Barbra to think of that girl when she sang the song, and so, drawing on all of her acting ability, Barbra stood on the stage, emotions exposed. This tender number was immediately followed by her bouncy rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me,” with the line Barbra had once found so difficult now flying “like a bullet,” Barré thought. All those weeks of practice, of picturing his socks in the bathroom, had paid off.
Then came “Nobody’s Heart,” the perfect penultimate song for Barbra’s set. As she and Barré had planned, the audience seemed to feel that she was singing about herself. How could they not? There she was in front of them, so small, so unusual, seeming so desperate for their approval, coming more alive with each round of applause. The lyrics seemed to fill in all the autobiography that had been missing from Jimmie Daniels’s scanty introduction of her. She was a girl who’d been “sad at times, and disinclined to play, but it’s not bad at times, to go your own sweet way.” That’s what people took away from hearing her. When, at the finish of the song, she dropped her chin onto her chest, the audience was on its feet, shouting “Brava! Brava!”
The spotlight swung back to Jimmie Daniels. “Miss Barbra Streisand!” he announced. As expected, the cries of “Encore!” began. With a smile and a wave of his hand, Daniels surrendered the stage again to Barbra. Back into view she charged, all five feet five inches of her, a hundred and fifteen pounds of determination, singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” She was suddenly transformed into a ringleader of merriment, letting her instinct take over in ways that even Barré hadn’t expected. With “semioperatic swoops and shrieks,” she bounded across the stage warbling the words that many people in the audience remembered from their childhoods. They laughed, clapped, and nodded their heads along to the familiar but utterly unexpected tune. Singing about the third pig, Barbra put her hands on her hips and spontaneously invoked Mae West: “Nix on tricks, I will build my house of bricks!” The audience roared its approval.
Barré was overwhelmed. He’d coached Barbra to think about Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies, which he called “an homage to madness,” during her rendition of “Big Bad Wolf,” but this was beyond anything they’d rehearsed. It was anarchic brilliance cooked up on the spot, one observer said, “almost like the Marx Brothers, if Groucho had been able to sing.” To each pig she had bequeathed a different voice, and when the brick house stands firm and the wolf gets roasted in the fireplace, she let out a “triumphant roar.” At the end of the song, Barbra fled the stage laughing hysterically, as if she were “being chased by the Furies,” Barré thought. The audience, in his words, went “nuts.”
Bob’s reaction was quieter. He sat in a kind of stunned silence, remembering the time he’d seen Edith Piaf at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles. No elaborate orchestration had supported the great French chanteuse. Piaf had relied only on the force of her voice and personality. Bob had wondered then why America had no Piaf of its own, why the best his country had seemed able to produce was Patti Page singing “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” Watching Barbra that night, alone on the stage working her magic without any props, without any major orchestration, Bob thought solemnly to himself, “This could be our Piaf.”
Friends, of course, might be expected to imagine such heights for each other, but Bob wasn’t alone in his response. Terry was once again in tears hearing Barbra sing. Carole Gister, also in the audience, was “blown away” by the fact that each of Barbra’s songs had seemed like “a self-contained play.” In her dressing room, Phyllis Diller had been drawn by the sound of Barbra’s voice, and despite having been unimpressed with the kid in person, found herself getting goose bumps listening to her sing. It wasn’t often that Diller had to take the stage with an audience still buzzing over the warm-up act.
Part of what the audience had responded to was Barbra’s obvious awareness of, and proficiency with, the traditions of the stage. It hadn’t just been West she’d invoked up there. She’d displayed the raw power of Piaf and sung her songs in the storytelling style of Mabel Mercer and connected with her audience as personally as had Gertrude Lawrence. She’d flirted like Helen Kane, belted like Mae Barnes, and smoldered like Ruth Etting. Yet the audience wasn’t applauding any of those venerable ladies. Barbra was no imitator. When Mercer sang, she barely moved a muscle on stage, but Barbra had used her hands to dazzling effect. Lawrence’s cadences had often induced cringes, but Barbra’s euphonious voice had soared through the room mesmerizing her audience. The spontaneous combustion that had left Barré stunned and Bob speechless was the result of an inexplicable alchemy that had taken all of those influences, shaken them together, and conjured something entirely new. Something that called herself Barbra Streisand.