With her hair piled up on top of her head, wearing a dark sleeveless dress and an air of entitled nonchalance, Barbra took complete charge of the taping of her second appearance on PM East. Disregarding the script and directing the conversation, she forced the pugnacious Mike Wallace to follow her lead. When he asked about life in Brooklyn, Wallace found himself in the rare position of being outmaneuvered by a guest who didn’t want to answer the question. “In Detroit they think I come from Turkey,” Barbra said. “In St. Louis they think I come from Israel. It doesn’t matter where I come from.” Then she launched into “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking” with all the eccentricities that had startled her audiences in Winnipeg: “They have sunflower cakes, moonbeam cakes, gizzard cakes, lizard cakes, pickled eels, pickled snakes . . .”
It was precisely for this outsized personality that they’d brought her back. The reaction to Barbra’s debut on the program had been “so enthusiastic,” Wallace admitted, that they decided to make her a semiregular guest. Watching from the booth, the show’s publicist, Don Softness, marveled at the way the kid bantered easily with the hosts and then segued into musical numbers that left audiences dazzled. “She was born a star,” Softness thought. Not only did Barbra have “this beautiful voice,” but she had “something more than self-confidence.” It was a quality of “expectation,” Softness realized, of “claiming what was her due.”
Of course, at that particular moment, Barbra had every reason to feel on top of her game. For one thing, she finally had a place to live. A cousin had passed on to her a sublet he’d been renting on West Eighteenth Street in Chelsea, and Barbra had redecorated with feather boas and esoteric posters. She was even considering getting her own phone for the first time in her life. Meanwhile, rehearsals for Another Evening with Harry Stoones were going well, with everyone convinced that it would be a hit. What was more, Marty was angling to get her an audition for an honest-to-god Broadway show, David Merrick’s What’s in It for Me? Columnist Hedda Hopper had reported that Tony Franciosa might star, and the Times had just announced that Arthur Laurents would direct and Sylvia Sidney would play the protagonist’s mother. If Barbra got a part in the show, she’d have to bow out of Harry Stoones. But everyone would understand. After all, this was David Merrick, the biggest producer on Broadway!
While it may have been a long shot, Barbra told Softness and the rest of the folks at PM East about Merrick’s show. When Mike Wallace suggested on air that being on PM East would help her attract the attention of big-time producers such as Merrick, Barbra just laughed and cut him down to size. “Now, let’s be honest,” she said. “Those people don’t watch television, not the ones that do the hiring. A show like this just gets the public interested in paying the minimum to see me at places like the Bon Soir.” No doubt, despite his outward amusement, Wallace seethed.
There was more sass to come. Before she went on to sing, Barbra scolded Wallace for failing to give a plug for Stoones, which was opening soon. “You forgot to mention the play I’m in,” she said, shouting over the host to give the name of the theater and the opening date. After all, the whole reason she appeared on PM East was to get publicity for herself.
Watching her, Don Softness understood her attitude and figured they could work to each other’s mutual advantage. His job was to publicize PM East, and “an interesting guest could be used as a peg” to bring the show some notice. But at the same time, those same interesting guests would benefit by having their own profiles raised by doing publicity for the show. And Barbra, Softness thought, “was as interesting as they came.”
So when Barbra was finished taping that day, Softness approached her. He asked if she’d be willing to do some publicity. Even as the question was still on Softness’s lips, Barbra blurted out, “Yes!” She had a manager and an agent; a publicist was the logical next step. And Softness seemed a good man for the job. He and his brother, John, had opened the Softness Group two years earlier; their client list had been building steadily ever since. So they made an appointment to meet at Softness’s office on Madison Avenue in order to “get some press material out on her.” They shook hands.
The merchandizing of Barbra Streisand was about to begin.
Who cared that the house wasn’t even half full? The show was only in previews. There was still time for word to get out and bring in the crowds. Besides, how could Barbra be upset about anything when she’d just gotten her picture in the New York Times? Even if they’d spelled her name with three a’s, and even if the photo wasn’t all that flattering—her mouth was open midsong—it was still her, and no doubt everyone in Brooklyn (and a certain ex-boyfriend in Manhattan) had seen it.
On stage at the Gramercy Arts Theatre, Barbra had just gotten a big laugh from the small audience for telling her lover in one skit that she was pregnant. The lead-up to the punch line was a group of jocks bragging about their conquests with all the pretty girls at school while their nebbish friend listens, seemingly in envy. But it’s only the nebbish who turns out to have gotten any action, for after everyone has left, the homely tagalong of the pretty girls (Barbra) comes up to him and announces, “Barry, I’m pregnant.” Only Barbra would have appreciated the irony of the boy’s name.
Most of her bits in Harry Stoones were in the first act. She played an Indian maiden, sang a goofy song called “Value” about being in love with a guy called Harold Mengert, and lampooned, in two different skits, the blues and New Jersey. So after her “I’m pregnant” line, which led off the second act, she mostly just sat backstage. But she was “just happy to be acting,” one friend understood.
And that photo in the Times! How could she not be happy? Barbra might be listed last in the credits for the show, but it was her picture with which the Times had chosen to announce Stoones’s opening—not Sands’s, not Dom DeLuise’s. No one could be quite sure how that had happened, but in addition to the official mimeographs issued from the show’s publicists, newspaper editors were also receiving notices from Don Softness promoting PM East’s latest discovery, a brilliant singer and offbeat character named Barbra Streisand. In choosing to go with a picture of the television personality, the Times was counting on the fact that Barbra might actually be more recognizable to its readers than the revue’s other, ostensibly bigger names.
As Barbra rejoined her castmates on stage for the final curtain call, taking her bows as the meager audience got to its feet, there was a sense in the air that it was she—last on the bill, the butt of so many of the jokes—who was the fastest on the move.
At Bob’s little “postshow get-together” after Harry Stoones’s opening night on Saturday, October 21, Barbra seemed less focused on the reviews than on the fact that Barré had come to see the show. The critics hadn’t been kind. The reviewer who’d shown up from the Times, Lewis Funke, was perhaps the least simpatico with a revue that strove so earnestly to be avant-garde. Funke was a former sports reporter and, at fifty, part of another generation entirely than the kids cavorting up on stage. If Funke gave them a negative review, which everyone expected, there would likely never be another evening with Harry Stoones.
But the fear of closing didn’t seem to be in the forefront of Barbra’s mind. Rather, she was more interested to learn from Bob that Barré had taken notes on her performance. Instead of being offended, she was eager to see what her former boyfriend had written. Holed up in a corner of Bob’s new apartment—he’d taken a gorgeous place on Gramercy Park South just a few blocks from the theater, with sixteen-foot ceilings, a Steinway grand piano, and enormous windows that overlooked the park—Barbra pored over Barré’s notes. He thought she’d been “great,” beautifully “underplaying her numbers.” Her voice had been terrific, he said, especially on “Value”—the Harold Mengert number—but it was her timing and her acting that had really impressed him and that was what mattered most to Barbra. Barré’s opinion, Bob realized, was still “very important to her.” Part of her had moved on from that heartbreak, but another part remained tethered to this man who had meant so much.
For a performer faced with the closing of her show, Barbra seemed to Bob to possess remarkable sangfroid. It wasn’t just Another Evening with Harry Stoones that had proved to be a disappointment either. She’d also recently learned that Goddard Lieberson wouldn’t be offering her a record deal. But Barbra seemed calm, collected, confident. That fall, many of her friends sensed that she was getting very close to something big. And so as one show faced the ax, Barbra seemed to roll with the punches and turned her determined eyes to another—the appropriately named What’s in It for Me?
The temperatures were mild on Thursday, November 16, but the skies had turned a solid slate gray, pregnant with rain, which only made Jerome Weidman’s mood all the bleaker. The novelist-playwright had just come from his doctor’s office where he’d been told he needed an abdominal operation. He should have gone home and rested, but instead he took a taxi up to the St. James Theatre on Forty-fourth Street. Auditions were being held that day for the show he was scheduled to start rehearsing in five weeks, which Weidman had adapted from his 1937 novel, I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
It wasn’t as if the auditions that day were all that important. Most of the bigger parts had already been chosen. Weidman could have, “without compunction or hesitation,” left the selection of these less vital players in the very capable hands of the director, Arthur Laurents. But after writing the books for such successful shows as Fiorello! and Tenderloin, he had learned that it was “as impossible to become partially involved with a show” as it was “to partially fall in love.”
Laurents was already at the theater. The director sat in the audience, watching the hopefuls on the stage. Although he’d written the books for many of Broadway’s biggest hits of recent years—The Time of the Cuckoo, Gypsy, West Side Story—this was only his second time directing, and his first time directing someone else’s material. When David Merrick had asked him to take the helm, Laurents, never one to be impressed by hype—his or anyone else’s—took it in stride. Merrick, he believed, “must have been turned down by the big-name directors he went after first.” He accepted the job, despite his belief that the script—the story of a scheming con man named Harry Bogen—was “flawed” and “unmarked for success,” because he’d always wanted to work with Merrick. He also believed he could make something special out of that flawed script.
Sitting there that day, watching the aspiring actors troop across the stage at the St. James Theatre, Laurents felt confident he could pull it off—so long as Weidman didn’t fight him too much. He considered that unlikely. Of the two, Laurents was known as the greater wordsmith, with a body of work that also included such esteemed films as Rope, Anastasia, and Bonjour Tristesse. Weidman, for his part, had never written anything to top Wholesale, his first novel, and his one major film had been the middlebrow melodrama The Damned Don’t Cry, starring Joan Crawford.
If any script battles were to come, however, they lay in the future, so when Weidman arrived at the theater, he and Laurents greeted each other warmly. There were backslaps and good words also with Harold Rome, the lyricist, and Herbert Ross, the choreographer. For the moment, everything was smiles and handshakes, and the men putting on this show for David Merrick settled down into the darkened red-velvet auditorium and turned their attention to the stage.
All auditions followed a similar pattern. The applicant would trudge up to the stage and stand beneath the glare of a bare bulb while the stage manager shouted out a name. To Weidman, “the names of all unknown actors and actresses, when heard for the first time in a darkened theater at an audition,” sounded like anagrams “composed of letters taken from the sides of Lithuanian Pullman cars.” With such incomprehensible cacophony, the name “Barbra Streisand” reached Weidman’s ears.
Barbra wore “a fur coat . . . a combination of tans, browns, yellows, and whites, all swirling around in great shapeless blotches, like a child’s painting.” From below the coat Weidman discerned “a couple of very shapely legs.” Laurents astutely pegged the coat as “an old movie-star wrap,” and Barbra was indeed intentionally hoping to evoke a bit of old-time movie-star glamour. Dressing for the audition with Bob, she’d chosen a “fabulous” caracul coat. The lamb’s fur was also ornamented with a bit of fox. The coat had come from a thrift shop, but it still looked “pristine,” Bob thought, “like something Dietrich would have worn.”
Yet for this particular audition Barbra would play the white goddess only on the outside. When she opened the fur coat, she revealed a simple wool dress, hardly the high couture most would-be actresses wore to auditions. Her hair wasn’t coiffed either, but was instead knotted in an old-maidish bun on the top of her head. Laurents got precisely the impression she wanted him to get: “Spinster incarnate,” he thought to himself when he got his first good look at her.
There was a method to Barbra’s madness, of course. The only role of any consequence left to cast—and the only one she was remotely qualified for—was the harried, homely secretary Miss Marmelstein. Barbra knew exactly what she was doing.
And so she performed a brilliant routine of what Laurents immediately recognized as “calculated spontaneity.” First came the “elaborate shedding” of the coat, revealing her “gawky, disorganized body.” Then there was a complicated bit with the sheet music, produced from a red briefcase and held comically to her waist. Extravagant whispers to the accompanist followed. Then the kid asked a stagehand for a chair. She was nervous, she claimed, and wanted to sit, but Laurents thought her nerves, while possibly real “somewhere deep down,” were part of her routine. As the chair was wheeled over to the center of the stage, Barbra marched to meet it—while her sheet music, taped together, suddenly accordioned after her. Laurents shook his head in bemusement. “Funny, attention-getting, a good trick,” he thought, especially since it was punctuated by a “trilling giggle of feigned surprise.”
Sitting back in his seat, the director thought this Streisand kid was maybe “too much,” maybe “trying too hard.” She was entertaining, but he was on to her tricks. Everything she did, Laurents observed, was staged. When she sat down in the chair, she didn’t just sit—“she sprawled in it, flung her legs out, took them back, wrapped her arms around them, under them, across them,” all the while “elaborately chewing gum.” When it came time for her to sing, she took the gum out of her mouth and—using a bit of business as old as her act itself—proceeded to stick it under the chair. (Or at least she seemed to. When Laurents checked later, there was no gum.) Laurents just rolled his eyes. “She’d better have a voice,” he thought to himself.
From farther back in the theater, another set of eyes watched her, eyes belonging to a young man who could barely believe he was there at all. Six foot three, two hundred pounds, Elliott Gould had leaped from the chorus line of Irma la Douce right into the starring role of this production, pushing aside such established names as Tony Franciosa and Laurence Harvey, both of whom had been considered. Gould’s casting had surprised him as much as it did Broadway insiders. The twenty-three-year-old was almost a complete unknown, and it was on his untried shoulders, broad as they might be, that the entire weight of a David Merrick vehicle was now being placed. So it was with considerable fascination that Gould watched this “fantastic freak” —his words—cavort up on the stage. This Barbra Streisand might be “the weirdo of all times” —his own words again—but she seemed to have reservoirs of confidence that he envied, with none of the self-doubts that kept him awake at night.
Barbra had plenty of her own self-doubts, of course, but she kept them well hidden. What people saw was that old ferocious belief that she had to make it to the top or go nowhere at all. At this particular moment, that belief was being fueled by the adrenaline produced by the reviews for Another Evening with Harry Stoones. True enough that the show had closed after only one official performance, and true, too, that the stodgy Lewis Funke hadn’t even mentioned Barbra in his scathing critique in the New York Times.“None too stimulating,” he’d concluded about the show, an opinion shared by reviewers for the New York Post and Herald Tribune. But others, a little more in tune with Harry Stoones’s offbeat sensibility, had responded very differently, both to the show and to Barbra. Edith Oliver in The New Yorker had thought Stoones was “quick, flippant [and] sometimes bright and original,” and she “particularly admired” Barbra. Martin Gottfried in Women’s Wear Daily, who’d been one of those hooting and whistling for Barbra right from the start at the Bon Soir, had proclaimed Harry Stoones “gleeful” and “riotous,” and observed, “Barbra Streisand has been a fine singer for some time and continues to be one.” Michael Smith in the Village Voice had gone so far as to declare that no one in the cast, not even Sands or DeLuise, had been “quite strong enough” to play opposite Barbra. But such raves appeared days after the show had closed, too late to do any good.
Too late for the show, perhaps, but not for Barbra. By the time she strode into the St. James Theatre, it was with an air of supreme confidence. It hadn’t been just her voice the critics had applauded, but her acting: Variety thought Barbra had shown “excellent flair for dropping a dour blackout gag.” Now, with that same sort of flair, she sauntered up onto the St. James stage, playing the part of the eccentric kid, a role that had worked so well for her on PM East, a persona Don Softness, her shrewd new publicist, had encouraged. It was shtick that bordered on being disrespectful—the well-executed slip of her music, for example, or her demand for a chair—but it never quite crossed that line. Instead, it was funny. Different. It got the men in power to sit up and pay attention. Now all that was left for Barbra to do was sing. And that, of course, was the easy part.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Barbra was set to open at the Blue Angel that night, so her voice was in top form. She was also fortunate that Peter Daniels had moved over to the Angel from the Bon Soir; he’d helped Barbra expand her repertoire. So she could have chosen to sing any number of songs for her audition. She went with the broadly comic “Value,” which had been such a success for her in Harry Stoones. “Call me a schlemiel, call me a brain with a missing wheel . . .” Both Laurents and Weidman found the song delightful, and burst into applause when Barbra was done. When Laurents asked if she had a ballad, Barbra briskly replied that she’d sing “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?”—which they all knew and approved of. Halfway through the song, as they all sat silently listening, Harold Rome leaned over his seat and whispered to Laurents, “Geez, she’s really something, isn’t she?”
She was. Laurents agreed Barbra was something special, but Miss Marmelstein was supposed to be fifty years old, and this kid would barely be twenty by the time the show opened. Still, she was good—very good—with exactly the kind of “Jewish sensibility” the show needed—which, no doubt, Barbra had been counting on. What’s in It for Me? was a show where her Jewishness would be an asset, not a liability. Without that cultural flavor, the show lost everything, a fact Laurents understood very well. Back in 1951, Twentieth Century-Fox had turned Weidman’s novel into a movie, keeping the original title, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, but practically nothing else. Harry Bogen was turned into Harriet Boyd in a star vehicle for the titian-haired, Irish-Swedish Susan Hayward. The film was a flop. This new version, Laurents knew, had to retain its gritty, urban, ethnic identity, and for this, Barbra Streisand fit perfectly.
Still, he also knew that she wasn’t what Merrick had in mind for the part, so for the moment he just thanked her and said they might call her back. That was enough for Barbra. She hadn’t been rejected out of hand; she still had a chance. She left the stage in a bubbly, effusive mood, inviting everyone to come see her at the Blue Angel. And call her, yes, please, call her! She finally had a phone number all her own, she told everyone, and she sang it out with exuberance.
Everyone laughed. It was the perfect shtick with which to end her audition. Laurents made sure to write her number down, while several rows behind him in the theater, someone else did so as well.
Later that evening, leaving her sublet on West Eighteenth Street to head uptown to the Blue Angel, Barbra heard her telephone ring.
She picked up and heard a male voice.
“You said you wanted to get calls, so I called,” the man said. “You were brilliant.”
It was Elliott Gould. The big, gangly lead from What’s in It for Me? Barbra thanked him, and that was the extent of their conversation. She hung up the phone and told Terry Leong what had just happened. Gould was the star of the show; maybe he made such courtesy calls to everyone who auditioned. But Terry told her that wasn’t likely. The guy would be on the phone all night if that were the case.
At the audition, Barbra had barely noticed Gould. There’d been no real feeling about him one way or the other. Gould wasn’t really Barbra’s type, which tended toward more handsome, polished men. Gould was, instead, long-limbed and lantern-jawed, with a nose that some likened to a large dill pickle. But he had called her. He had called her and told her that she was brilliant. It left an impression. How could it not? It made her, friends said, curious, at the very least, to see Gould again.
The Blue Angel, with its long, rectangular shape and oddly quilted walls, left more than one performer struck by its resemblance to a coffin—an ironic analogy for a place known for giving birth to cabaret stars. From the Angel’s tiny stage the likes of Felicia Sanders, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, and Dorothy Loudon had dazzled audiences for nearly two decades. Now in the second week of her run, Barbra stepped into the spotlight dressed in a pink gingham sleeveless dress with a sequined jumper-style bodice—hardly the image of a traditional nightclub singer, but very much the mod, stylish icon Bob had been endeavoring so hard to create—and smiled at the faces in the crowd, many of whom were familiar to her this night.
For one, there was Lorraine Gordon, whose husband, Max, had helped Barbra land the gig. Lorraine had also involved Barbra in her political cause, the antinuclear group Women Strike for Peace. Mostly oblivious to politics until this point, Barbra had been suddenly inspired by Lorraine’s passion, and she had accompanied her to rallies and helped her pass out leaflets on the street condemning the U.S.-Soviet arms race.
But her primary focus, at least for the moment, remained her own career. And so it was to another table that Barbra made sure she was directing her performance that night. The team from What’s in It for Me? had come to see her: Arthur Laurents, Jerry Weidman, and Harold Rome. The fact that Barbra was performing at the Blue Angel was a definite point in her favor for these theatrical power brokers. The crème de la crème of New York society regularly showed up at the Angel. It was, by far, Barbra’s most prestigious booking yet.
Barbra was third on a bill topped by comedian Pat Harrington, Jr., best known for the comic Italian-immigrant stereotype named Guido Panzini that he played on Jack Paar’s show. Also on the bill were another comedian, Barbara Heller, and the Canadian folksingers Sylvia Fricker and Ian Tyson. After the opening, Variety had declared Barbra the best of the bunch. In the trade paper’s recent review, Harrington had been called “undisciplined” and Heller “another disappointment.” But Barbra had known “her way with a song.” Her routine with Peter Daniels was by now seamless. No doubt Variety’s endorsement had pleased Barbra very much, especially as the trade paper was required reading for Laurents and his compadres.
Yet there was something else in the review that had left her steaming. “She’s very youthful,” the Variety critic observed, “and if intent about her professional ambitions, perhaps a little corrective schnoz bob might be an element to be considered.” The reviewer opined that comics such as Fanny Brice, Jimmy Durante, and Danny Thomas were one thing, but “ingénues, of good figure and advanced vocal interpretation, with many years before them,” constituted something else entirely. In other words, Barbra would have to choose: Keep the nose and settle for being a comic or whittle the nose down and all those other “professional ambitions” might come true.
It was the first time any critic had so baldly disparaged her looks. Here was Variety, the showbiz bible, insisting that if she was truly “intent” on being successful, then she should plane down her schnoz. The review left Barbra “overcome with a new burst of insecurities,” one friend discerned.
Yet for the three men sitting in her audience that night, any suggestion to change that big, glorious Jewish nose was absurd. It was Barbra’s nose—along with her voice, manner, and style—that made her so right for the show. No doubt Barbra understood this, but that didn’t make getting up there on that stage any less difficult, the words “corrective schnoz bob” fresh in her mind. Still, she belted her heart out on song after song, projecting as much confidence as ever. She’d learned how to do that long ago.
Barbra’s performance this night was, in effect, another audition, despite the fact that she’d already traipsed back to the St. James Theatre more than once to sing, hoping something, anything, might finally convince David Merrick to give her the part of Miss Marmelstein. It was Merrick who would make the final decision, Barbra knew, but the “abominable showman,” as he was called around Broadway, hadn’t come to the Angel to hear her this night. Barbra could only hope that if she could fire up those who hadcome, then maybe they could persuade Merrick for her.
She had, in fact, already sold herself to Laurents, Weidman, and Rome, though she didn’t know that for sure. Laurents had already concluded that Barbra “had to be in the show,” and Weidman had determined she had “the X quality” that made a star. To confirm their opinions, they’d brought lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Laurents’s collaborator on Gypsy and West Side Story. As Barbra sang, they all sat back and listened, soaking up the strains of “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Cry Me a River,” “Right as the Rain,” and even “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking.”
After the show was over, Sondheim didn’t quite share his colleagues’ appreciation of the young singer. “Too pinched and nasal,” he said of Barbra’s voice. But that didn’t deter Laurents, who made a beeline to see Barbra backstage and offered some tips on lighting. “Don’t look down,” he told her. The Blue Angel’s single unmoving spotlight cast unflattering shadows, he explained. He was already thinking of how she’d look on the Broadway stage. Now if only David Merrick would see things his way.
As Bob tiptoed into his kitchen, the rain was coming down outside in heavy sheets, splashing against the tall windows that overlooked the park. It was early on the morning after Thanksgiving, and Barbra was sound asleep on his couch. Quietly, Bob opened his refrigerator and began making turkey sandwiches from the leftovers he’d saved from the feast the day before. Wrapping one sandwich in wax paper, he slipped it into a paper bag, scrawling Barbra’s lunch on the side.
He knew she had a big day ahead of her. And she’d had a long night, too, so he was letting her sleep for a while longer. Barbra had missed Thanksgiving dinner because she’d been performing at the Blue Angel, and it wasn’t until well after midnight that she had arrived at Bob’s, long after everyone else had left. He’d kept a plate aside for her, and Barbra had wolfed down the turkey, stuffing, and gravy as they gabbed into the wee hours. She’d been invigorated by her performance, but also anxious about the next day because she was scheduled to meet with Merrick at the St. James Theatre. She was hoping that he’d give her the news she’d been waiting for. It had been more than a week since she’d first auditioned for What’s in It for Me?, and the not knowing was killing her. If she couldn’t get into a show by and about Jews, she feared, then she’d never get into anything.
As audition time neared, Bob gently woke his friend. Barbra showered and washed her hair, but the only clothes she had with her were those she’d worn at the Blue Angel the night before. Still, her rather “severe” black silk dress, black nylons, and black shoes made for a good look, Bob thought, especially topped with the caracul coat. Bob handed her the lunch bag, then walked her outside and helped her hail a cab in the rain.
The show was coming together, according to press reports. Instead of Sylvia Sidney, the part of Mrs. Bogen had gone to Lillian Roth, another old-time star. Roth hadn’t been on Broadway since the early 1930s, when she’d been one of the sensations in the Earl Carroll Vanities. A brief stint in movies had followed until alcoholism cut short her career. Her candid autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, chronicled her addictions, brought her back to public notice, and was made into a film with Susan Hayward. Now sober, Roth made many television appearances after that, usually closing with her theme song, “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” David Merrick, recognizing that he needed a name above the title, made Roth the ostensible star of the show.
Everyone in the cast had impressive résumés. Harold Lang, Bambi Linn, and Jack Kruschen were all veterans. Even the show’s love interest, Marilyn Cooper, had played small parts in Gypsy and West Side Story, so she already had a working relationship with Laurents. Everyone was a lot more “in” than Barbra—except, she realized, the star of the show himself, that big, lumbering Elliott Gould, the guy who had called her on the phone. He was almost as green as Barbra was.
Clearly, Gould had been chosen not because of any name recognition with the ticket-buying public, but because he was right for the role of the enterprising, crafty—and very Jewish—Harry Bogen. Would Merrick use the same logic in selecting Barbra? Laurents had already declared that Miss Marmelstein didn’t have to be a fiftyish spinster; a twentyish wallflower could serve the same purpose. But would Merrick agree?
David Merrick was one of those larger-than-life showmen, like Barnum and Belasco, who were geniuses not only at picking box-office hits but also at promoting their own legends. In his finely tailored suits, cheap toupee, and silent-movie-villain mustache, Merrick cut an easily recognizable—and just as easily parodied—figure on the Great White Way. He lived, breathed, ate, drank, and slept theater. He liked to say that he was born the night his first big show, Fanny, starring Florence Henderson and Ezio Pinza, opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway—which effectively obliterated his hardscrabble early life in St. Louis as the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant tailor. Like the girl he was considering hiring, Merrick had been an ambitious soul fleeing less-than-glamorous origins. Whenever he flew across country, he wouldn’t permit his private plane to fly over St. Louis, unwilling to risk an emergency landing in his hated hometown.
At least that was the story. And there were lots of stories about Merrick. Some of them were even true. He gained his reputation as a master promoter in 1949 when his show Clutterbuck was struggling to find an audience. To generate publicity, Merrick’s savvy publicist, Lee Solters, began phoning restaurants throughout the city and asking them to page a nonexistent “Mr. Clutterbuck.” That made the columns and guaranteed the show a reprieve of a few weeks. Merrick was known for big, glossy productions: The Matchmaker, Gypsy, Irma la Douce, Do Re Mi. But he had also distinguished himself with some notable succès d’estime, such as Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, both by John Osborne, the latter of which marked one of Laurence Olivier’s most acclaimed roles. At times, close to a quarter of the entire Broadway workforce was employed by Merrick.
Arthur Laurents, for his part, was quite pleased to finally be working with Merrick on What’s in It for Me?, even if they had immediately clashed on how the sets should look. Laurents wanted subtle Brechtian blacks, whites, and grays; Merrick, not surprisingly, wanted lots of bright reds. Only after much back and forth did Laurents prevail. The director tolerated the belligerence because he believed Merrick had a “genuine . . . love and respect for the theater.” Still, the producer could be Machiavellian in getting what he wanted, pitting collaborators against each other, saying one thing when he wanted another, and humiliating actors, whom he despised. To Merrick, actors were merely puppets to be used in the best interests of the production. And he liked pretty puppets. That was why he was being so pigheaded about Miss Marmelstein.
As Barbra stumbled out of the rain into the theater, she kept her coat wrapped around her, not wanting to step out onto the stage in her black silk evening dress. That would have been a bit much, even for her; it wasn’t even noon yet, after all. From the assemblage of principals seated in the audience—Laurents, Weidman, Rome, Herbert Ross, and Merrick himself—it seemed obvious that a decision had been made. Barbra braced herself for what she was about to hear.
Laurents had finally been able to pin Merrick down on his choice only a few hours earlier. The producer had tried arguing that Barbra was simply “too ugly,” that if they were making Miss Marmelstein younger, then why not go with some “cute girl,” a suggestion Laurents argued, quite rationally, went completely against the character. But actors were “window dressing,” Merrick told him. They had to be appealing enough to draw in customers. They were already saddled with an unattractive lead in Elliott Gould, he argued. Did they really want another homely face up on the stage?
Laurents said yes, in fact, they did. And so, with a long sigh, Merrick gave in. It was a small, insignificant part anyway. They had the winsome long-legged Bambi Linn and the pretty brown-eyed Marilyn Cooper to take up the slack.
As Barbra stood on the stage, Laurents gave her the news. The part, he said, was hers. She responded calmly, with a dignified equanimity, thanking them all and promising to make them proud of her. She was invited back to Merrick’s office to work out the details of her contract, which Marty stepped forward to handle. She would be making only $150 a week, Barbra learned, far less than she made in clubs, but the expectation was that What’s in It for Me? would run for months, maybe even years, so financially, Barbra would be more secure than she’d ever been in her life. If the show was a hit, that is. And after Harry Stoones, Barbra knew better than to count her chickens too soon.
Still, she couldn’t help being elated as she stepped off the stage, still wrapped in her wet caracul coat. This was it. The dream. She was going to Broadway.
The Variety review still bugged her. But Barbra found a way to defuse it.
On the November 27 PM East, she sat alongside fellow guest Mickey Rooney, the legendary child star of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer now grown into a puckish character actor. “I can’t get in the movies,” she lamented.
“Why not?” Rooney asked.
Rather than shrink from the insult or pretend it had never happened, Barbra had decided to put it right out there on national television, ensuring that her nose would become even more discussed. The only way to make the criticism go away, she seemed to believe, was to confront it head on, bring it up to bring it down.
“What’s wrong with your nose?” Rooney asked.
“It’s a lovely nose.”
Barbra giggled. That was what she was hoping he’d say. And the gallant Rooney kept the compliments coming.
“It’s an adorable nose,” he insisted.
“Most people don’t like it,” Barbra said. “It’s a different commercial market.”
“That’s all in your mind,” Rooney told her.
Barbra looked over at him. “How did you ever work—?” She indicated Rooney’s own nose, a little bulbous and splotchy from years of heavy drinking.
To his credit, Rooney didn’t take offense and instead seemed to agree with her. “Look at mine!” he said. “Mine is . . . is . . . is . . .”
“It fits,” Barbra said. “W. C. Fields.” And then she laughed.
It was a strange little interaction. Rooney had complimented her, but in response, Barbra had insulted him. No doubt she didn’t mean to be cruel, even if it had come across that way. She appeared to just want to point out that people with oversized noses could be successful.
Of course, she’d also been warned by Don Softness that Rooney was a notorious scenery chewer, so she was making sure to take control. She wasn’t going to let anyone, movie legend or not, hog her spotlight.
Even when Rooney tried to change the subject away from schnozzolas, asking his costar if she’d dedicate a song to him, Barbra kept the imperious attitude going. “No,” she replied, and laughed again. Her feistiness may actually have been a prelude to the duet she then sang with Rooney, “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” a humorous riff on lovers’ quarrels. After all, Barbra often got into character for a song. “The sleepless nights, the daily fights,” she and Rooney harmonized, “the quick toboggan when you reach the heights, I miss the kisses and I miss the bites, I wish I were in love again!”
Whatever Barbra’s motivation, the duet was successful, Softness thought. Rooney had sung the number with Judy Garland in the 1948 film Words and Music, and Barbra filled Garland’s shoes surprisingly well, bringing exactly the right kind of winking combativeness to her rendition. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing and where she was going. She seemed on top of the world.
Not long afterward, Don Softness took Barbra out to dinner. The publicist knew that his client “didn’t sing unless she was paid for it,” so he fully expected her to decline when Mimi, the gregarious, florid proprietor of their favorite Italian eatery on East Fifty-third Street, asked if she’d step up to the piano and give them a number. But to Softness’s great surprise, Barbra agreed, accepting the scattering of applause from their fellow diners. From her bag she produced some sheet music and handed it over to the pianist. That was when Softness understood why Barbra had said yes. The song she’d sing for them was “Moon River,” which she was scheduled to perform on an upcoming PM East. This impromptu rendition at Mimi’s would give her a chance to practice.
To Softness’s great delight, Barbra was proving to be a natural television performer—galvanized, she said, by the knowledge that thousands of people were viewing her. “You can’t see them,” she said, “but you know they’re there and watching you.” Such exposure inspired and emboldened her. And in the process Softness witnessed one of the most interesting public personas he’d ever seen take shape.
On the December 8 show, for example, appearing alongside Paul Dooley, singer Lillian Briggs, pianist Lee Evans, and a rising young comedian named Woody Allen, Barbra had gone off on a riff about smoked foods. There was no stopping her—not that anyone wanted to. Smoked foods caused cancer, Barbra insisted, in a voice that got more nasal every time she appeared on the show. People in Iceland got cancer at much higher rates than anyone else, she pontificated, because all they ate in Iceland were smoked foods. “Streisand’s a little sick, folks,” Mike Wallace deadpanned. Barbra’s absurd claims needed no facts to support them, because it wasn’t what she said, but how she said it. Even the phrase “smoked foods” was funny the way it rolled off her tongue.
Softness had clued into her act very quickly. Barbra was deliberately building an eccentric reputation because she knew it got her attention, and she did so “carefully and assiduously,” he observed. She understood that she had to be “somewhat—but not too—outrageous.” Softness thought Barbra walked that line very well because the PM East producers kept rebooking her for more appearances. But the publicist also knew that they could capitalize on the gimmick even further. Together they could build her into a real character, stringing together the many little quirks that already defined her.
Over the last few weeks, given all the time they spent together on publicity, they’d grown quite close. When Barbra was evicted from her apartment on Eighteenth Street—the tenant of record had returned and, appalled at how she’d redecorated the place, insisted that she leave immediately—it had been Softness to whom she’d turned for help. Loading up his car with all of Barbra’s shoes and boas and cloche hats, the publicist told her he’d take her to her mother’s in Brooklyn. “Anywhere but there,” Barbra said. So Softness allowed her to live in his office, just down the block from Mimi’s. Barbra was grateful, but also depressed to find herself a nomad again. Quite the predicament for a young woman who, in a matter of weeks, would begin rehearsals for a Broadway show—now retitled I Can Get It for You Wholesale, the name of the original novel.
Being thrown out of her apartment so soon after winning her first big role simply affirmed Barbra’s old belief that whenever anything good happened to her, God threw down a thunderbolt of bad luck. But if anyone had the resilience to get through this, Softness believed, it was his young, determined client. He was determined to make Barbra’s stay at his office as comfortable as possible. She could sleep on the couch in the main room and use the office’s kitchen and full bathroom, but she had to be out by nine every morning unless it was one of those days when they were working on press releases together, which were more and more frequent of late.
As he watched her warble “Moon River” beside Mimi’s piano, wearing old dungarees and no makeup, Softness realized the noisy room had fallen silent. The girl sure had something. Softness was enjoying the process of building her up. Barbra’s thrift-shop habit was a great angle that her publicist knew could be used for maximum advantage. A shawl that served “double duty as a bed cover,” he said, was a terrific detail. So was a hunter’s bullet bag that could be publicized as “one of the most marvelous purses” Barbra owned. There was plenty of raw material like this that the publicist could fashion into a compelling public persona—if Barbra was willing.
She was. She was glad to do anything if it meant moving her closer to what she told Softness was “the epitome of achievement”—success as a “straight dramatic actress.” Miss Marmelstein might be one giant step toward that goal, but she was still, bottom line, just a small-bit character who sang. Barbra made clear to her publicist that she hadn’t given up her long-held dream of playing Juliet. That was all well and good, Softness replied. But before she could be Juliet, Softness told her, she had to become something else. For now, he was calling it a “kook.”
In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, in all of the markets across the country that carried PM East, television viewers on the night of December 21 tuned in to see kooky Barbra Streisand do her thing. And they bore witness to the particular satisfaction she took in having her revenge, at long last, on David Susskind.
“People like you are ruining show business because you don’t let new talent emerge,” she said, sitting right beside the producer two years after she hadn’t even been permitted into his office. “You think it’s your duty to squelch it.”
The usually eloquent Susskind, there to promote his upcoming production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, seemed at a loss on how to respond to Barbra’s accusation. He only stammered in reply. In the booth, the show’s producers were beaming. Although they’d never admit it publicly, they loved Barbra’s broadside against Susskind. Moments like these were what made for great television.
Indeed, the theme of the show that night was success. “The uphill grind, the knifings, the falls and the comebacks, the heartbreaks and the rewards,” Don Softness had written in his press release. Barbra would lead off the show “as a young performer aspiring to glory,” producer Mert Koplin intended, “and then Susskind’s famous people would come in.” These would include Anthony Quinn and a returning Mickey Rooney, the stars of Requiem. No one expected Barbra to do and say what she did, but no one stopped her either. She was on a roll. The kooky Jewish kid from Brooklyn spoke her mind to the big-shot producer, then delivered a touching rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” before wrapping it all up with a big, mod, offbeat reimagining of “Ding–Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” It was fair to say there was no one else quite like Barbra Streisand on television, or anywhere else, for that matter.
“I scare you,” she said, quite astutely, to Susskind. “I’m so far out, I’m in.”
Or she would be soon if she and the team behind her had their way.