Although we have been counseled for decades now that “less is more,” sometimes more isn’t enough. This is decidedly the case with Barbra Streisand’s 970-page, indexless brick of a memoir, My Name Is Barbra, an item heavy enough to throw at someone in a fit of pique and injure them. In my own case I had a shoulder replacement right before receiving the book and read it in pamphlet-like segments that my daughter had created by tearing out clumps of pages at the spine. (Viking, please forgive this desecration.)

Streisand, who is now eighty-one, spent ten years writing the book. In 1984, when Streisand was forty-two, Jackie Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, suggested she write a memoir, and the two met for tea. But Streisand felt she was too young and too involved with other projects. “The thought of isolating myself in a room [to] write…wasn’t appealing,” she comments. Still, the idea was planted.

The memoir she finally came up with is peppered liberally with ellipses, suggesting that its author might have had even more to impart if she hadn’t exercised a modicum of restraint. Indeed, it’s easy to laugh it off as an exercise in undiluted narcissism, driven by a vaulting ego. What’s the point, one might ask, of so much elaborately detailed selfhood spilling all over the place, even if Streisand is a celebrity—a phenomenon of sorts? There is something parodic about the scope of the enterprise, as if its author had lost sight of her own significance—or, rather, her relative insignificance in the scheme of things: she quotes Goethe out of the blue and invokes Alan Watts’s Spirit of Zen and recounts instructing Bill Clinton on how to savage an opponent in a debate.

A reader can do little but gawk at the magnitude of it all, the glamorous people and the meeting with Queen Elizabeth and the lavishly decorated residences and the beautiful men with good teeth. (Teeth are very important to Streisand, so much so that one of the reasons she seems to have married James Brolin was his “great teeth”; when she met Barack Obama she was “impressed” by, among other things, his “beautiful teeth.”) Not to overlook the endless descriptions of the food she indulges in, especially Breyers coffee ice cream, Swanson fried chicken, rice pudding without raisins, and brownies with walnuts. The emphasis on food—beginning with the “great piece of kosher cake…yellow cake with dark chocolate icing” that was served at her Jewish summer camp in the Catskills and that she’s “been searching for ever since,” like a down-market Proustian madeleine—endeared her to me, given our national obsession with thinness.

The memoir was presumably written for Streisand fans, those millions in love with her unmatchable, tensile voice, which soars and soars, filling the room to the point of obscuring the presence of the listener, and her brashness, and her unabashed Jewishness, whether expressed in her overarticulated Brooklyn accent or her unfixed nose or her fetchingly insecure form of self-confidence. (“I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage,” she writes. “I never attempted to hide it when I became an actress. It’s essential to who I am.”) For readers who long to catch glimpses of her, the book has photos galore of Streisand in a dizzying panoply of hairdos and outfits and falling into the arms of various unlikely amours, such as Pierre Trudeau, then the prime minister of Canada.

I must admit right off that I have never warmed to Streisand’s larger-than-life persona or her frequently schmaltzy singing style, in which she wears the song instead of letting the song lead her; I am more a devotee of dejected crooners with less lush voices and a repertoire of stripped-down lyrics, singers like Patty Griffin and Iris DeMent. I realize I am probably in the minority, particularly for readers of this book. Yet there is no gainsaying Streisand’s often astonishing artistry, including her skill, especially in the early films, such as The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), as a natural comedienne, or her pointillist comprehension of the making of movies. (There is something of the autodidact in her, attuned to aesthetics in general, whether Mahler’s Tenth, Art Nouveau glass, or the paintings of Egon Schiele.)

Then there is the fact that even in her youth she stood her ground, refusing to collude with Hollywood’s many deracinated Jews. I can only admire her insistence on making Yentl (1983), based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born author whose writing was translated from the Yiddish, about a young Orthodox woman who yearns to be a yeshiva boy. Streisand had to pitch the project over and over again, meeting resistance from everyone around her, including her soon-to-be-former agent, Sue Mengers. “Everybody in Hollywood was so afraid to be Jewish,” she writes.


The prepublication hullabaloo that surrounded the appearance of My Name Is Barbra was predictable, beginning months ahead of time with rumors of an eight-figure advance and sotto voce discussions of whether the book was ghostwritten. To my mind the biggest faux pas of the entire venture—and there is no denying that parts of the book are very absorbing—is the discernible lack of an authoritative editor, or perhaps Streisand’s disinclination to listen to an editor’s advice. It seems that her instincts have been allowed to prevail to the point where other people’s opinions don’t count, even when they should. She announces, “I never really felt intimidated by anyone.” It’s both her strength, one might argue, and her Achilles’ heel.

There does not seem to be a single piece of praise or adulation that Streisand fails to quote, whether it’s from her early days as a performer or later in life. It’s hardly surprising that her ex-husband, Elliott Gould, with whom she had a son, Jason, told Rolling Stone in a 1974 interview that “at her best, Barbra Streisand is probably the greatest singing actress since Maria Callas”; what else is an eclipsed if admiring spouse to say? But that’s a tiny drop of flattery in a cascade of homage: Frank Sinatra, Ingmar Bergman, George Balanchine, Princess Diana, and Stephen Sondheim vie in their admiration for her voice and cinematic gifts.

There are unending tributes to her jolie laide beauty (Robert Redford and Cecil Beaton) and smoldering eroticism, which ensnared Omar Sharif when he was filming Funny Girl (1968). He told one reporter, “The first impression is that she’s not very pretty. But after three days, I am honest, I found her physically beautiful, and I start lusting after this woman!” Ryan O’Neal and Jeff Bridges were caught off guard by Streisand’s offbeat sex appeal when they costarred with her in The Main Event (1979) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). The then Prince of Wales had a long-standing crush on her, inviting her to Highgrove and showing her around his beloved gardens, while Prince himself had a poster of the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born that Streisand did with Kris Kristofferson hanging on his bedroom wall—but was too shy to meet her. Not to overlook Bob Dylan, who wrote to her that she was his “favorite star.” (Who would have thought?) The preening continues until the reader—at least, this reader—finds herself wilting, looking for some shade, some bit of droll modesty, but there is none to be had.

Still, My Name Is Barbra can’t simply be written off as a sales pitch or a shallow excavation of how one shy, skinny “marink” with asymmetrical features—close-set eyes, a large mouth, and a nose on its way to becoming legendary—who shared a bed with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Pulaski Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that accommodated five people (including her grandparents and her older brother, Sheldon) grew up to be world-famous. It serves as a lesson in what Streisand has learned over the years, including such pieces of accrued wisdom as “Don’t worry if you’re scared. Everybody who’s really good is scared.”

Streisand describes herself as “a misfit in high school” and a “loner,” both of which seem credible, except for the fact that almost everyone who achieves fame seems to claim those distinctions. She craved the spotlight—her first ambition was to become a famous actress. Even at sixteen, standing in the bedroom doorway of her first New York apartment, she was aware of the perks that came with power: “I have to become famous just so I can get somebody else to make my bed.” But fantasizing about becoming a contender and actually becoming one are two very different things: many little girls dream these days of becoming Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, and their dreams remain just that—dreams. Streisand, on the other hand, as she relates it in her book, is almost confounding in her single-mindedness and persistence.

What we get is an extended, complex portrait of a woman gifted early on with an extraordinary talent combined with an unyielding drive, fueled by a mixture of insecurity and audaciousness (although the latter never seems to have been hampered by the former). “I never thought I was great,” she writes, but the truth seems to be that for a large part of her life she flirted with the possibility that she was. From adolescence, she writes, she “began to believe in the power of the will.”

When Streisand wanted to go to an apprentice summer stock program at the age of fifteen, she defied her mother’s wishes by using some of the five hundred dollars her grandfather had left her when he died. Her background sounds somewhat bare-bones—“My family never had fun…we didn’t go on outings…we never went anywhere”—and she seems to have been left largely to her own devices: “There was no routine and no rules.” Her favorite memories of her adolescent years were “reading movie magazines and eating Breyer’s coffee ice cream.” She had a weakness for peanut M&M’s and Good & Plenty (“It was like eating jewelry”) when she went to the movies.


Despite Streisand’s excellent academic record at Erasmus Hall High School, where she had a 93 average (she previously attended an all-girls yeshiva and PS 89), her mother wasn’t convinced college was as important as learning to type, “so I could work as a secretary in the school system and get paid vacations. (That’s why I grew my nails so long…so I’d never have to type.)” Her talons indeed became her signature, even when they clashed with the character she was playing, such as the “sensitive and dedicated” psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides (1991). I might note that all of my female therapists have had neatly clipped, unmanicured nails. Not to mention Streisand’s wardrobe choices: Dr. Susan Lowenstein looked more like a corporate executive dressed by Streisand’s bestie, Donna Karan, than a schleppy Upper West Side analyst in flats and a dun-colored pantsuit.

From these spare beginnings Streisand marched forward, unstoppably. “You see, I had big plans,” she writes, as though we hadn’t guessed as much. She seems impervious to rejection, even when she is turned down by the Actors Studio because of her age (“Maybe I didn’t want them”). She began auditioning (for MGM) at nine. At thirteen she made a record and surprised herself with her ability to improvise. At fourteen she read Show Business and started going to acting class. She had an image of herself as someone destined to become a “big star,” even before she landed her first real showbiz engagement in September 1960 at a supper club on 8th Street called the Bon Soir, where she was an instant success singing ballads, up-tempo pieces, and, just to tweak the audience’s expectations, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

She was unafraid of standing out—“I don’t like to imitate anybody,” she observes—including by dressing unconventionally. Every outfit and pair of shoes she wore over six decades is meticulously chronicled. Either she has a memory to rival that of Stalin, who is said to have been able to recall every detail of the enormous number of books he read, or she kept a continuing record, assuming prospective readers would want to know about the 1930s honey-colored lamb coat with an embroidered lining of flowers she bought for ten dollars at a thrift shop and wore to the audition for I Can Get It for You Wholesale. She decided to drop the middle a in Barbara because she thought it was “different and unique” and resisted, unlike the eponymous Jewish American Princess Marjorie Morningstar in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel, getting a nose job, despite being advised to do so by a number of people around her. She was fearful of what it might do to her voice. Besides which, she writes, “I liked the bump on my nose.” She says she didn’t trust anyone “to do exactly what I wanted and no more.”

One of the things that most interests me in this story of Streisand’s life is gleaning how her granite will, even more than her musical gift, developed. She attributes some of it to her mother’s lack of attention and approval, which fits in nicely with psychological theories about the irritant of deprivation producing the pearl of talent. But in Streisand’s case the theory doesn’t strike me as completely fitting, if only because she paradoxically always seems to have had the impermeable defenses of a well-nurtured child. Perhaps that is the mystery of genius (which doesn’t seem like too strong a term for her, even if she isn’t exactly my kind of genius): you are born with it, like a caul, untraceable except to itself, like the five-year-old Mozart commandeering the keyboard.

Although she never learned to read music and had precisely one voice lesson (“So, what’s this singing thing you teach?” she demanded of the vocal coach she went to see), there was musical ability in the family. Her mother, who worked as a secretary, had a beautiful voice; her grandfather used to sing in shul when the chazzan was ill; Streisand was “known as the girl on the block with a good voice.”

The abiding trauma in her life was the loss, when she was fifteen months old, of her thirty-five-year-old father, who came from an Orthodox Jewish background in Brooklyn and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of City College, and whom she came to idealize. “My mother told me that for months after my father died, I would still climb up on the window ledge to wait for him to come home,” she writes. “In some ways, I’m still waiting.”

After her father’s death, her mother married a used car salesman whom Streisand hated, although she liked the smell of his Pall Malls. She eventually taught her mother how to smoke. In addition to her older brother she had a younger half-sister, Roslyn. Both siblings merit barely a mention, as though she were an only child. As one of six fractious brothers and sisters, I was struck by their absence—surely they had some relationship growing up. Or perhaps, if there was any rivalry, she didn’t notice it.

She remembered her mother as not particularly affectionate, although she appears to have provided the basics of what Saul Bellow once called “potato love,” seeing to it that Barbra ate enough and was dressed warmly. Attention seems to have been selectively paid to her needs and desires: she was sent to a health camp because she was anemic, and she went to dancing school. From the beginning Streisand was a fiercely resilient creature, rising above less than optimal circumstances with ingenuity and determination. Lacking a doll, for instance (although I found this particular detail unpersuasive), she forswore self-pity and made one out of a hot-water bottle for which a neighbor knitted a pink sweater and hat.

Streisand describes herself as a “very forceful child”: “My mother and I did not have the typical mother-daughter relationship,” she writes. “I always had a certain power over her. Or maybe I was so relentless that I wore her down.” (One might argue that the key to her vast success was that eventually she wore everyone down.)

Apparently only a handful of people have ever resisted Streisand. One was Walter Matthau, who costarred with her in her second film, Hello, Dolly! (1969), playing the crusty romantic lead despite the twenty-two-year age difference between them. He resented Streisand’s novice attempts to direct him, graciously telling her, “You may be the singer in this picture, but I’m the actor! I have more talent in my farts than you have in your whole body!” She was also in a constant power struggle with the producer Ray Stark, who she felt didn’t appreciate her. And then there was crotchety Isaac Bashevis Singer, who thought she got his story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” wrong. After the film opened, Singer told The New York Times, “I never imagined Yentl singing songs. The passion for learning and the passion for singing are not much related in my mind. There is almost no singing in my works.”

Other than these and one or two other detractors whose advances she rejected—like Mandy Patinkin, who played opposite her in Yentl, didn’t like rehearsing, and was initially hostile to her, only for it to emerge that he’d expected to jump Streisand’s bones the moment he came on set and was reduced to tears when she told him she had no intention of having an affair with him—the encomiums come thick and heavy. She does provide a few derogatory descriptions in the book’s prologue, describing the reception of her performance, at the age of nineteen, as a lovelorn Jewish secretary named Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Reviewers referred to her as an “amiable anteater,” “a furious hamster,” and “a seasick ferret”—but these genuinely funny details get lost in the pages to come.

Somewhere during my infinitely time-consuming reading (the audio version, read by Streisand herself, runs to forty-eight hours and seventeen minutes), I was reminded of the moment at the 1985 Oscars when Sally Field shouted, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Places in the Heart. In Field’s case one felt a real vulnerability, her sudden sense of her own sway over the audience; in Streisand’s the embarrassing pileup of tributes seems more like a verification of her popularity, just in case we have failed to take in the extent of her celebrity.

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in the book, if only because it is unexpected and shows Streisand being open and susceptible, describes her at twenty-three taking up with Marlon Brando, then forty-one—“the man who in my opinion was the most gorgeous, the most brilliant, the most talented human being on earth!” Before they were formally introduced at a benefit for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1965, he kissed her on her back. They didn’t meet often, but when they did clearly “skipped the small talk.” When Warren Beatty invited them both to dinner at his girlfriend Leslie Caron’s house in London, Streisand and Brando got lost in conversation for hours, discussing their unhappy childhoods—“We both grew up with that feeling of not being seen”—while the actor’s wife, Tarita, a Polynesian actress, was left to herself. (Elliott Gould had stayed back in New York.)

During one conversation, Brando told Streisand he’d like to “fuck” her, which, somewhat inexplicably, she declined, possibly because of the lack of romantic intent in the blunt wording. Some years later they spent a day together in the desert outside Los Angeles, but the exact contours of their relationship—Do they ever sleep together?—remain foggy, as Streisand seems to prefer it. This deliberate obliqueness applies to many of her trysts, including with Kris Kristofferson (“perfect white teeth”), Don Johnson, and, over ten years, Jon Peters. She claims that she doesn’t quite remember sleeping with Beatty—which seems dubious and coy both. Her discussions of sex tend to be irritating, as if she were a chaste schoolgirl lost among a gang of ruffians. Although she is often self-deprecating about her looks, she is not above mentioning more than once that she has beautiful breasts and long legs.

After her performances at the Bon Soir, Streisand started to develop a following. She acquired an agent, who booked her at a nightclub in Detroit. Another client of her agent got her on The Jack Paar Show, where she shared billing with Phyllis Diller and wore a dress upholstered in burgundy damask and a pair of Fiorentina satin shoes dyed to match before changing into a black sheath for her second number. She had an instinctive sense of how to handle an audience: “For me, the secret is not to reach out. That’s futile. Instead you have to reach in. And I discovered that the more I turned inward the more the audience was drawn to me.”

Her post–Miss Marmelstein ascent was rapid—“Working my way up slowly didn’t figure into my plan”—and undoubtedly hastened by what she admitted was a certain cold-bloodedness. One close friend she moved in with when she was starting out and who helped publicize her talent was discarded for some wrongdoing or other: “I just put him out of my life. I can do that with people who disappoint me. It’s not one of my finest qualities. I can build a wall and shut them out.”

In the decades to come Streisand became a protean, almost mythic figure who inhabited many realms, all the time maintaining her indubitable kookiness and earthy Brooklyn accent. She chewed up the zeitgeist and spat it out, always keeping pace. Johnny Mathis was her favorite singer when she was young, but her tastes morphed over the years, and her own allure lasted from one era to the next; she went from accompanying Judy Garland to Donna Summer to the Bee Gees.

Later in the book she becomes friendly with Madeleine Albright and with Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia. Her political involvements exhibit her typically West Coast humanitarian outlook—lots of bien-pensant views, a commitment to feminism and Israel, without too much hard thinking. She becomes interested in the stock market, for which she shows a natural aptitude, buying and selling eBay, Amazon, Apple, and AOL and nearly doubling Donna Karan’s money in five months. (What are friends for?) She describes herself as “a mass of contradictions,” which she does seem to be, half-idealistic and half-ruthless. She is both a sensation—someone who shot into the skies like a comet at the age of twenty-one—and someone the average reader can surprisingly relate to, because she never fully outruns her own demons and never fully believes in her own success. On page 832 she writes, “I’m still that girl at the yeshiva who just couldn’t accept things that didn’t make sense to me.”

My Name Is Barbra is not to be dismissed, even at its astonishing length. It shows a busy intelligence at work and a fair degree of self-knowledge. I find much to admire about Streisand in her memoir, including her refusal to play down her own innate power in a period when women acted suitably pliant, as well as her ability to expound on gender politics without sounding shrill. It seems to me that it is her undidactic, nuanced approach to sex that clinches the unforgettable scene in The Way We Were (1973), in which she provides a rare example of the “female gaze” at its most tender, looking adoringly upon a sleeping Robert Redford.

There is nothing to do, then, but make way for her, this diva who shrewdly minimizes her own uniquely gilded life (a Malibu hideaway, stratospheric fees, personal gardeners, and film sets that must be wastefully redone according to her vision) by repeating that money doesn’t mean much to her and who has written a book that is a tribute to aspiration—alternately awe-inspiring, irksome, and engaging. “As a teenager,” she writes, “I wanted nothing more than to see my name in lights on a theater marquee.” She achieved that, and then she went on to advise Oprah and clone her dog Sammie, a Coton de Tulear, and to officiously inform us about gun safety legislation, nuclear proliferation, and “the environmental crisis.” The rest, the “more is more” that is the engine of My Name Is Barbra, is in the ellipses…