Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Another cool or slightly chilly day yesterday in New York. Waiting for that really warm sunny day when it makes you think Summer is really a-coming. In the meantime, the flowers are moving in and blooming along the streets and avenues, privately and publicly and they’re beautiful and for all of us!
This past Sunday was Barbra Streisand’s birthday. A big one: 80; but much smaller than her great talent. Somehow that surprised me even though she’s just a year younger than this writer. I don’t know her, never met her, never even saw her EXCEPT that once! That was on the second night of “Funny Girl” at the Winter Garden Theater here in New York.
I knew about her talent. By then everybody in New York knew about it because along with her nightclub and TV appearances, she’d made her first LP which was a big hit. But up until that night I saw her — on March 26, 1964 — I didn’t really know about her and the power of simply her presence on stage.
In my memory’s eye I can still see her sitting solo on center stage at a “make up table” with a frame — for a mirror — hanging over it (no mirror so the audience could see her), and singing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” It was a great show, a great score with a great cast, EXCEPT her talent was so great, SHE was the show. Her Talent filled the huge theater.
People left the theater astounded, overwhelmed. A girl I knew who was studying acting, ran out of the theater crying, sobbing, admitting that she knew she’d never be that good. She was right.
Although I never saw her again except on television, I’ve known many people who did and do know her, and heard directors such as Willie Wyler one night at a dinner at Merle Oberon’s recall with pleasure working with her. But a very close and now old friend of mine, Bob Schulenberg, whose work has appeared many times on these pages, met her at the very beginning of her long career and briefly had an intense personal (and creative) relationship with her in those early days. He’d written about it for us several years ago. It seemed a perfect way to honor her on her anniversary …
The night I got to New York on July 1st, 1960, I stayed at Barre Dennen’s apartment on 69 West 9th Street. Barre, who was an actor, had been a classmate and friend at UCLA.
About two in the morning, we went out to the Pam Pam on Sixth Avenue to get something to eat. And Barbra was just finishing at the Lion, a gay bar right across the street from Barre’s apartment. She had won a talent show there and the prize was a two-week booking with dinner and an audition at the Bon Soir.
So on this night, as Barre and I were going down the sidewalk, she came out of the Lion and called to him, “Barre! Barre!”
I turned around and there was this very exotic looking creature wearing a kind of lurex-y jacket of red and silver metallic threads and huge Elizabethan sleeves that puffed out, and underneath she had on a mulberry velvet short skirt about an inch and a half above the knee (minis didn’t come in to fashion for about another five years). She was carrying shopping bags stuffed with clothing — feathers, a beautiful lavender feather coat.
Barre called back to her: “Barbra, Barbra.”
Catching up with us, she had on pinkish nylons, which I had never seen. But the star thing she was wearing that I couldn’t stop looking at was a pair of 1927 perfect red satin and silver kid shoes with the strap going down the middle. In perfect condition. Exquisite shoes. I knew this because I collected old Vogues and had actually photographed a drawing in a 1927 issue of these very shoes.
I told her I’d photographed them in the magazine.
Immediately she and I had A LOT in common. She came with us to the Pam Pam.
This was the first girl I met in New York and I was blown away by everything about her. She was so unusual and intense and curious. We sat in the Pam Pam and she asked all about my trip. She was just a teenager from Brooklyn who’d never been any farther than Manhattan. She was fascinated by the fact that I had had lunch in L.A. and was sitting in New York with her having dinner. She was very curious about the life in L.A, how we lived and how we had cars. She didn’t even drive at this point.
She became my first friend in New York.
Soon after I found a one bedroom furnished apartment on the first floor at 16 Gay Street (built in 1803) which overlooked a central garden in the back. I took it because it was so picturesque. Right next door was the apartment lived in by a writer Ruth McKenney who wrote about her life there with her sister. The stories formed the basis for a best-selling book and a hit Broadway show and Hollywood film, “My Sister Eileen,” and was later made into a Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”
Barbra at that time was still living at home with her mother in Brooklyn, although she tried to stay in Manhattan as much as possible. Her mother was always on her case about “getting a job” as a secretary. Barbra also had the most beautiful hands and beautiful long fingernails and her mother was always telling her “you can’t type with long fingernails.”
So she often stayed with friends or house-sat whenever she could. When she needed to, she stayed either at my place, or at Barre’s place, keeping some of her things at both places. She kept clothes in my living room closet.
Some people thought I was a transvestite when they looked in that closet with all Barbra’s sequins and feathers.
A couple of months after we met, Barre and I took her to the audition at the Bon Soir which was part of her prize at the Lion. The Bon Soir was on 8th Street between 6th and MacDougal. It was a very chic club, tiny and intimate in the basement of the building, with a small stage and tables around it and a bar at one end of the room. A lot of uptown people patronized it, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor occasionally, and it was very well-known to both the Broadway and the society set. Supposedly it was gay at the bar although that was something I knew very little about at that time in my life. Nevertheless, it was a perfect place for Barbra to sing since she already had a gay following.
At that point, I still had not heard her sing although several people had asked me if I had and what did I think. The audition was the first time.
When I was at UCLA, I had heard Piaf sing at the old Biltmore in LA. I had been so knocked out by her ability to show drama by not doing anything, by just standing there black v-neck sweater and skirt, houseslippers and a simple crucifix around her neck. These were the days when popular American female singers like Doris Day, Patti Page and Teresa Brewer were the stars. We had nothing like Piaf who would take us somewhere with a song by acting it out.
Barbra’s audition song was Harold Arlen’s “Sleepin’ Bee.” When I heard her I realized she was the one who would and could do in America what Piaf did. They were on the same page about thinking that way about songs. Her act was a part of a young woman’s life, an arc to young love to betrayal to “Lover Come Back To Me,” and to comedy songs to lighten things up. This was in part thanks to Barre, because he brought that to her.
After the audition, we went to the Pam Pam and she kept asking, “how did I do, how did I do?” Barre was giving her notes. I couldn’t talk. All I could do was cry. She was so moving, so engaging. How could you describe it to her? How could you give her notes. I had no idea. I had known her for three months and I had no idea what she could do. I was completely blown away.
She’s so perfect now with retakes and doing it over and over, but back then this was happening before your eyes live. It was raw but it was perfect. You were really looking into someone’s life very intimately. She had tremendous depth of emotions in her interpretation and performance, and she was only eighteen!
She was hired for the Bon Soir. I took her to opening night. She opened for Phyllis Diller. All the critics were there. All the syndicated columnists — Dorothy Kilgallen, Ed Sullivan, Leonard Lyons. Barbra was a sensation. They all had been there for Phyllis Diller but ended up writing about Barbra. So my mother back in Fresno picked up Dorothy Kilgallen’s column the next morning in the Fresno Bee and read about this amazing talent that was the friend of mine I had told her about. Even my parents were impressed.
The buzz about her immediately started but everyone wanted to see who this was. She looked different, sounded different, so young and yet she had this 40-year-old experience going on.
What was so lucky about the Bon Soir was that Tiger Haynes and the Three Flames were there. There were only four musicians and they were perfect for her. She also was lucky to have Peter Daniel as the house pianist. He ended up being her musical director (and marrying Lanie Kazan, who understudied Barbra in “Funny Girl”).
I had needed a sample of portrait illustration for my book — the kind that Rene Bouche was doing in those days for Vogue, so I asked Barbra if she would pose for me (because she was the only person I knew). Since college I had been in the thrall of Ingres type portraits. I adapted it to Barbra.
She wore a very beautiful Geoffrey Beene dress (she knew so many outlets and thrifts shops and had such a good eye). I made her up for the portrait. So that I could see her features better I put false eyelashes on her, the eyes were so wonderful that I played them up. I wanted a very simple hairstyle to frame her face – she had been wearing a very elaborate teenage hairstyles with bangs and hairpieces and ponytail.
She loved the look. It was the first time someone legitimized her and made her look like mainstream beauty because her other clothes were like costumes. The image we created was not unlike Audrey Hepburn, the top of the line look then. She later used the portrait for her professional headshots.
When she got the booking at the Bon Soir, she asked me to make her up for opening night and teach her how to do the makeup and hair as it was in the picture that I had done of her.
During the first Bon Soir gig, she pretty much lived at Barre’s. He was on West 9th, and the Bon Soir was around the corner on West 8th. He was living very smartly. His parents were paying for the apartment. It was a very nice studio. Barre and she had an affair that ended badly, and it was one of her first big hits “Cry Me a River” that was about that relationship.
It was at Barre’s apartment that I would make up half of her face and she would make up the other half to match it, copy it. Where the line of her eye was extended, I would fill in with a false eyelash so that it looked like she had enormous eyes. They did that in the movies in the 30s. That’s how her famous (at the time) Cleopatra look got started because she couldn’t glue the eyelash on properly and just extended it with eye-liner.
She was so successful at the Bon Soir, the owner moved her up to his other club, the Blue Angel on East 52nd Street. By this time she had done several gigs at the Bon Soir.
It was when she was working at the Blue Angel that she called me one day and said there was somebody who wanted to be her manager; that he was coming by to see the show that night, and would I be there to witness, to check him out? It was Marty Ehrlichman.
After the show he came backstage. He was a very elegant gentleman and very modestly told her how much he loved her performance. She had already spoken with him, and had already had one bad experience with a manager that didn’t work out.
After he left, she asked me what I thought. I asked her: does he want to tell you what to sing? Answer, no. Does he want you to change your name? No. Does he want you to have a nosejob? No. I said, well what have you got to lose? And forty-five years later, they both had a lot to gain.
After the Blue Angel, she was launched. She toured Mr. Kelly‘s in Chicago and the Caucus Club in Detroit. She got herself an apartment over Oscar’s Fish Restaurant on Third Avenue. With a bathtub in the kitchen and one window which looked out on Third Avenue.
She did the Tonight Show which everyone in the business referred to as the Paar show because of its host. Orson Bean was the host that night, sitting in for the vacationing Jack Paar. It was a big deal career-wise but not performance-wise because there was Gore Vidal and Phyllis Diller as the main guests.
For that show, Barbra got her first pair of brand new expensive shoes from Madame Daunou on 57th Street. $65. Unimaginably expensive for those days. Afterwards Phyllis and her husband, Fang, took us to the Brasserie, which was located in the Seagram’s Building on the 53rd Street side. It was an all-night place and drew a big mixed late night crowd.
Barbra and I used to go to the Brasserie all the time. That was when she tried out a new look. She had a huge wardrobe of great stuff. We got her up in something great, with her hair and face made up, and she’d go into the Brasserie and make an entrance. It was always around midnight.
By the time of her appearance on the Paar show, there was so much going on for her. She was a regular on the Mike Wallace PM-East show, which was local. One night Mike Wallace had her on with David Susskind, Anthony Quinn and Mickey Rooney.
They were shooting “Requiem for a Heavyweight” up in the Bronx, with Susskind producing. When Barbra came on, she was introduced to everybody. When she got to David Susskind, she said, “You’re an agent aren’t you?” And he said, “Well, I’ve worked as an agent.” “Yeah,” she continued, “well, I know you’re an agent because I once had an appointment to see you and I sat and waited and waited and you still never saw me. And that’s why I don’t trust agents.”
Susskind loved it; he invited her up to the set of “Requiem” in the Bronx.
A few years ago when Mike Wallace interviewed Barbra, he told her, on-camera, that although he often had her on his show (PM-East ) “I never liked you.” Barbra was really taken aback. And hurt by his revelation. She said, “Then why did you ask me on the show?”
She had tears in her eyes. That’s the real Barbra.
She’s very shy. She’s really an introvert. People find it hard to imagine. And she’s very deep. When she’s funny, they think that’s who she really is. But in reality, she’s terrified of people. She’s very cautious and because she’s always been so much brighter than most, she had to live her separate internal, secret life, masquerading intelligence and shyness from the time she was a teenager. I think that’s what the appeal is to gay people about her; because she’s doubled so much that they perceive that. That’s what the mystery is about her. She’s very, very private.
In 1962 Barbra went to Broadway in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” and the rest is history. In July of that year I went to France, invited by my friends Katia and Daniel Aubry who had a house in the South of France. I had just sold my first drawing to Robert Benton, then the art director of Esquire (and later the filmmaker). I thought if I’m in Esquire my career’s going to take off and I’ll be working, so it might be the last chance I’ll get to travel. So I went to Paris for a month … and stayed for two years …
When I was living in Paris in 1964, a friend of mine who was working at Conde Nast was going to New York on business. I told her about Barbra, who was going to be opening on Broadway in “Funny Girl,” and asked her if she could bring back some of the reviews. She brought back a copy of Life and a copy of Time magazine.
Barbra was on both covers.