Oprah Talks to Barbra Streisand
Photo: Firooz Zahedi
The legendary singer/actress/director (Oscars! Grammys! Emmys! a Tony!) opens up about her wild-child Brooklyn girlhood, the mother who told her she'd never make it, the limits of perfectionism, her worries for today's world and why her 2006 tour was "about believing I am enough."You'd think Barbra Streisand—the eight-time Grammy® and two-time Oscar® winner—would have a long list of records she loves. Then again, maybe it shouldn't be any surprise that she's selective. "If I hear a record once, I usually never listen to it again," she tells me the day I visit her Malibu house. "I rarely listen to music—unless it's Billie Holiday. Or Shirley Horn...Maria Callas...and Mahler, Symphony no. 10. Those are things I never get tired of." Which is why, Barbra says, she's thinking about singing a Billie Holiday song, "out of respect," this October when she goes on her first extended tour in 12 years.
Leaving her dream house won't be easy. This is the refuge Barbra says she has longed for since the days when she shared a cramped Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother and grandparents. "Even after I became famous," she says, "I lived in a house I didn't like. I looked out my window and saw traffic going by. I never really saw the sky." Now, the skies have it: On the cloudless day of our conversation, we look out over an eternity of blue heaven and sea.
Beyond the main house, Barbra and her husband of eight years, actor James Brolin, are building a farmhouse—or, more precisely, Barbra is building it. ("I tried to find people to help me," she says, "but no one cares as much about the details as I do.") As architect in chief, she swirls from one unfinished room to the next, explaining to me her vision for a retreat that's like an 18th-century barn, complete with a water wheel in the front yard. At her heels is her frisky puppy, Sammie, an anniversary present from James. ("Give Oprah a kiss!" she cajoles.) She is crazy about this dog! She even had a birthday party for her.
"What do I know for sure?" Barbra says when I pose the question at the end of our time together. "I'm sure that I don't know everything I want to know. I have so much more to learn." Maybe, but having snagged an award in every medium she has worked in (music, theater, movies, TV), she is hands down one of the greatest, most enduring performers around.
Oprah: I was just listening to my old Barbra CDs. You are truly one of the musical legends of our time.
Barbra: I think of myself as a girl from Brooklyn.
Oprah: How can you, when you're sitting in this house, looking at that ocean?
Barbra: I have two sides. For instance, I have no problem giving away lots of money, but the Brooklyn part of me still has to ask, "Is that tile $10.95 a square foot?"
Oprah: I understand. But can you acknowledge what your voice and art have meant to the world?
Barbra: At times. But that's like contemplating your navel. Every time I look out over that ocean and see the lights of the city at night, I am in awe. To have this house now feels like being 21—like I've just made it on Broadway and I get to have all this. On one hand, you're talking about me as a legend. On the other hand, I remember trying to get an apartment on Park Avenue in the early sixties when I was a big star, and either because I was Jewish or an actress, I couldn't get in. I had letters from the mayor, the governor, the attorney general....
Oprah: And you still couldn't get in.
Barbra: Right. And no matter how many sold-out shows I do, I also understand when my records don't sell as many copies anymore. I think, "Well, I've been around for what, 40-some years?" I mean, it's the next person's turn. I could believe it if nobody came to see me.
Barbra: I wouldn't like it. But I'm also grateful that I've been around this long. I'm told I've had a number one album in every decade since the sixties.
Oprah: When did you know you had the voice?
Barbra: When I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, the neighborhood girls would sit on the stoop and sing. I was known as the kid who had a good voice and no father.
Oprah: I read that you resented your father for many years because he wasn't there.
Barbra: I wouldn't say resent, but maybe subconsciously. He died when I was 15 months old.
Oprah: Didn't your mother talk about him?
Barbra: No. Later in life, I said, "Why didn't you ever tell me about my father?" She said, "I didn't want you to miss him."
Oprah: Were you angry?
Barbra: Maybe. I just didn't know I was angry.
Oprah: Did your mother remarry?
Barbra: Yes, and my stepfather didn't like me. Maybe because he had three kids from another marriage who didn't live with us. I tried to make him like me for a while. I tried calling him Dad and got him his slippers at night when he came in. I'd get down on my belly and crawl so I didn't walk in front of the TV while he watched wrestling. But did he like me? No way.
Oprah: Why not?
Barbra: Good question. When I was 7 or 8, my mother sent me away to a camp where I couldn't stand the food. I was throwing potatoes down to the other end of the table. She came to visit, and I said, "You're not leaving without me." I was a very powerful kid. I had no reins on me. I said, "I'm packing my bags and going home with you." Little did I know, the guy with her in the car was my new stepfather. My mother never actually told me she had remarried. And later, she didn't tell me she was pregnant, either. I'm convinced this is why I cannot stand to be lied to. I can take any truth; just don't lie to me.
Oprah: Who did you think he was?
Barbra: I didn't know. At the time, my mother, brother, and I were living with my grandparents. My grandmother and grandfather slept in one room, and my mother and I slept in another with my brother sleeping next to us on a cot. We didn't have a living room, so we didn't have a couch, which is probably why I love couches now. When we drove back from that camp, we pulled up to a new apartment in a project.
I remember once riding in my stepfather's Pontiac with him and my friend Roslyn Arenstein. My mother had told me he was color-blind, so I was saying things like "Oh, what a pretty red light that is," thinking he doesn't see the red and the green, thinking I'm helping. My stepfather said to me, "Why don't you be more like your friend—quiet?"
Oprah: Your stepfather really did a number on you, but what about your mom?
Barbra: I remember one Christmas when I was doing Funny Girl, she went nuts. With tears running down her face, she closed her eyes and said, "Why is Barbra getting all the presents? Where are my presents?" That's when I realized she wanted to be famous, too. She had a beautiful coloratura, a soprano voice.