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Whatever his excuses, Dennen, Mann tells us, broke Streisand’s heart. She walked into their shared apartment one day to find him in the arms of a man. Their relationship, unsurprisingly, never recovered.
Fortunately, Streisand proved adept at finding mentors — from her acting teacher, Allan Miller, to the sympathetic Phyllis Diller, who, despite her frowsy image, was a fashion maven who took her protégée clothes shopping. As Streisand moved on to more prominent nightclubs, she attracted such celebrity fans as Orson Bean, who helped introduce her to television audiences. She was impressive enough in auditions to land the part of the put-upon, spinsterish secretary Miss Marmelstein in the 1962 Broadway production of “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” even though the role was written for someone middle-aged.
That production marked a turning point in her life, as well as in her career. It introduced her to leading man Elliott Gould, who pursued her, adored her and eventually married her, even as he struggled with his own career. (They divorced in 1971.)
Streisand campaigned actively to win the role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” By then, she had a crackerjack manager, Marty Erlichman. With his backing, her first publicity team, the Softness Group, and their successor, the better-connected Lee Solters, persuaded her to present herself as “Barbra the Kook” — an image underlined by her thrift-store attire and rambling, jokey responses to interviewers. One particularly brilliant publicity tactic was to persuade “a mostly phony organization” called the National Association of Gag Writers established by comedy writer George Q. Lewis for promotional purposes, to bestow on Streisand an entirely invented prize: the Fanny Brice Award.
Mann’s account of the development of “Funny Girl,” with its rotating cast of directors (Jerome Robbins was replaced by Garson Kanin and then reinstated), would make a great backstage musical. In another conflation of art and life, Streisand embarked on an affair with her debonair co-star, Sydney Chaplin (one of Charlie Chaplin’s sons), who was playing Brice’s gambler husband, Nick Arnstein. When Streisand broke off the tryst, the couple’s onstage chemistry went from hot to decidedly not. But her performance, traversing the spectrum from shtick to tragedy, was hailed as a triumph.
The storyline associated with Streisand’s stardom, Mann writes, is that she was “a once-in-a-generation talent discovered like a glittering pearl in the brackish oyster beds of Brooklyn.” Over time, Mann writes, all the people who had contributed to her success, from “Wholesale” director Arthur Laurents on down, were “airbrushed out of her biography.” “Hello, Gorgeous” is their mostly affectionate revenge.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.