Book Review: “Hello, Gorgeous” by William J. Mann

Hello, Gorgeous by William J. Mann is the story of Barbra Streisand’s triumphant rise to show business power. During the ultra-conventional 50s, in a world of Doris Day and Dinah Shore, Streisand was an odd-ball Jewess who refused to “fix” herself to conform. She sang in clubs and on TV, facing the viewers with crossed eyes and a beak nose. Her voice was harsh, edgy and rarely sweet, but it was hers, and it held an audience entranced. By 1964, Streisand had been on the covers of Life and Time. She had sung on TV with Judy Garland. She was the queen of Columbia Records and a hit on Broadway with “Funny Girl.”

Many books have been written about Streisand. Now Mann, the author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn and How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood has turned a sharp eye on Streisand’s early years. The book starts in 1960, with her as an aspiring actress, and ends with the debut of Funny Girl. The title of the book is her opening line in the show: “Hello, gorgeous,” spoken to a mirror.

Little in Mann’s five-hundred page doorstop of a volume is original. But he has written a biography that is detailed and mostly fair, if a touch too sympathetic to his subject. Streisand’s early years were tragic: Her kindly father died when she was a baby. Her mother was distant and unavailable. Her stepfather was cruel.

Mann is best at evoking the environment of Streisand’s New York in the early sixties. Personalities like producer Ray Stark and the up and coming actor Elliott Gould, who Streisand married in 1963 are colorfully and alive. Mann sometimes strains to retell the old tales and often employs purple prose to set the scene and the mood of his heroine.

When discussing Streisand’s art, Mann gushes and flatters more than evaluates. He calls her voice “exquisite”, which it is not.  Mann writes that the sheer power of her voice could induce shivers. Presumably any readers of “Hello, Gorgeous” will already have a good idea of her voice and its aspects. So these descriptions are hardly useful or enlightening.

However, even success did not make Strei­sand happy. In fact, success just fed her growing ego, making her even more paranoid and hyper-sensitive ­to any criticism. Mann goes to great lengths to explain why this was and to try and make the reader understand as well. Many of Striesand’s old friends and mentors had trouble sympathizing with the new Barbra. She became determined to seem to be self-created and so she had eradicated most of them from her CV and her life. She came to intimidate and control everyone near her. The last three chapters are full of items like this: “If she didn’t like ‘the color of the rug . . . she’d become ‘affected,’ and so the color had to be changed.” Hiding behind the title of “perfectionist”, she became a horror to work with or for; and a harridan to be near.

Over time, Barbra has come to deny the existence of the hardnosed young girl on-the-make from “Hello, Gorgeous.” She has become soi distant queen to her fans who happily shell out $650 a ticket to see her perform.

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