June 3, 2010

My front-row seat: Barbra Streisand tells all at the NYC Book Expo

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 6:43 pm

At the 2010 Book Expo in New York City recently, the keynote speaker was Barbra Streisand. “No videos, no photographs and no taping during the event please,” they told us beforehand – so I just took notes like crazy. If I didn’t get Streisand’s words exactly right or get all of the words down, it’s my fault. But I really tried. I even sat in the very front row.

“How many people do you think are at this talk?” I asked a woman sitting next to me, but she didn’t know. So I started counting all the people myself. I was up to 75 when an usher asked me what the freak I was doing. “Counting the house.”

“2,700 people.” Oh.

Streisand was here at the Expo in order to plug her new book, “My Passion for Design,” all about her experiences in building her dream house. And on the cover of the book, there’s a photo of her and her little white dog. Then, just before the lights went down, a man came out of the wings, carrying that very same little white dog. How totally cool! I just saw Streisand’s dog in the audience!

Then someone introduced Streisand. “She has spent the last ten years obsessing about getting her home just the way she wanted it,” said the person doing the introduction. “We went to her home recently and were supposed to only interview her for half an hour but we ended up staying for four and a half hours, fascinated with the craftsmanship and attention to detail that she put into her home. And all the care that she has put into her house, she has also put into her book.”

Then Gayle King came out on stage. She’s an editor and collaborator for Oprah Winfrey and was going to conduct the interview. Then Streisand walked out and got a 2,700-person standing ovation.

“Everybody knows that Barbra doesn’t like orange,” said King, “so I changed the color of my toenail polish color just for this event.” And if King is gonna call her Barbra, then so am I. “You seem to be a very private person, so why did you decide to let everyone into your home?”

“When I was directing ‘Prince of Tides,’ the script called for an old southern mansion and I needed to design that house – so I did. I did everything, including the closets. We live in our closets, don’t we? I visualized a two-story closet even, but never got to actually build that house. And then I wanted to do a movie, ‘The Normal Heart,’ and this project fell apart too. So instead of making the movie, I built a house.

“I have kept journals over the years and wanted to write an autobiography but that was hard so I wrote a book about design instead. It was easier.”

One subject that keeps coming up in the book, apparently, is the play between opposing forces. “The tension of opposites intrigues me – such as masculine wood combined with feminine roses. And also the soft complimenting the hard.”

“You had a hard childhood growing up?”

“We never had a couch. For me, couches were special. We sat on the dining room chairs. A1940s reproduction of European furniture. My brother slept on a roll-away cot. Then my mother remarried and we moved to a housing project and we finally got a couch. It was an ugly couch but I loved it.”

“So. What’s the matter with orange?” And Gayle also gently needled Barbra about not liking yellow either.

“I don’t know why I don’t like it.” Barbra doesn’t even have orange fish. They are mostly black and white. “Other people like orange. That’s fine with me. I personally just don’t like orange. It must be psychological, left over from our childhoods. When I was young, I went to a health camp because I was anemic. And we all had to dress the same – except that I had a burgundy sweater that the woman who watched me during the day knit for me. A burgundy sweater. With wooden buttons.”

Barbra really cares about detail. “I feel that the exterior of a house should match its interior.“ Good grief. She even matches the flowers in her garden with her couch.

“There’s a chapter the book called ‘The Elegant Barn’.” Then a photo of the elegant barn flashed onto a big screen on the stage. And the barn really was elegant. It had a waterwheel and everything. No, wait, that was the Mill House that had the waterwheel. There are four or five structures on the property. Streisand’s place is huge. It has a whole bunch of buildings, not just the house.

“I like photography and I also like the process of building. I took most of the photos in the book myself.”

And Barbra herself apparently had collected a lot of the furnishings found inside her home. “What is people’s reaction when you show up when you’re antiquing?”

“I don’t even notice. I’m too tied up in the search.”

Then Gayle changed the subject to Barbra’s recordings and movies. “You don’t like to look at your records or movies after you’ve done them?”

“Because there is so much work going into them. I’m so sick of a record by the time I’m through with it that I never want to hear it again!”

“If you had to pick a favorite song…”

“That’s a terrible question. Don’t ask me that. I don’t want to offend any of my songs!”

Then they got back to talking about the house. “Here’s a photo of the Mill House. The beams inside are 200 years old. It’s both a curse and a blessing to see things the way I do.” Streisand tends to be a perfectionist and to want things to be perfect – which has its good and bad aspects. “I see symmetry and that’s sometimes a curse because you can always see what is wrong. Like in that photo of the mirror – it’s 3/8 of an inch off. There are things that you have to compromise on and accept what the universe is presenting — so you have to accept what is here. But sometimes I don’t like to take no for an answer.” But she is also aware that sometimes you have to.

“One time a stone mason ripped out a little hill and replaced it with concrete blocks. But I had just returned from the north of England where there were no concrete blocks — so I had to say no.”

“She let another contractor go,” said Gayle, “because he made a storm cellar too large because he thought he was bound by the building code.”

“I have two men who work for me and if I need something done, then they do it. They have no patience with waiting. I’ve worked with these men for years. But professionals promise everything and don’t deliver.”

She is also sometimes taken advantage of. “There is that factor; it’s a reality. They will charge me more because I am Barbara Streisand.”

“But you like what you create.”

“When I was growing up, I had a hot water bottle instead of a doll and my caregiver knit her a little pink sweater. But it made me use my imagination. And I don’t regret it. It added to my success.”

And Barbra, who was raised in Brooklyn, has a fondness for the architecture of the northeast. “Architects in the western United States use Douglas fir because they work in the west. I was disappointed with western architects because they don’t know about eastern architecture.” I think she was talking about the use of mortar and bricks.

“Does your home remind you of your childhood house?”

“No. My childhood home was a $40-a-month apartment.”

Barbra also had something to say about the color red. “I do appreciate a good red — I’m not that crazy — but I prefer red in a lipstick.”

While Barbra doesn’t miss or regret anything that she has given away, she hates it when she loses things. “There was this pin that you wanted,” said Gayle, “and you tracked it down and paid four times too much for it — but don’t wear it.”

“It’s the hunt that I like. I never had a father. You can’t get a person back — but you can always get an object back.”

“Do your regret being called a perfectionist?”

“I search for excellence. And I also understand that nothing is perfect.” I thought that the interviewer was being a bit hard on poor Barbra and had a sort of pushy tone of voice, but Barbra didn’t seem to mind and talked openly and candidly about whatever subject the interviewer brought up. Listening to Barbra talking onstage before 2,700 people was less like listening to a performance and more like eavesdropping on two people conversing in private.

“When I worked with one contractor, he had his vision and I had mine. People called me difficult because a contractor said to me, ‘Can’t you just leave the plans with me and leave?’”

She had a draftsman or two on site most of the time. “Who is going to notice if a beam is off? I will. And if it’s off, it’s off. They say that men are commanding but women are demanding. I make no apologies. They say that a man is a perfectionist, while a woman is just a pain in the ass.”

She also thought that a king-sized bed is too big for two people and that a queen-sized bed is too small. “So I built a bed that was in between. And I used king-sized sheets and pulled them tighter with a string.”

“But wouldn’t that be tacky?”

“Hey, sometimes I can be tacky.”

“You? Not you!”

Then Barbra and Gayle talked about cars. “I never drive. My husband drives. I found myself going up a down-ramp on a freeway one day and realized that my mind was too occupied with other things to drive.”

“Does your husband accept that you do everything at the house?”

“But I don’t. He designed his part of the house, and I like that about him. He has a life of his own.”

“Where does your fascination with details come from?”

“Perhaps from my dad. He died when he was 35 and I was 15 months old. But he was a scholar. He taught English at a reform school. His thesis was about Shakespeare and Ibsen. So what is the DNA? I didn’t find that out until I was doing Yentl, when I discovered some of his old books.” And it surprised her that she too loves Shakespeare and Ibsen.

“I don’t like TV. My husband has a TV on his damn wall, but I hide them. And for a while I hid my awards too, thought it was too egotistical.”

And during the time that she worked on her house, for five of those years she was hoarse from shouting above the whine of power equipment. “And the house took so long to do that I just recently had to redo the den — based on a room that I saw 20 years ago. And it was a challenge to do that in just three weeks.”

“Do you have a junk drawer in your house?”

“I have several.”

Then as the interview ended and Barbra left the stage, she laughingly asked Gayle, “Can I take the flowers home?”

Since no one was allowed to take photographs, I didn’t. But almost EVERYONE in the room was snapping away surreptitiously. You could hear the cameras click and whir everywhere. So I figured I’d at least video part of the interview. My bad. So here’s my YouTube URL: But only the sound part came out. I hope that I don’t get sued.

PS: As you may or may not remember, I had a choice of going to NYC to see Barbra or going on that ill-fated humanitarian aid flotilla to break the illegal siege of Gaza. And, due to financial constraints, I chose going to New York. But boy did I miss a hecka good story in the Mediterranean! The boat I would have sailed on got hijacked! You can’t get a better story than that.

According to an article in Global Research entitled “Terror on Aid Ship: Plan Was to Kill Activists and Deter Future Convoys,” all hell broke loose when the Israeli navy illegally seized the flotilla ships.

“An Arab member of the Israeli parliament who was on board the international flotilla that was attacked on Monday as it tried to take humanitarian aid to Gaza accused Israel yesterday of intending to kill peace activists as a way to deter future convoys. Haneen Zoubi said Israeli naval vessels had surrounded the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, and fired on it a few minutes before commandos abseiled from a helicopter directly above them.”

Global Research’s article also stated that, “Terrified passengers had been forced off the deck when water was sprayed at them. She said she was not aware of any provocation or resistance by the passengers, who were all unarmed. [The Knesset member also] added that within minutes of the raid beginning, three bodies had been brought to the main room on the upper deck in which she and most other passengers were confined. Two had gunshot wounds to the head, in what she suggested had been executions. Two other passengers slowly bled to death in the room after Israeli soldiers ignored messages in Hebrew she had held up at the window calling for medical help to save them. She said she saw seven other passengers seriously wounded.”

One of the dead was a United States citizen.

The article then quotes the Knesset member further: “’Israel had days to plan this military operation,’ she told a press conference in Nazareth. ‘They wanted many deaths to terrorize us and to send a message that no future aid convoys should try to break the siege of Gaza.’”

So. I missed getting terrorized and executed? Wow.

Wonder what happened to the eight ships and the 10,000 tons of humanitarian cargo? It went on to Gaza? Yeah right. I’ll bet you anything that somebody somewhere scored a big bunch of booty on that one!

PPS: I just got the following e-mail from my friend Paul Larudee, who is currently receiving medical treatment in Greece after having been beaten within an inch of his life by Israeli commandos:

“I and my colleagues are practitioners of nonviolent resistance, in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. I have not struck anyone in decades, and refuse to do so. However, I also refuse to comply with illegal procedures and activities. Unfortunately, this fact was apparently lost on our captors. Their operating principle seems to be that if pain and misery fail to achieve compliance, apply more pain and misery. There’s hardly a joint in my body that was not twisted, or a bare patch of exposed skin that is not now multicolored.”

And, yes, the Israeli hijacking really WAS illegal — under the Geneva Convention (a document that American legislators signed on to originally but now pretty much chose to ignore).


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