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When the lights go up for intermission at Funny Girl nearly everyone dives into the Playbill to find out all about Barbra Streisand. They don't learn much. Barbra is still onstage even in the biographical notes. She writes them herself. Her lifework has been to elevate and sculpt her own archetypic personality, and no string of drab printed facts is going to get in her way.
In Playbill, she says that she strings beads and likes old shoes, but does not mention where she was born. In the Playbill for Wholesale, she said that she was born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon. It was easy enough to believe. After two martinis and an expense-account steak, Barbra's Pharaonic profile and scarab eyes suggest the Aswan High Dam, Nefertiti, and the whole Afro-Asian bit. Some minor poets have even brooded over her fathomless Mesopotamian stare, as if her unique countenance could only have developed somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. In truth, however, she was born and raised between Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.
No Hands. Her recollections of a Brooklyn girlhood are somber. "It was pretty depressing, and I've blocked most of it out of my mind," she says. She never knew her father. He was a school teacher who died of a cerebral hemorrhage when his daughter Barbara Joan was a year old (1943). Her mother spent the next three years lying in bed, crying, and living on her brother's Army allotment checks until the checks stopped and she took an office job. Barbara spent her days in the hallways of the six-story brick apartment building they lived in, accepting handout snacks from neighbors.
As a slightly older kid, she used to go up on the rooftop, smoke, and think about being the greatest star. Down in the apartment, her mother warned her never to hold hands with a boy. "I never took part in any school activities or anything," Barbra remembers. "I was never asked out to any of the proms, and I never had a date for New Year's Eve. I was pretty much of a loner. I was very independent. I never needed anybody, really."
Her average at Erasmus Hall High School was in the 90s all the way. She worked in the evenings at Choy's Orient, the local wontonnery. "I loved the idea of belonging to a small minor ity group," she says. "It was the world against us in the Chinese restaurant." And she worked on the personality that was to be Barbra. "I used to spend a lot of time and money in the penny arcades taking pictures of myself in those little booths. I'd experiment with different colored mascara on my eyes, try out all kinds of different hair styles and sexy poses."
Last Cough. When she was 14, she made her first trip out of Brooklyna subway ride to Manhattan to see The Diary of Anne Frank. "I remember thinking that I could go up on the stage and play any role without any trouble at all," she says. After school at home, she used to smoke in the bathroom and do cigarette commercials into the mirror, but she never bothered to go out for school plays. "Why go out for an amateurish high school production when you can do the real thing?"