A few years ago Barbra Streisand was in crisis: the stonework on her primary residence was a tad too pale. So she turned to America’s doyenne of home betterment who, of course, had a solution. “Martha Stewart told me that if I brushed it with cow urine and buttermilk it would turn darker,” Streisand writes in her new book My Passion for Design, a glossy coffee-table tome that chronicles the painstaking creation of her four-house Malibu compound—and gives new meaning to the term vanity press.
The legendary performer, said to insist that rose petals be floating in the toilet bowls of her hotel rooms, felt sullied by the thought of bovine pee. So she ignored Martha’s advice, choosing instead to plant ivy and climbing roses to mask the offending rocks.
Streisand is famous for her obsession with detail (before appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2003, she insisted a black microphone be painted white so as not to clash with her ivory Donna Karan outfit). Her insistence on privacy is equally legendary, which makes the arrival of this over-the-top show-all so surprising. In 2003, she slapped an environmental preservation group with a US$50-million lawsuit for uploading an aerial photograph of her former clifftop estate. The case was thrown out but gave rise to the “Streisand effect,” the term used to describe the viral publicity generated when someone tries to quash online information.
Now, however, Streisand’s controlling the imagery, even taking the photographs and touring readers through her creative process. First, the bucolic exterior—a pond with water lilies and black and white koi fish coordinated to the colour of the woodwork, rose and vegetable gardens, and chickens who lay pale green eggs. A little artifice was required to achieve the effect. The “simple country stream” was fashioned from concrete and rebar; the stones on winding paths were weathered to look like horse hooves clomped on them. “Everything you see on the grounds was carefully planned to look natural,” she writes without a trace of irony.
Streisand then takes the reader inside—the interiors and her psyche. First, “the Millhouse,” really a garage, with its vintage water wheel that required special highway permits to transport, and an ersatz The Wizard of Oz-inspired storm cellar. Next, Streisand’s pride and glory: “the Barn,” a newly constructed colonial/Arts and Crafts/Shaker mash-up based on her vision of a “1904 farmhouse”—eight bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a great room with a 29-foot ceiling, a screening room, a “loft/gym,” a “Napping Room,” and a faux Victorian “street of shops” in the basement. Then, on to “Grandma’s House,” a rose-crusted, quilt-crammed guest cottage, and the blandly traditional eight-bedroom, 11-bathroom “Main House,” where Streisand lives with her very patient husband James Brolin.
Why Streisand decided to publish a book at this moment is never plainly stated, so one is forced to speculate. Is she legacy-building? Or looking to sell? She writes that the book was motivated by a desire to share her love of design. That’s hardly unique in today’s Hollywood, where Brad Pitt pals around with Frank Gehry and names his daughter Shiloh Nouvel after French architect Jean Nouvel. New money loves to broadcast newly acquired taste, be it William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon or Jerry Seinfeld showing off his East Hampton mansion in Vogue.
But Streisand’s “intense relationship with furniture,” as she puts it, and her compulsive need for control is far more complex, dating back to her “near poverty” childhood and the death of her father when she was 15 months old. “If you don’t like your surroundings you have to use your imagination to create a world you do like,” she writes.
Deprived of dolls as a child, she’d fill a hot water bottle and pretend it was a baby. (That could explain the pathology of the basement “street of shops” with its Disneyfied “ye olde” air. There’s a “Sweet Shop” with frozen yogourt and popcorn machines; an “Antique Shop” with her vintage apparel; a “Gift Shoppe” for selecting and wrapping presents; and “Bee’s Doll Shop,” where the 68-year-old plays with dollhouses wired with electricity.)
This compulsion to acquire and recreate tableaux is not new. As her wealth grew, Streisand became a knowledgable collector of art and furniture—everything from Louis XV to Frank Lloyd Wright. When it served her purpose, she allowed her houses to be photographed, notably for a 1993 Architectural Digest cover story on her art deco Hollywood house, which generated publicity just months before her entire deco collection was auctioned off, netting US$5.8 million. By then, she’d tired of the period and was on to her next phase: Americana, inspired by the 1992 election of her good friend Bill Clinton. “I fell in love with America all over again,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. So off she went to study wares in the Winterthur Museum and Monticello, and stockpile naive art, quilts and 18th-century American interpretations of Chippendale and Queen Anne.
The Yentl and The Prince of Tides director approached the six-year construction and furnishing of the Barn as if helming a movie. Here, the story veers into rich territory for satire as Streisand brings in set designers and architects to realize her vision, then tosses them like Kleenex when they fail. Work that didn’t meet her exacting standards was ripped out and redone, to the point of absurdity. Hand-stencilled wallpaper for one bathroom was sent back two times. One builder walked when Streisand balked over a two-inch discrepancy in antique beams. After the barnboards shrank in colder weather and the white wrapper around the insulation showed through, she had workmen paint each gap black with a tiny brush. As a taskmaster, Streisand achieves the impossible: she makes Martha Stewart seem low-maintenance.
One story is telling: watching the movie Gosford Park, Streisand fell in love with the glass-paned walls in the servants’ work area and wanted a facsimile of them outside the Barn’s gym. But after they were installed, her Universal machine—the one whose unsightly black dots she had painted white—could be seen from downstairs, so she gave it away.
“I’m a person who doesn’t believe in the word no,” Streisand writes. Brolin offered occasional reality checks, to little effect. He bristled, she reveals, when she wanted to lacquer rustic, humble beams: “My husband thought I was crazy.” She did it anyway.
The book cries out for Brolin’s version of events. But readers will have to settle for Streisand’s portrayal of him as a uxorious husband, willing to put up with her spending holidays online, shopping eBay or tracking the perfect finial. The marriage is blissful, by her report: the couple share late-night massages and rendezvous occasionally in the Napping Room. Such is her devotion that she permitted Brolin’s StairMaster to remain in the Barn’s gym, even though it can be viewed from downstairs. “But that’s love,” she writes.
The Barn, like the book, will doubtless delight fans of Streisand’s music, even though it’s a stage set, literally: the couple doesn’t sleep there or use the rooms, save for the odd dinner party, nap, screening and Brolin’s workouts. Streisand’s happy just to walk through it, she says.
What it all cost is never discussed, though the Chippendale dining chairs in the Main House, signed by Samuel Walton circa 1775, alone would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That tally might explain Streisand’s commitment to the Meet the Fockers franchise and her decision to sell 500 pieces of furniture at auction last year.
Don’t expect her to field any questions. Her one publicity outing was on Oprah last week, where Winfrey called the book “aspirational” and the “perfect Christmas gift,” allowing: “Not everyone can do this, of course.”
Not everyone would want to. My Passion for Design has a decidedly fin de siècle feel, that whiff of Dynasty tackiness that results from too much of anything—even good taste. “God is in the details,” Streisand states, referencing architect Mies van der Rohe. Of his equally famous adage, “Less is more,” she appears oblivious.
As she also does to the fact America is a far different place now than when she broke ground last century. Shipping white pine boards across the country for an “authentic” East Coast feel on the West Coast is as environmentally tone-deaf as stuffing her air-conditioned “root cellar” with Aquafina bottled water (a jarring bit of product placement). Still, Oprah’s right: the book is the perfect Christmas present, if only as a crass reminder of the way we were.