Why ‘Barbie’ and ‘Barbra’ Are Big Beautiful Books

Susan Shapiro’s exquisite coffee table book “Barbie” and Barbra Streisand’s riveting autobiography “My Name Is Barbra” are entertaining and full of interesting facts.
December 20, 2023

Released in July, “Barbie” starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, is the highest grossing film of the year, selling $1.4 billion in tickets. Directed by Greta Gerwig, there are a few scenes in which Rhea Perlman plays Jewish inventor Ruth Handler in the film that has earned numerous Golden Globe nominations and is sure to garner many Oscar nominations.

Best-selling author Susan Shapiro’s new coffee-table book “Barbie” traces the rise of Handler and her iconic doll as well as how it was affected by cultural changes and moments in history over the decades. There are amazing pictures and it’s a great conversation starter.

Shapiro, known for her writing classes at Columbia University, The New School, NYU and online, notes in the book that executives and even Handler’s own husband, Elliot (who she met at a B’nai B’rith dance when she was 16), thought her doll would be a flop. And at first, it was. But after a successful TV ad campaign, linked with “The Mickey Mouse Club,” it sold like hotcakes. Coming from a family of Polish Jewish immigrants who fled the Russian army, Handler was inspired by Lilli, a doll she saw on a trip to Switzerland, that originated from a German comic strip. She decided to create her own doll, naming it after her daughter Barbara, whose nickname was Barbie later introducing a male doll, Barbie’s friend, and named it after her son, Ken. Introduced at the American International Toy Fair on March 9, 1959 —  with a price tag of $3.00 — a mint Barbie from that time period can fetch $25,000 today.

The first chapter is called “A Star Is Born” and describes how Handler, the daughter of Ida and Jacob Moskowicz, quit her job typing screenplays at Paramount, where she made $25 a week, to go all in on Barbie.

“My whole philosophy was through that doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Shapiro cites Hander as saying.

Girls and women felt empowered by the dolls; then came accessories such at Malibu Barbie with the Dreamhouse.

In 1967, Francie, a doll introduced the year before as Barbie’s “mod” cousin,was produced in a darker skin tone; with her Caucasian features, “Black Francie” looked suntanned.  A year later, Christie — considered the first African American doll in the Barbie universe — was introduced.

“The subtle message was similar to the iconic segment from ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood’ in which the African American Officer Clemons sits beside Rogers,” Shapiro writes,  “both dipping their feet in a kiddie pool, an episode that aired in 1969, amid protests against segregated community swimming pools.”

The lavishly illustrated book  includes photos of Barbie in her various incarnations, including a surgeon, paleontologist, Olympic gold medalist and ecologist; there’s a Muslim Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbies, Soccer Barbies and a doll with Down’s Syndrome.  Some of the dolls took their fashion cues from  Jackie Kennedy and and some inspired by the hairdo of Barbra Streisand.

“Like many modern women, Barbie has lasted because she is not afraid to revamp, revise, revamp, evolve and modernize too,” Shapiro writes. “The secret to her success is constant reinvention and striving to be a sincere reflection of current culture.”

It’s obvious that Shapiro is both a fan (she has more than 68 Barbies) and is a feminist. “Barbie” (Assouline,343 pages, $105) is not cheap but it is a one of a kind book,with great pictures from the decades that will be able to get your guests talking.

Streisand Is In A Class Of Her Own

Talk about trying to crush a dream.

Despite getting rave reviews from her 1962 Broadway debut as Miss Marmelstein in the musical “I Can Get It From You Wholesale,” its director Arthur Laurents (his real last named was Levine) had some unkind words for the aspiring singer.

“You’re never going to make it, you know,” Streisand recalls him telling her, in her epic autobiography “My Name Is Barbra.” He told her the reason was she was undisciplined.

Such a prediction coming from the man who wrote the book for “West Side Story” might have destroyed the confidence of many other 19-year-olds. But Streisand, who sang with her eyes closed the first time she was in a club and was self-conscious about her nose (some told her to get surgery and she refused) would not be broken. That role earned her a Tony nomination, she’d get another for Lead Actress in “Funny Girl” and a Special Tony Award naming her “Star of the Decade” in 1970. She won an Emmy for the 1965 CBS special “My Name is Barbra” (and went on to win four more). Her debut record, 1963’s “The Barbra Streisand Album” earned two Grammys including Album of The Year; she was nominated 40 more times, winning eight. In 1969, she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” and would win for the Best Original Song in 1976 with  “Evergreen” (from “A Star is Born”).

Her book explains that she had a clicking sound in her ears that was tinnitus, she once stuffed her dress so her hips would look bigger, and despite her success, her mother, Diana, would never compliment her. Her father, Emanuel, who grew up in an Orthodox home and on some Friday nights when he worked at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he’d walk home from West 120th Street all the way home to Brooklyn. Her father died at the age of 35 when she was only 15 months old.

“Years later, after my mother told me that for months after my father died, I would still climb up the window ledge waiting for him to come home,” Streisand writes. “In some, ways, I’m still waiting.”

She not only starred as a woman dealing with her father’s death, pretending to be a man and studying at a Polish yeshiva in “Yentl,” she also directed, wrote and produced it. Streisand writes that “in writing dialogue and imagining scenes for Yentl’s father, I got to create the father I never had.” The film includes the song “Papa Can You Hear Me?”

Based on the Isaac Bashevis singer short story, she was told not to waste her time with some “fakakta” or “crappy” story. Studio executives were not enthused, and she writes that some were Jewish and worried the script was” too Jewish.” (In preparation for the film, she  studied Talmud.) Her co-star Mandy Patinkin told her he wanted to have an affair with her; she declined, and he ultimately delivered a good performance as Avigdor. She became friends with Steven Spielberg; after she showed him a mostly finished version of “Yentl” he told her not to change a frame. An article The Los Angeles Times gave the false notion that Spielberg gave her advice she used in making the film, she writes.

Streisand puts a lot of humor in the book, and we learn she hated the potatoes at a Jewish summer camp, loved yellow cake with dark chocolate frosting she’s been searching for, and her desire for Marlon Brando was almost realized. He told her bluntly that he’d like to have sex with her but instead she asked to be taken to a museum. Inreal life, Streisand says she couldn’t tell a joke, but her comedic performance in the Broadway and film versions of “Funny Girl” as Fanny Brice were hits. The film was banned in Egypt because her romantic co-star in the film, Omar Sharif. was from Egypt, and the idea of his being in love with a Jew was not tolerable.

She also writes that she dislikes interviews because many writers  made up or misinterpreted things, including a rivalry between her and Judy Garland that she says was a written joke and not her real desire. She also notes one of the reason she married actor JamesBrolin was because of his great teeth. Her first husband was Jewish actor Elliot Gould. They married in 1963 and had a son, Jason.

Many will love the book, not only because it allows the reader to be a fly on the wall of one of the most famous Jewish entertainers in history. Had she been born affluent instead of having to lick stamps to get money, she might have gone into another profession, but the world can be thankful that was not the case. At 992 pages, it’s a lot of reading, but it’s well worth it. While she was excellent in the film “A Star Is Born” we learn that being a celebrity entertainer is not happenstance and requires work and a tough exterior.

In the film, “Funny Girl” Streisand, as Fanny Brice trying to prove why she deserves to be a dancer in a show despite not having a traditional look, says: “I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls. Nobody recognizes me.”

Everyone recognizes her now.

If there is a Heaven where one can hear the songs from the Earth, there is no doubt that Streisand’s father, Emanuel is kvelling up above.

Both “Barbie” and “My Name is Barbara” deal with issues of standards of beauty, the role of the media, popular culture, and the rise from obscurity and little money to great fame and fortune. Both books will make you laugh, feel happy to be alive and might make you a little jealous.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.