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Then & Now: A Memoir
By Barbara Cook, with Tom Santopietro
Book Review by Stanford Friedman


Tickets were already on sale this past spring when Barbara Cook, at age 88, announced the indefinite postponement of her one-woman show. The production, which intended to "weave personal stories with several of Cook's signature numbers," was set to open under the direction of Tommy Tune. But something else was taking precedent: the completion of her just released autobiography, Then & Now. It is the most generic of titles for a memoir of a life that has been anything but common. The what and where of Then & Now spans a childhood that seems like something out of Tennessee Williams, a stellar Broadway musical career, an alcohol-fueled down and out period, and a rebirth as one of the most celebrated cabaret artists of her generation.

Reading a legendary singer is a little like smelling a gourmet meal: You appreciate what's being presented, though it's not necessarily the preferred method of ingest. But, having been denied an evening of story and song, we must settle for the written word and be grateful. And if this is not the pen and paper equivalent of, say, Ms. Cook's 1985 killer rendition of "Losing My Mind" in the classic Lincoln Center concert performance of Follies, we should remember that it is one thing to brilliantly interpret Sondheim, and quite another to write like him. Her literary approach (with an assist by celebrity biographer Tom Santopietro) can best be described as conversational. She might set up a story with "Now get this," and she loves ending a paragraph with an exclamation such as "Wow!" or "Ooh-la-la!" or, in extreme cases, "Holy Hannah!"

Ms. Cook never hides the fact that therapy has played a major part in her development and indeed the reader often seems to assume the role of psychologist as she recounts her troubled childhood. Born and raised in Atlanta, her loving, if mostly absent, traveling salesman father left for good when she was six, leaving her to the whims of an emotional mess of a mother. Getting blamed for her infant sister's death from whooping cough and pneumonia, then moving into her grandmother's house along with her mother and three aunts in the midst of the Great Depression, sets young Barbara up for an Electra complex that would cause Sophocles to blush. Then comes the shocker that she slept in the same bed as her mother until she was 20. Summarizing what this relationship meant to her future id and ego, she offers this complex piece of analysis, "I was such an extension of her, and she had such a low opinion of herself, that she couldn't believe that I could be exceptional."

Exceptional, of course, is just what she becomes after making her escape to New York. The book's middle chapters are an explanation of what happens when a natural talent meets the right instructors, the right colleagues, the right husband, and Leonard Bernstein. It is a captivating success story, told with the occasional moment of imbalance. "I didn't, and don't, read music," she informs us, as an aside. We never hear about it again and are left dumbfounded.

By the mid 1960s, she hits the skids. A dalliance here and a beer or two there snowball into divorce, alcoholism, stigmatizing weight gain, and depression. It will take her over a decade to recover, ultimately reinventing herself as the song stylist we know today. The bittersweet closing chapters chronicle a list of joyful concert performances and her Kennedy Center Honors, but are tempered by the death of her great frenemy Elaine Stritch and especially by the death of Wally Harper, her dearest comrade and long-time musical director who brought Ms. Cook back to form, but who could not escape his own battle with the bottle.

Though proceeding chronologically, Ms. Cook occasionally toys with the timeline to fine effect, giving the book's title a bit of resonance. She segues, for instance, from attending the world premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta when she was 12, to meeting Vivian Leigh at a party in the 1960s and making the film star feel old. She also jumps from the 1956 opening night of Candide, in the early days of her vocal prowess, to a 1975 Carnegie Hall concert in which she serenaded the audience with the beginning of the Candide overture—playing it on a kazoo.

There are goodly amounts of backstage lore and music appreciation surrounding her memories of Candide, The Music Man, She Loves Me and Follies—catnip for theater buffs. Her descriptions of working through, and living with, the demanding number "Glitter and Be Gay" are especially compelling. And for gossip lovers, she dishes the dirt in delectable doses. Florence Henderson was a sweetheart and Robert Preston was "pure, walking sex" (though she insists their relationship was platonic), but Mary Martin comes off as petty, Streisand takes a slap and—Holy Hannah!—don't get her started on Ethel Merman.

Because she feels that her singing is a service that helps people cope, she states, in the final pages, "I suppose that I've come to think of myself as a salesman," seemingly unaware that she has laid claim to her father's profession. (See also, her gushing over Mr. Preston, who, as Harold Hill, was the ultimate traveling salesman. Just saying.). As for this book, chances are it will sell quite well, both as a memoir and as a guidebook for young performers seeking a proper path. Like the old song says, "But it's different than it was./No, it ain't, but you gotta know the territory." And she knows it better than most.

Then & Now: A Memoir
Barbara Cook, with Tom Santopietro
256 Pages
HarperCollins
Publishing date: June 21, 2016
List Price: $28.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-209046-1


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