Chapter 15. Family and Barbra Streisand

15.

Family and Barbra Streisand

My Mother and Barbra Streisand

My mother never went anywhere without her floodlights.  She loved taking pictures, filming home movies, and listening to music.  But her kind of music, not mine.

My mother never went anywhere without her floodlights. She loved taking pictures, filming home movies, and listening to music. But her kind of music, not mine.

My mother has no idea who Barbra Streisand is.  Well, not exactly no idea.  My mother doesn’t really get “show biz” and knows there is this lady actress who I spend all my time and money on.  Or, when I was younger, her money on.  But she doesn’t quite get it.  Mom thinks Hollywood got together once and made a movie called ‘The Sound of Music’ and everyone has been out of work since.

One disastrous semester while in high school I failed three subjects.  And I was in the ‘Honors Program’.  Well, I was busy – ‘Funny Lady’ was in the theaters, ‘A Star is Born’ was in pre-production, I can only do so much and school just didn’t fit in.  Well, school fit in but the work didn’t.  I was always called on in class and gave great answers, I was on committees and such, the gals in the main office would have me run errands for them, teachers would seek out my thoughts on current movies – everyone thought I was doing okay but when they added up the scores – not so much.  I got through on personality rather than content.

When my mother saw my report card she hit the roof.  It seems all of our important conversations always took place in the kitchen.

Mom was always busy doing something.

Mom was always busy doing something.

“Maybe if you didn’t listen to that one and her crazy mother so much you’d be able to do your homework.”

What?

“That one that you’re always listening to her and her crazy mother!”

Barbra Streisand has a mother?

“You know damn well fine she does – she was always tripping over her microphone on television.”

That woman is Judy Garland, her daughter is Liza Minnelli.  Barbra Streisand is not related to them.  Barbra Streisand is a film actress and recording artist and television personality and philanthropist with several major industry awards.  From Brooklyn.

“I don’t care where she’s from.  You’re not listening to any more of her records.”

Fine.  I can always hum the music!

BAM!

My mother hit me so hard across the jaw I can still feel it.  She sent me flying and I was not a small person.  But I get it.  I didn’t get it then but I get it now.  She grew up in poverty, no running water, came to America, married, had four kids, her husband died, she’s running the grocery store on her own, and every moment that I’m not behind the counter I’m at the movies or reading movie magazines or listening to Barbra Streisand records, spending pocket money she put in my pockets that she never had.

I shouldn’t say she didn’t know “show biz”.  We had one other related conversation that I remember.  I had seen ‘Evita’ a few nights after it opened on Broadway in 1981 and Princess Caroline was in the audience just a few seats from me.  Stunning.

Mom, I saw Princess Caroline last night.  She is beautiful in person.

“No one will ever be more beautiful than her mother.”

That mother she knows?  The gal from Philadelphia who stole Judy Garland’s Oscar?

My mom soon after arriving from Ireland, 1949.  It was tradition to use money from your first paycheck to have your photo taken in a studio to send back home.

My mom soon after arriving from Ireland, 1949. It was tradition to use money from your first paycheck to have your photo taken in a studio to send back home.

Figures,

Papa Hanrahan and Barbra Streisand

Christmas Eve 1975.  Papa Hanrahan (John’s father Bill), John and I are having a cup of hot chocolate and listening to the Barbra Streisand Christmas Album.   Mrs. Hanrahan was in the hospital but coming home the next morning.

I don’t know how or why John and I got in the habit of calling his father “Papa Hanrahan” but we did, and in conversation that’s how we always referred to him.   One theory I have is maybe John didn’t want to say “my father” in front of me as mine was dead, but who knows?

So Papa Hanrahan is serving us teenagers some sort of walnut coffee Danish ring thing and Barbra is playing in the background, and his father says to John, very casually I might add, “Did I ever tell you about the time you met Barbra Streisand?”

Excuse me?

Why do parents talk about table manners every day but only mention the really important stuff only once?

This is the only picture I have of "Papa" Hanrahan, his back to the camera, relaxing in his chair.

This is the only picture I have of “Papa” Hanrahan, his back to the camera, relaxing in his chair.

This is Bill Hanrahan’s story.   When John was still in a carriage or stroller – maybe ’61 or ’62, Papa Hanrahan had him out in Prospect Park (I think – I don’t know Brooklyn).  Anyway this girl comes over to Papa Hanrahan and says, “Oh, I love your daughter’s blond hair.  Don’t ever cut it, I love those curls.”  Papa Hanrahan responded, “Jeez, that’s not a girl.  That’s my son John.”  So then this girl says, “Can I touch John’s curls?”  And Papa Hanrahan says sure, go ahead.  And then he noticed her beautiful hands and nails as they touched John’s curls.  She then said, “John, don’t ever touch your curls.”  Papa Hanrahan says she was dressed all in black or in a funny coat, like a hippie or something and she had on very weird eye-makeup.  He repeated this story to Mrs. Hanrahan when he got home.   Months later they are both watching television and Barbra Streisand was on singing.  He turned to his wife, Regina, and said, “That’s the girl.  That’s the nut who liked John’s curls and told him never to cut them.”

And you know what?  He never did.

I believe Papa Hanrahan because he was a fireman, a war veteran and always referred to Susan Hayward by her childhood name, Edythe.  It seems she went to school (Girls’ Commercial) across the street from the boys’ school and they always used to line up at that fence when she was in the yard for gym class.  I kid you not.  And more often times than not he would end a story with the phrase, “Boom to that.”  I don’t know if he picked this up in the war or on the streets of Brooklyn, but when you say “Boom to that”, well, that’s pretty much final, no arguments accepted.

I think of Mr. Hanrahan often.  His phone book had asterisks next to certain names, I asked him what the asterisks where for and he said, “Notify in case of death.”  I thought that was a good system, and years later when John and I were older and meeting new people and getting phone numbers we would always comment to each other, “Is that an asterisk?”

Mrs. Hanrahan and Barbra Streisand

Christmas 1975.  Mrs. Hanrahan was not feeling all that well, in fact, she would pass away the next month.  But early in December before she went into the hospital she took me aside and asked if I could keep a secret.

Can I keep a secret?  Can you roller skate?

Of course I can keep a secret I told her, just tell me what you need.  She asked if I would do her Christmas shopping for John, I would know what he wanted and I would go buy it and she would give me the cash, and if I would wrap it for her but she would fill out the tags, and just to let her know what was in the package.  Of course I could do this.  I lived in their apartment when I wasn’t in my own.  In fact my mother used to call there and tell them to send me home.

Can I keep a secret?

“JOHN! Tell me what you want for Christmas – I’m doing your mother’s shopping for you so let’s go!!!”

You have to understand, John loved to shop.  One time his sister was admonishing us for not being outside more and John’s retort was, “We were just out. (Pause.)  Shopping!”

John loved this – he knew exactly what he wanted and we went shopping for days and I just kept invoicing Mrs. Hanrahan.   I used my own cash and then just kept presenting her with the receipts – we didn’t soak her – don’t get the wrong idea – but I used my cash so she wouldn’t have any second thoughts about something.   John loved Christmas and he loved beautifully wrapped presents and he laid down the law – “Joseph Naughton, you are not wrapping my presents!”

So he wrapped his own – what a production – ribbons, holly, bows.  He even put the labels on exactly where he wanted them and his poor mother had to sit with these creations in her lap and write out his name.  They were the most beautifully wrapped presents I have ever seen.  Even to this day.  Gorgeous.

Mrs. Hanrahan was thrilled.  John was thrilled.  I don’t know if anyone knew that this was Mrs. Hanrahan’s last Christmas.  I don’t think anyone thinks like that.  As Angie Dickinson once said you don’t know that you’re running away from a fire until you are across the street looking back at the fire.  Or something like that, but know her meaning.

This is the only picture I have of Mrs. Hanrahan, doing some prep work on Christmas Eve no doubt.

This is the only picture I have of Mrs. Hanrahan, doing some prep work on Christmas Eve no doubt.

Mrs. Hanrahan was so thrilled that the day after Christmas she gave both John and I ten dollars each to go downtown or “into New York” as she called it (being from Brooklyn).   That was my payoff for keeping her secret and helping her out.  Maybe she just wanted us out of the house?  So we raced downtown and saw ‘Lucky Lady’.

Now remember, this is December 1975 and it was just two years ago that John and I became fans of Barbra Streisand.  It seemed so much longer then.  But all that time, all those two years, we had been looking for the ‘I Can Get it for you Wholesale” album.  Everything we had ever read about Barbra Streisand always mentioned her break-through performance as Miss Marmelstein.  But not one record store had it.  Not one.  We kept thinking we were getting close but we never found it.  And that damn album of “How to Succeed in Business” always looked so much like it from across a record store but we were crushed and defeated so many times.

So this day, with Mrs. Hanrahan’s cash firmly in hand, we go see ‘Lucky Lady’ starring Liza Minnelli.  It was playing, I think, at Manns National on the east side of Broadway around 44th Street?  And there used to be a record store over there called King Karol.  I think.  Correct me if I am wrong.

Now, we had been in this record store like a hundred times looking for the “Wholesale” album with no luck.  But as any fan can tell you, keep looking.  So we went perusing through the aisles yet again and I don’t remember who saw it first but the screams that came out of our lungs can still be heard today. And, as luck most certainly would have it, there were TWO albums!  I believe in Christmas miracles, and I believe in Mrs. Hanrahan.  Thank you, Mrs. Hanrahan, thank you very much.

Aunt Kate and Barbra Streisand

My Aunt Kate had always been my best friend.  My mother used to tell me to go easy on Kate because we weren’t the same age.  Thinking she was younger than me I couldn’t wait for her to catch up.

She was a terrific lady. She was my father’s aunt, his mother’s sister (who I never met).  I never figured out how old she was but in April of 1912 when she made her first attempt to sail to America she was turned back at the dock because she was a tiny little thing and under 16.  She was told to come back in the after her birthday.    The boat she missed was the Titanic, and she waited until November to sail over here.  I asked her if she were afraid and she said “Well, I couldn’t walk across, could I?”

She got a job with a dressmaker delivering big boxes of dresses to the private homes up and down Fifth Avenue.  Eventually she became a seamstress and in later years worked in the rooms for Bonwit Teller and the dress shop Chez Ninon (which she always pronounced as Chase) as a “finisher”.  She retired in the mid-60s but we would sit together and look at the movie magazines that were always running pictures of Mrs. Kennedy, current and older.  Kate would look at a picture and comment about the outfit, i.e. “That panel gave me so much trouble”, “Do you see how the belt stays down?”, “How many beads do you thinks us girls sewed on that top?”  Oleg Cassini can say what he wants about the “pink suit” but my Aunt Kate said she worked on it and she worked for Miss Sophie at Chez Ninon, not Oleg Cassini, and I believe her.

Kate made most a lost of my sister's dresses.  This is Mary at her First Holy Communion, 1969.  This picture was displayed in the photographer's window for years.

Kate made most a lost of my sister’s dresses. This is Mary at her First Holy Communion, 1969. This picture was displayed in the photographer’s window for years.

Aunt Kate was many things to many people.  She loved children very much.  She customized herself to fulfill whatever we needed.  If my brother wanted to know about she’d walk him to the garage and ask the mechanic all kinds of questions.  If we needed fireworks she’d find out who was selling them and go make the deal.  When John and I were in ‘The King and I’ in grammar school she made a hoop skirt for rehearsal, and showed John what to do so he could tell the gal playing Anna how to maneuver it.  Which he did do.

Aunt Kate loved Barbra Streisand.  She was thrilled when I started buying her records and she would come into my room and just listen.  She told me all about when Barbra used to be on television and what an exciting star she was and how she was not “unknown” for very long.  Kate was the first person that pointed out to me that what Barbra did was work, it was a job, and this was not just something that happened by magic.

We were listening to the Christmas Album in my bedroom and Kate asked me if I realized what a wonderful actress this young girl was.  I said, “Yeah, I guess.”  Kate told me to think about what she had asked.  She explained to me that Barbra was Jewish, not Catholic, and for her to sing these songs so beautifully meant a lot of hard work and acting ability.  To understand the faith that went behind the words of these songs, and what these words mean to so many people, and then to sing them better than Kate had ever heard them sung in Church took some doing.  I am not making as good a point as Kate did … but it was the first time I thought of Barbra’s “genius” rather than just her face or entertainment appeal.  Do you see what I’m talking about?

I believe in God because of Kate.  The day we buried my father I was very aware that I was a kid, and that the people around me were adults.  I thought it would have been nicer had my father died when I was an adult rather than as a kid.  I asked God that day not to take Kate until I was an adult.  I didn’t want any more childhood loss.

In April of 1981, just after turning 21, I was hired by the newly opened Harley Hotel to be their midnight switchboard operator.  I was in orientation and learned about my employee package: $230.85 a week for a 35-hour work week, health benefits, paid sick time (you can’t call in sick when you work in your family grocery story), paid vacation time, overtime.  Coming from a family-owned business I had always wanted to work for strangers.

I think I actually said out loud, “Now I am an adult.”

Alex was planning to meet me after my orientation so that we could go to the movies, but something told me to call my mother.  I wasn’t planning on filling her in on the job situation until later but I thought I should call her.   She told me I should come home.  Aunt Kate had died that morning while I was in orientation becoming an adult.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I could fill a book about her kindness and generosity and style.  At her wake I told my mother I was going to stay at the funeral parlor during the break.  I had learned from my father’s wake how chaotic these things could be and I wanted to hang back in case someone showed up who didn’t know the schedule and have some quiet time with Kate.

Sure enough someone from her old neighborhood showed up, Christine, either her cousin or Christine had been married to Kate’s cousin, William.  I introduced myself, she hadn’t seen me in years, knew my father of course, and we sat and chatted about Aunt Kate.

Christine told me a story how she often ran into Aunt Kate in Inwood Park, bringing crusts of bread to feed the birds.  One day she came upon her down by the water’s edge.

“Kate, you can’t be feeding the pigeons down here.  The rats will just come and eat the bread.”

“That’s okay Christine.  The rats have to eat too.”

An early portrait of Aunt Kate, taken no doubt soon after she arrived from Ireland.  I always remember her with a book in her hands; and if not a book, an article of clothing that she was working on.

An early portrait of Aunt Kate, taken no doubt soon after she arrived from Ireland. I always remember her with a book in her hands; and if not a book, an article of clothing that she was working on.

My Brother and Barbra Streisand 

I have to give my brother Stephen a lot of credit.  We share a bedroom for a great part of our childhood and his side of the room was covered with pictures of motorcycles and mine was covered with pictures of Barbra.  I think, no, I know I used to play her albums going to sleep, just stack them up and let them play on through the night.

October 1967. That's my mother's shadow.  I would meet John in February 1968 when he joined the Second Grade mid term.

October 1967. That’s my mother’s shadow. I would meet John in February 1968 when he joined the Second Grade mid term.

He wasn’t what you’d actually call “a fan”.

Then one day in the late 70s or early 80s ‘For Pete’s Sake’ was one television and surprise of surprises he sat and watched the entire thing with me.

“Hey, JoJo.  How many Oscars did she win for this?  This is funniest movie I’ve ever seen.”

FOR PETE'S SAKE

Boom.

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