The tastiest cookbook this season? Make that Cook book, as in Barbara Cook’s autobiography Then and Now: A Memoir (Harper, $28.99). The 88-year-old icon shares her life and career, the highs and lows, some of which are quite painful to read. There are warm memories of her golden years as Broadway’s newest ingénue and Broadway’s favorite soprano in the original productions of Plain and Fancy (1955), Candide (1956), The Music Man (1957) and She Loves Me (1963) and later into a sophisticated cabaret and concert artist . . . as well as much sadder, deeply painful memories.
At the lowest point of her career, she was drunk and desperate, sleeping through the day and “I didn’t shower or brush my teeth for days at a time.” She confesses that she was “so broke I was stealing food from the supermarket by slipping sandwich meat into my coat pocket.”
Today, Cook suffers from polymyalgia rheumatica, a disease that forces her to use a wheelchair. She may be slower, her voice much softer, but she refuses to give in. As a recovering alcoholic she still attends her AA meetings. (She quit drinking in 1977.) For that we continue to applaud her. We caught up with Cook one summer afternoon at her Upper West Side apartment and had a lovely conversation, fraught with lots of coughing and short sentences, of the good and bad and both acts—before and after sobriety—of her life. Read her story, and enjoy performances we share.
First things first: You have been asked to write a book for years. Why did you finally write an autobiography?
Yes, people have wanted me to write a book for some time. I kept saying, ‘Why? Who the hell cares?’ Then it occurred to me that I have had this up and down life, and if someone reads my book with an open mind he or she can come back from dark places and have a successful career. I wrote every word, mostly by hand, on white-lined paper.
And what dark places!
They were things I have lived with for so long. They were a huge part of my life. It’s the first time I am talking about them publicly . . . it was time to talk about the things I had held inside for a long time. It had always been easier not to discuss mother, my sister’s death, the shame and blame I had felt. I spent decades often thinking that I didn’t deserve the nice things that have happened for me. I drank and I ate. I found myself mad at my mother since she blamed me for my sister’s death from double pneumonia. I thought I could help people who have gone through or who are going through what I did. [Barbara’s sister died at 18 months; Barbara was three years old]
No wonder we didn’t like your mother after reading the book. She blamed you, as a child, for your sister’s death!
Yes. My sister had pneumonia, and then I got pneumonia and whooping cough. I gave her whooping cough on top of the pneumonia. (Pauses) When I was in therapy, my first therapist said something that was so smart ‘Did it ever occur to you that she caught it and that you didn’t give it to her?’ Wow. That really helped me because I grew up thinking I was responsible for my sister’s death. I started to think, well, if my sister hadn’t died father wouldn’t have left. I was five. (Pauses, quietly) I became responsible for my sister’s death and his leaving as well.
When I interviewed Liza Minnelli, she told me even recovering alcoholics must always refer themselves as alcoholics. Did Liza break rules by talking about AA?
AA does not have rules. It has suggestions. They don’t call them rules. I supposed one can break one’s own anonymity which I don’t do.
What did you think went wrong with Liza?
I know Liza and have sat around talking with her. But I don’t think I know her well enough to talk about that.
It’s sad seeing you in a wheelchair. Do you believe you will get out of that chair one day?
Well I guess if the condition gets good I will. My spirits are mostly okay, but nobody likes to be like this. There are days when I get down, but I don’t seem to stay down for long.
Many of your fans are gay. Your only child, Adam LeGrant, is gay. You and I are talking less than a month after the tragic massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. When I say ‘homophobia’ . . .
(Interrupts) It affects me like everyone else. Homophobia is a stupid, horrible way of thinking. It’s getting better, but it’s still, oh God! awful.
Were you disappointed when you learned your son Adam was gay?
When Adam told me he had something to tell me, I had no idea he was going to tell me he was gay. I thought he was going to tell me he broke up with his girlfriend and was never going to marry her. When he said he was gay, I knew I would never have grandchildren—that entered my psyche immediately. I thought there’s something wrong. I have a son I don’t know. I was really upset and I screamed and cried like crazy for about five days. It occurred to me that all my life I felt like a little girl with her nose pressed against the glass of a candy shop. I didn’t feel part of real life. But when I bore a son I felt more connected to the world. When Adam told me was gay, I didn’t feel connected anymore. After crying, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What on earth is going on with you? What the hell is wrong with you? He is your son!’
I asked Liza about why she has such a gay following. She told me her fans relate to her pain, just as they related to her mother’s pain. You are aware you have a large gay following?
Oh sure. I talked about it with friends a couple of times. But I don’t know what it’s about. Could I be they relate to my problems? Who knows? We all have problems.
You made your Broadway debut in the 1951 musical Flahooley; you won a Tony for The Music Man. A far cry from growing up in Atlanta in such poverty you used to eat dinners of white bread and ketchup. You are a legend! A special survivor!
(Long laugh ) Oh God, I don’t think of it as way. We all think we’re special. I know I am very, very grateful of the gift I have given. Singing is a wonderful way to move and touch people. I feel that I must sing because it feels so good to get all that out! I suppose it’s a gift from a higher power.
Where do you keep your Tony?
I have a dining room and it’s kept in a bookcase in there.
After reading your book, I still cannot figure out if you liked Elaine Stritch.
(Laughs) I liked her, but not always what she did. Her behavior sometimes. Somewhere inside her was a very nice person.
I am going to push you in a corner. What’s your favorite song?
(Laughs) Oh my goodness! The answer is no. I have no favorite.
How about a song you never sang?
I don’t think of things that way; I think of shows I wished I had done. I wanted to do The Most Happy Fella. I auditioned again and again for that and I really wanted to do it. But if I had done that, I wouldn’t have been able to do Candide.
You will be 89 on October 25. Ever think how you want to be remembered? What will be on your gravestone?
Oh gee. Wow. No one ever asked me that. (Pauses) SHE DID HER BEST.