A Candid Conversation with Barbara Cook

Diva Talk   Diva Talk: A Candid Conversation with Barbara Cook
 
The Tony-winning Broadway veteran discusses her revealing new book, working with Wally Harper and Elaine Stritch and her thoughts on the current political race.
Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook Mike Martin
Barbara Cook Memoir HR

Barbara Cook
“I killed my sister when I was three years old. I was responsible for my father leaving us when I was six.” So begins Barbara Cook’s wonderfully honest and insightful autobiography Then and Now: A Memoir, which was recently released by HarperCollins. Cook’s new tome can be likened to her singing—not one false note. This is not a white-washed celebrity biography, but rather a seemingly truthful examination of a life of several lows and even greater highs. What is especially refreshing is Tony winner Cook’s ability to take responsibility for and learn from some of life’s missteps, gaining hard-earned wisdom that she hopes will benefit others. The Kennedy Center Honoree delves into her bleak childhood; her battle with alcoholism and its connection to her anxiety attacks; and a failed marriage. The gifted singing actress also details her work with some of Broadway’s greatest talents on some of the classics of the American musical theatre—Cook discusses auditioning for Leonard Bernstein, working with Robert Preston, taking direction from Harold Prince and building an international concert career with musical director and accompanist Wally Harper—as well as her friendships with Elaine Stritch and Maureen Stapleton and her loving relationship with her only child, Adam LeGrant. A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of chatting with the Broadway favorite, who spoke freely about her autobiography, which was co-written with Tom Santopietro.

When did you first have the idea for writing the book? Were you approached, or…
Barbara Cook: Well, people have been wanting me to write for a long time, off and on, you know? And, I’ve always said no because my thinking was, “Who cares?” And, finally HarperCollins came to me and really, really pushed me to do this. And once I thought maybe I could help people, then that’s when I decided it was worthwhile. It was very hard for me to do because I don’t think of myself as a writer at all. That’s not the way I communicate and never has been. So, it was not an easy task for me.

I remember in the beginning that it was announced that Charles Isherwood was going to write it with you. I guess that changed…
BC: Well, it just didn’t work out because our personalities are so different, you know? And, I hated to have to do that, but I was much better off with Tom. You know, I wrote the whole thing. I wrote every word, and Tom really organized it for me. … We would email a lot. And talk a lot. Our personalities just meshed so much better, you know? You can’t make that up. Charles is a rather cool person, and God knows I’m not. [Laughs.]

Did you write longhand or on the computer?
BC: Well, I started out with the computer, and then I finished up just with a pad and pen. I also wrote most of it just across the desk from my assistant, Debbie, who just answered the phone. And, you know, I need an audience I guess, and she was the perfect audience for me. She was very helpful.

Who came up with that first line: “I killed my sister when I was three years old…"?
BC: Oh, I did. It didn’t start that way. Originally it started with “I was born, I breathed, I sang.” Then I thought that I wanted to do a real grabber so people would keep turning the pages. So, I came up with that opening line, that opening paragraph. And, it’s true. I grew up thinking that I was responsible for her death.

The book painted a really difficult childhood that I didn’t know that you went through…
BC: It was not always easy.

As I was reading it, I think there’s one point where you wonder why you have survived so much longer than some of the other people in the business, and I thought maybe it was to make up for the childhood that you had.
BC: I don’t know—you know, I think my feeling about my sister has really held me back because I have this feeling that I don’t deserve it, you know? … And, I realize that’s not true, and I’ve realized it for a long time, but I believed it for a long time, too.

Especially as a child, you don’t realize…
BC: I don’t think my mother stood in front of me and said, “You killed your sister.” I don’t think that’s the way it happened. I was three years old when she died. I think she didn’t die in a hospital because they didn’t have drugs and things to help you then, you know? We’re talking about late ‘20s, early ‘30s, right? And we didn’t have antibiotics and all that stuff. So, I feel sure, I don’t remember, but I feel sure she must have died at home. And so I was privy as this little kid to all the talk around me by the relatives, and probably somebody said, “If only she hadn’t caught whooping cough from Barbara, she would have lived,” within my hearing. Children really will listen.

What would you say was the most difficult part or most challenging part of the book to write? Was it the section on your childhood…
BC: Yes, to go back there was very hard. I cried a lot when I wrote that.

Do you feel like it was at all cathartic going through it, that you were able to get rid of some of it?
BC: Not really. Other people have asked me that. And, of course, I have seen other people write that, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

Were there parts of the book you enjoyed writing?
BC: Well, enjoyed writing? I don’t know if I could put it that way. Now I am a writer, I’ve done it God knows, but I’m surprised … I just never expected that I would write a book. Never. And it was not easy for me. Maybe some people finally get into the swing of it or something. But not me, I never really did. It was all hard for me to write. But by far the childhood was the hardest part. I cried a lot, and I have often wondered what my life might have been like if my sister had lived and if my father hadn’t left. I was blamed for that, too.

I wonder if those things really pushed you into your career, if it gave you the drive to get out and to step into a make-believe world where…
BC: I don’t know. I‘ve been very, very fortunate, and I’ve always had this pretty little voice. And then I found a teacher who helped build it, you know? A wonderful teacher … and, unfortunately, he died very early.

When you were writing the book, was there anything that you learned about yourself that you didn't already know?
BC: Well, what I finally know now is that I’m a pretty good writer. First of all, I have very good grammar and all of that. I understand language, and that helps me a lot. I’m sure I made mistakes here and there, I don’t mean that I’m perfect by any means. But I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned: I’ve learned that I can do things I had no idea I could ever do. That’s important, you know? I would never ever have thought I would hold my book in my hands. Never. And that was a great moment, when I got that first book. You know, “Oh my God, I did this!” So, it kind of makes me feel that if I really try, I can do just about anything.… And, you know, the weirdest thing now is I’m thinking about a second book.

Really?
BC: Yes, after all the difficulties with this one. I haven’t spoken to anybody about it, but what I want to do is to write a book about how I approach singing, how I find songs and all that stuff. Because I didn’t touch on that really in the book at all.

That would be fascinating—you should do that, sort of a master-class book.
BC: Well, I performed at 54 Below as part of the release of the book. And I said that I was shocked that maybe I'm going to write another book. And the people applauded, they really seemed to want me to do it. Also, I’m at an age where I really, really like to channel whatever I know, and people take it or leave it, you know what I mean? If it’s helpful—I certainly hope it would be—that they could get something out of it. Because, you know, when you get to be my age, if you have anything to say, you figure you better say it!

I love the parts of the book where you talked about your son and the advice that he gives you and how he sees things.
BC: Yeah, he’s so wise. He really is.

What’s your relationship with him like these days?
BC: We are very close, and he calls me just about every day now. He is very helpful to me. He helps me with all sorts of things, and he’s so wise. I don’t know where that came from. But think of those things that I talk about, you know? And then he gives me his take on it, and it just lifts. It just goes. Because I think, “Damn, he’s right.”

I found it very interesting how you were able to connect your anxiety attacks with your drinking.
BC: Well, there was that one time in particular because I hadn’t had anything to drink in about six months, so I got very drunk very fast. And I hadn’t had—at that point—anything to drink in six months, and the panic attacks had subsided. And then, I passed out, really, from drinking [and woke up in the midst of a panic attack] … and I looked at what was left in the glass by my bed, and I said—I might have even said it out loud—“I’m never gonna do that again.” And I haven’t. So, I don’t think I did it. You know, I think it was a gift somehow, from somewhere. My sobriety. I swear, I don’t think I did it.

Once you made that decision, was it pretty easy to keep from not drinking?
BC: Yeah. Absolutely. Isn’t that wild? And, you know, I had tried again and again and again to stop drinking, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine cooking dinner without a glass of sherry or something in my hand. And I couldn’t imagine paying bills without sitting down at my desk with something to drink. I just couldn’t imagine.

Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook
Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook Matthew Blank

I have to say I got a good laugh out of reading about your experiences with Elaine Stritch…
BC: Oh, she was funny as hell. She was a good old broad. I knew her for so long, and we got along pretty well, except when we really tried to work together, and she tried to tell me how to sing a song…. I got a few f*cks out of it. [Laughs] She was such a talented person though. Oh my God, so talented. She could be a pain in the ass to work with, but boy she was good.

When they make your book into a movie, who do you want to play you?
BC: [Laughs.] Nobody ever asked me that before. God, I don’t know. I have no idea. I’d have to think about that. I can’t give a quick answer on that.

What’s it like for you when you see revivals of the shows you’ve been in, with other people playing the roles you created? What’s that like as an actor?
BC: Well, … this sounds terrible, I want to correct a lot of what they do. [Laughs] You know, I always figured that the way I do it is the way it ought to be done. … Well, you know, I make decisions about roles and how to sing these songs, that song, whatever. And, of course, I always think my decision is the correct one, so I want everybody to do what I would have done, and that doesn’t happen of course. [Laughs]

Do you get to the theatre much these days?
BC: I haven’t very much lately because it’s hard for me to walk. I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m not crazy about being seen in this wheelchair. It may be silly, and I’ll probably get over it, but arriving in a wheelchair is not what I want to do. I do need to get over that I think.

You should—don’t let it stop you from enjoying what you enjoy.
BC: I know, you’re absolutely right. I mentioned that in the show [at Feinstein/54 Below], and the people applauded and said that I should—it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.
BC: That I’m in a wheelchair.

No, not at all.

Wally Harper with collaborator Barbara Cook.
Wally Harper with collaborator Barbara Cook. Photo by barbaracook.com

BC: It matters to me!

I’m sure it does —but don’t let it stop you from enjoying life.
BC: Yeah, I know you’re right. And I’m working on it. I have a very good friend … who had a terrible accident back in the ’60s and was partially paralyzed, and he has to be in a wheelchair all the time. And when I mentioned this to him—my reluctance to be seen at a theatre. And he said he still feels the same way, and that when he arrives at a theatre—we have to have these special cars that will take a wheelchair— instead of being let out in front of the theatre, he always has it go around the corner, so people just see him in the chair. So he still feels that way, and he was hurt in the ‘60s. So, it ain’t easy I guess.

What do you make of the world these days…
BC: I watch CNN all the time. In fact, you know, during the day all those ladies’ programs don’t interest me usually. I have CNN on right now. Well, especially with the election, we need to see what’s going on. We just have a few months now, and I don’t know.

I know—it’s scary.
BC: Yeah, isn’t it?

I’ll be glad when it’s over.
BC: It’s all so fascinating. I’m just fascinated by elections and politics. It’s like the greatest soap opera around.

You’ve seen more election cycles than I have. Do you remember anything equal to what’s going on now?
BC: Well, I certainly don’t ever remember one like this. You know, Trump has changed things around a lot. But everybody says they’ve never seen one like this. God, he’s scary. But I tell you, I have some faith at least in the people. I just can’t believe they would vote him into the presidency. But then, I also didn’t think they would vote Bush into a second [term]. I did not believe that would happen. So, [we] can’t always trust other people I guess.

Let’s hope they come through this time.
BC: Yes —I don’t know why people find him attractive at all.

No. Not at all. Have you gotten any reactions from friends or other people who have read the book yet?
BC: Generally speaking, the people who have read it tell me that they feel that it’s quite conversational, and that makes me feel good because that’s what I intended it to be. I wanted it to be conversational. Because I’m not a writer writer, you know? So, the only thing I know to do is to write the way I would talk if somebody’s listening to the story.

What do you think Wally Harper would have thought of the book?
BC: Well, I think he would be embarrassed, maybe, at how truthful I was, about his illness [Harper also battled alcoholism]. He just did not trust doctors at all. So he wouldn’t really go to a doctor. And he had a book about drugs, and he could find people who would treat him, and he would look in the book and tell them what to do.

That's interesting.
BC: Oh my God, isn’t it? He was so talented and such a good guy. Very, very generous man. He helped so many people, and I really cared about him a lot.

That’s evident in the book.
BC: A lot. I don’t know what his partner will think. Did I tell too much? Well, I don’t know. I guess he’ll let me know.

I’m sure. The truth is the truth.
BC: Well, it is, and some of it was embarrassing to him—in life I mean, not in the book as much but in life. And it’s hard to deal with it. And yet, I wanted to be honest. And I’m hoping maybe people who are reading the book who need help will have an open mind and hopefully be helped. That’s the final thing I thought about writing the book—because I put it off a long time, and I didn’t really want to do it because I knew how hard it would be. And then finally it occurred to me that if somebody’s in trouble and they have an open mind, maybe there are things in the book that could help them. Maybe they could see that you can have a second life. And you can stop drinking. It ain’t easy, boy.


Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.