Color Me Barbra
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Drucker
What's the best way to get to know a superstar?Touring Barbra Streisand's former houses in Malibu, Stephen Drucker finds the answer: through her furniture
Officially, I was booked on the 1 p.m. Garden Tour at Ramirez Canyon Park in Malibu. In the privacy of my shallow, starstruck head, I had been jumping up and down for weeks, thanking heaven for my reservation on the perpetually sold-out Omigod-I'm-Going-to-Barbra's-House-in-Malibu Tour.
Let's try not to call it that, though. This is Ramirez Canyon Park now.
Barbra Streisand called it The Ranch. She decorated and gardened here with her legendary precision from 1974 until 1993, when she donated five buildings on 221/2 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which manages the property today. No formal connection to Streisand remains, so her former home is obliquely named and characterized as a nature preserve. There is only one tour for the public each week, on Wednesday afternoon, limited to 40 people. It costs $30 and lasts 1 1/2 hours. It has never been advertised, but it is usually sold out at least a month in advance.
"We're not going to tell you about Jason's bar mitzvah," I was warned by Marsha Feldman, director of special events. "We're all about this beautiful place." Like Hollywood, Malibu exists mostly in the imagination. Visitors get there but never quite feel they've found it. Here is a chance to lift the veil, to venture down a winding, mile-long canyon road and peer behind the Aubrey Beardsley gates, where the fuchsia and bougainvillea and copa de oro grow extravagantly.
A high-minded sentiment, but nobody drives an hour from Los Angeles just to see bougainvillea. I was there to see The Barn, which Streisand bought with Jon Peters during her "Evergreen" period, and The Peach House, with the Art Nouveau media room, and The Meadow, where she sang for the Democratic Party in 1986, and The Art Deco House made famous by a cover story in Architectural Digest nine years ago. And my antenna was up, all the way up, because this is one of my favorite games. If you want to get to know somebody famous, don't read People or the National Enquirer; look at her house. The furniture never lies.
There was an opening-night thrill as our group gathered, though it was clear that references to the singer would be few and circumspect. "We've always tried to respect Ms. Streisand's privacy about her personal life and how she used the property," said Lisa Soghor, the director of the park for the past seven years. "A lot of questions begin, 'Isn't it true that...?' We always say, 'We have no idea,' since we really don't have the answers." Not everyone, she added, cares only about celebrity. "People are interested in how high the creek gets," Soghor said. "People ask about fire in the canyon."
Not the people on my tour.
Have you ever met Barbra?
Yvette, our docent, never removed her sunglasses, and skillfully fought off the question as she adhered to the script. If there is one point to be taken away from this tour, it's that the world's most delicious climate, the Mediterranean climate, exists in only five places: the Mediterranean, southwestern Africa, the southwestern tip of Australia, Chile, and southern California. Malibu feels like paradise because it is, with warm, dry days and cool nights and the ocean breeze carrying the scent of jasmine and sage and chaparral through the still canyons.
Our first stop was The Barn, the three-bedroom house renovated after Streisand and Jon Peters purchased the first of six parcels of land here in 1974. This is where they lived during the au naturel, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar seventies, when the singer wore her hair like Pam Grier, and architecture and decorating took a turn toward Thoreau. Craftsmen and toymakers—toymakers!—rebuilt The Barn inside and out with old and aged wood from upstate New York. It just wouldn't be the seventies without lots of stained glass, and every nook and cranny is handmade to look as if it had sprung from the forest. It's the Adam and Eve in Malibu look.
Beside The Barn, Streisand added a grove of redwoods, among the 1,000 non-native varieties she planted on the property. "They give you the feeling you're in northern California," Yvette pointed out. Not that there's anything wrong with Malibu.
Did she sleep in all of the houses?
Yvette deftly changed the subject as we moved on to The Corral, now a cutting and herb garden, and The Meadow, the site of the "One Voice" concert for HBO. Here, on the night of September 6, 1986, in a natural amphitheater with terraced orchards of lemons, limes, grapefruit, and avocados as a backdrop, the singer gave her first full-length concert in 20 years, for an audience of 500, as a benefit for the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. Many Democratic candidates that November were beneficiaries of her renditions of "Somewhere" and "Send in the Clowns," and "Guilty," sung in duet with a Bee Gee.
What did Barbra pay for this place?
"I really don't know," Yvette said politely, and without skipping a beat coaxed us along to The Peach House. Originally a small stable, it became a villa in the Mediterranean style, its peach stucco walls made even more scrumptious with masses of pink begonias and cherry-blossom bougainvillea. You could just die.
Yvette was eager to show us the screening room. In the late 1970's it was state-of-the-art, with two 35 mm projectors and a Sony Trinitron, all of which look rather quaint now. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at a screening of Yentl in this room full of oak woodwork carved with bare-breasted (turn your head, Yentl) Art Nouveau nymphs, with a big fire in that glitzy onyx fireplace.
Did you go to the wedding?
"No, I didn't," Yvette said with a smile as she led us to the climax of the tour, The Art Deco House, landscaped like tropical Florida, with a black-bottomed swimming pool and plaster flamingos. It was used primarily for entertaining, and Streisand spent five years perfecting it, going so far as to design a matching necklace. The colors of the house are more tightly synchronized than a Billy Rose aquacade. Many visitors recalled the Architectural Digest story, in which we learned that the house had "only two color ranges: black to gray, and burgundy to pale rose." For example, the exterior is gray and burgundy ceramic tile, and there were always two cars parked in the driveway, a silver Rolls and an old burgundy Dodge with a rumble seat. Furthermore, Streisand clarified her position for the interviewer: "I don't put a black vase in the gray-and-burgundy room."
The best furniture and accessories are now gone, auctioned at Christie's nine years ago, but more than enough atmosphere remains in the zigzagging frieze salvaged from the Atlantic Richfield building in downtown Los Angeles, the Cubist carpeting reproduced from a 1930's Bigelow pattern, and the many carefully re-created pieces of glamorous streamlined furniture, the sort Katie and Hubbell encountered on Beekman Place in The Way We Were.
Gorgeous. Especially those wrought-iron gates by the French master Paul Kiss.
After The Art Deco House, the group seemed sated. There were only brief stops at the Craftsman-style Tennis Pavilion and Barwood, the former offices of Streisand's production company, built around a magnificent sycamore. We crossed the creek, nearly back where we'd begun. Yvette gathered us all around her. "At this point in the tour," she said, "I like to ask everybody to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and really hear nature."
The only thing I heard was "Papa, Can You Hear Me?"
Ramirez Canyon Park 5750 Ramirez Canyon Rd., Malibu; 310/589-2850 ext. 301, fax 310/589-2561. Tours are Wednesdays at 1 p.m., and you must reserve in advance; access to the houses is by official van only, from a meeting point on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The grass is always greener: celebrity house tours
Barbra Streisand's houses are the exception rather than the rule: most celebrity residences, even former ones, are not open to the public. The closest you'll typically get is a drive-by L.A.-area "stars' houses" tour. Starline Tours (800/959-3131; www.starlinetours.com; two hours, $29) and Hollywood Fantasy Tours (800/782-7287 or 323/469-8184; two hours, $31) run two of the best, guiding you to the mansions of yesteryear's stars (Lucille Ball, Engelbert Humperdinck, John Wayne) and today's (Britney Spears, John Travolta, Eddie Murphy) while dishing Hollywood trivia along the way. (Did you know that Aaron Spelling's 125-room mansion is the largest single-family house on the West Coast?) If you'd rather go it alone, William A. Gordon's Ultimate Hollywood Tour Book (www.nrbooks.com; $15.95) includes detailed maps and self-guided tours that give you a glimpse of the private lives of very public people.
—Jaime L. Gross