Ottawa was dazzled when Barbra Streisand appeared with Pierre Trudeau in January of 1970. She said he made her feel like Jackie Kennedy. But could America’s superstar ever have become queen of Canada’s Camelot?
The news rippled across the National Arts Centre audience like wind through a wheatfield.
“Barbra is here—with Pierre! Barbra Streisand, of course! She’s dating Trudeau, didn’t you know?”
Heads turned as the couple entered the auditorium and there was applause as they rather shyly took their seats. Prime Minister Trudeau had pinned a characteristic red rose to his tuxedo and also a button with the slogan Manitoba IS. The evening was a gala in honour of the centennial of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation, and, as the Ottawa Citizen noted, “the sombre stone walls almost bulged with Prairie people and emblems.”
Yet all eyes were on Streisand. In her white wool Arnold Scaasi evening suit with its plunging neckline, white mink collar and matching hat and muff—pictured above—she looked positively regal, a Queen Nefertiti of the Snows. As the lights dimmed and the chattering ceased, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet took the stage to perform Five Over Thirteen, a new ballet by Canadian choreographer Brian Macdonald.
Trudeau had first met Streisand at another gala a year before. In mid-January of 1969, they had both been seated at Princess Margaret’s table for a swank party at Claridge’s following the British film premiere of Funny Girl. Trudeau was in London for his first Commonwealth Conference and the English press was mobbing him—they had never seen a Canadian prime minister like him before. He obliged them by sliding down a polished banister at Marlborough House to a lightning storm of camera flashes.
A few months before, Streisand had spotted photos of Canada’s sexy and single new prime minister in Life magazine and had commented to her best friend Cis Corman that he was the kind of man she would like to meet. With her marriage to actor Elliott Gould in the deep freeze, Streisand was ready for a new kind of romance. At the Claridge’s dinner, she discovered that Trudeau, as she later wrote, “was everything my imagination promised and more.” He asked her to dance, but she said she didn’t like to do so in public and suggested he ask Cis Corman instead. The next day, the tabloids featured photos of Trudeau dancing with his unknown new “flame.” Corman, in fact, was the wife of a Manhattan psychiatrist and a mother of four. She had met the teenaged Streisand at an acting class in 1958 and been a kind of big sister to her ever since.
Fashion designer Arnold Scaasi recalled being at Streisand’s Central Park West apartment when Trudeau first telephoned her after his return from London. The star was in a bathrobe with her head wrapped in a towel when her maid announced that Pierre Trudeau was on the phone. The designer overheard a giggling Barbra ask, “So how did you get my number?” which he thought “a pretty naive question to ask the head of a major country.” Scaasi was a Canadian himself, born Arnold Isaacs in Montreal in 1930. He had inverted the spelling of his last name for stylish effect, rather as Streisand had dropped an “a” from “Barbara.” Scaasi remembered that after Streisand put down the phone, “her beautiful hands flew up in the air, and she said, ‘Just call me Madame Prime Minister!'” at which they both laughed.
For they seemed an improbable couple—the quirky Jewish girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn and the erudite, Jesuit-educated, rich man’s son from Montreal. Just nine years earlier, as the ’60s dawned, no one could have predicted them ever connecting. In July of 1960 the 18-year-old Streisand was singing at a Greenwich Village gay club called The Lion and auditioning for parts in off-Broadway plays. She wore thrift shop clothes and carried a large ring with keys to Manhattan apartments where she could crash for the night. People commented on her remarkable voice, but some thought her ugly duckling looks would hold her back.
Next: It was known in Canada as Trudeaumania…
When Trudeau turned 41 in October 1960, he was still living at his mother’s house in Outremont and squiring younger women around town in a Mercedes convertible. His 20s had been mostly devoted to graduate studies at Harvard, the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics, and to exotic travel. In his 30s, he had been active in opposing the regime of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, particularly through the small but influential journal Cité Libre, which he had co-founded and edited. He was well regarded in left-leaning circles, but even many of his friends considered him something of a dilettante. When he won a seat for the Liberals in the November ’65 federal election, his mother said to his longtime girlfriend, Madeleine Gobeil, “Now he might amount to something.” Within two years, Trudeau was justice minister and by April of 1968, he had become prime minister of Canada.
Streisand’s rise during the ’60s was equally meteoric. As the frumpish Miss Marmelstein in the 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she had made her only solo a show-stopper. This led to a starring role in Funny Girl, a musical based on the life of Fanny Brice, which opened on Broadway in March of ’64 to huge acclaim. Within weeks, she was on the cover of both Time and Life, and by May she had won two Grammy Awards for her first solo recording, The Barbra Streisand Album. At 22, the ugly duckling had become a swan. But it was television that would make her a household name. Her 1965 special, My Name Is Barbra, featured an hour of Streisand performing alone, a rare thing for TV, and it won big ratings and five Emmys. Four similar specials would follow.
It was television that also spurred a 1968 phenomenon in Canada known as Trudeaumania. As Marshall McLuhan noted, Pierre Trudeau was the perfect “cool” public figure for a “cool” medium, and his insouciant TV style helped turn a balding, middle-aged law professor into a political rock star. As Peter Gzowski would later write: “He was glamorous, he was sexy, and he was ours—the perfect symbol of the newly invigorated Canada that had emerged from Expo and the centennial celebrations.”
The universe thus unfolded so that these two stars spawned by the ’60s would come into alignment.
Although the attraction between them was reportedly intense, it seems that, for most of 1969, they communicated mainly by telephone. Trudeau had a country to run and Streisand a red-hot career. In February, it was announced that Streisand and husband Elliot Gould were separating, though he was at her side in April when she won Best Actress for her role in Funny Girl at the Academy Awards. Her win was a rare Oscar tie (with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter), yet it was her Scaasi-designed outfit that stirred the most attention.
When she greeted the gold statuette with “Hello, gorgeous!”—her opening line from the movie—she wore a sheer, black net pantsuit over a flesh-coloured undergarment. Under the TV lights, however, it looked fully see-through, and Scaasi and Streisand would once again share a laugh over the furor this created.
Next: “My God, this is political gold!”…
In October, Streisand began filming The Owl and the Pussycat, and, during a break at the end of the month, Trudeau flew down to spend the weekend with her in New York. On the Friday night, they dined at Casa Brasil, a popular midtown restaurant, before going by limousine to Raffles, an exclusive discotheque in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Afterward, they went back to Streisand’s apartment and did not emerge until Sunday, when they ventured out to the theatre. That evening, Trudeau returned to Ottawa and Streisand returned to filming.
They seemed smitten with each other and, when a reporter asked Trudeau how long he’d known Streisand, he grinned and said, “Not long enough.” Back in Ottawa, there was a discussion in the PMO about the political risks of Trudeau dating the temperamental (and still married) actress, which ended when his executive assistant Timothy Porteous said, “We’re debating whether Pierre should date the hottest star in the world. My God, this is political gold!”
As Pierre and Barbra held hands in the dark at the National Arts Centre, a second dance piece by Brian Macdonald called “Aimez-vous Bach?” was performed. After the curtain call the Prime Minister, with his date and the other VIPs, then went backstage to congratulate the dancers. Arnold Spohr, the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, told Streisand that he had seen her perform in Winnipeg early in her career. This apparently pleased her though her gig at Winnipeg’s Town ‘n’ Country supper club in July of ’61 had not. The club’s owner had taken a dislike to her odd clothes and off-beat manner and later bragged that he had fired her, though she may have departed early of her own accord. Until the Ottawa trip, this had been her only experience of Canada.
Soon, the sound of a violin summoned the dignitaries to join the party and a Red River fiddler led them down the Arts Centre’s grand staircase. Ed Schreyer, then Manitoba’s premier, recalled that Streisand “kept exclaiming enthusiastically as the fiddler danced the Red River jig, which I explained to her was like the Virginia reel. Everyone was watching her reaction because it was quite funny and quite genuine.”
Soon, a beautiful young Métis woman clad in buckskin initiated a candle-lighting ceremony with Gov. Gen. Roland Michener, and Pierre and Barbra held their tapers while joining in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Manitoba. When the dancing started, Barbra was serenaded with “Hello Dolly” in honour of her latest movie and in the hope that the PM would sweep her onto the dance floor. Trudeau resisted this, and they eventually departed around midnight with the other dignitaries. But the party carried on. As the Citizen reported, there was “too much celebrating to do” and “too much to talk about—mostly about the lady with the shy smile who carried the white mink muff and held hands with the Prime Minister.”
Barbra would tell a friend that being with Trudeau made her feel “just like Jackie Kennedy.” And she intended to turn heads in Canada’s Parliament the next morning, just as Jackie had done during the 1961 Kennedy state visit. For this occasion, Scaasi had designed a brown wool paisley suit trimmed in sable with a matching fur hat. In the visitor’s gallery, Streisand sat through what the Citizen called “the dullest question period in recent times and one that did not give Mr Trudeau much opportunity to shine.” The PM seemed bashful and looked up at Streisand frequently, occasionally shrugging or making small gestures.
Finally, veteran Conservative MP George Hees asked him a question, adding “if the Prime Minister can keep his eye off the visitor’s gallery long enough to answer me,” which drew laughter. When Barbra later stood up as if to leave, Pierre held up five fingers to indicate “five minutes more” and gestured upward with his thumb, meaning he would meet her in his office upstairs.
After half an hour in the prime minister’s office, Streisand emerged on the arm of a burly aide who escorted her through an excited press scrum. In a reply to one reporter, she said that she “loved Ottawa,” which was greeted with skepticism since the city was a slushy mess after a January thaw. “I wouldn’t have said so if I didn’t mean it,” she responded with a hint of star hauteur before escaping into a limousine. The newsmen lay in wait for Trudeau until he left his office at 6:30 p.m., carrying a fat briefcase. He told them he would be working that evening, but they didn’t believe him and soon encamped outside 24 Sussex Drive. When he emerged in track clothes for a jog in the grounds of Rideau Hall, they pursued him until he threw snowballs at them and raced away up the Governor General’s driveway.
Meanwhile, a candle-lit dinner was being prepared for Streisand, her friend Cis Corman (who was playing chaperone for the stay at the PM’s residence) and a small guest list that included Secretary of State Gérard Pelletier and a number of artists. The next day, Streisand and Corman flew back to New York by way of Montreal; Streisand’s verdict on the trip was that it had been “breathtaking.”
The intense coverage of the star’s visit had been less than thrilling for 21-year-old Margaret Sinclair who had been dating Trudeau in recent months. She later described how over the next few days her “pique and jealousy” mounted and when Trudeau called her, she screamed, “Go back to your American actress” and slammed down the phone. He eventually managed to win back her favor—yet Streisand remained in his thoughts. In Just Watch Me, the second volume of his Trudeau biography, John English writes that Barbra flew up to Ottawa a few months later for a spring weekend with Pierre at the PM’s retreat on Harrington Lake “where he impressed her by diving expertly into the chill of the lake.” Pierre also reportedly expressed his desire for children and raised the notion of marrying her.
Barbra was flattered and intrigued. “I thought it would be fantastic,” she confided in a 1977 Playboy interview. “I’d have to learn how to speak French. I would do only movies made in Canada. I had it all figured out. I would campaign for him and become totally politically involved in all the causes, abortion and whatever.”
Abortion, of course, would not be something on which the Catholic Trudeau would campaign, and religion was likely just one of the “certain realities” that eventually punctured Streisand’s fantasy of becoming Canada’s Evita. Her demanding movie career and three-year-old son were no doubt also foremost among those realities. She said that she would never dream of asking Trudeau to give up his position, which was “too important to a whole country, a world.” And so, with great affection, they agreed to part. A few months later, Streisand flew to Sweden where Gould was making an Ingmar Bergman film to try and effect a reconciliation. But it was not to be, and they would soon divorce.
Trudeau began to woo Margaret Sinclair in earnest, and, in March of 1971, Canadians were startled by the announcement of his secret wedding to this beautiful woman 29 years his junior. On Christmas Day 1971, their first son, Justin, was born. By then, a romance had blossomed between Streisand and actor Ryan O’Neal, with whom she would co-star in the 1972 movie What’s Up, Doc? Ironically, O’Neal would be one of the celebrities with whom Margaret would have a dalliance after she famously bolted from her marriage in 1977.
Margaret had found life at 24 Sussex Drive to be suffocating, and it’s hard to imagine that the more imperious Streisand would have lasted anywhere near as long. Yet Barbra’s affection for Pierre endured, and they would reconnect in later years on several occasions. She also sent loving notes at important points in his life and called to express condolences on the loss of his son, Michel, in 1998.
After Trudeau’s death in 2000, Streisand penned a tribute for Nancy Southam’s book, Pierre, in which she described him as an “elegant, private and dignified man” who was “intellectual yet physical, loving sports and information, that great connection of mind and body.” She concluded by stating, ” I’m proud to have been a part of his life.”
Before an Ottawa concert crowd on Oct. 20, 2012, Streisand recalled her 1970 visit to the capital. She also mentioned that Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, had come backstage after her Montreal concert a few days before. “He was so full of progressive ideas for the people and for this wonderful country,” she said, “so, who knows, he may be occupying 24 Sussex Drive in a few years.” At the time, Justin was merely a Liberal MP but three years to the day later, Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau greeted supporters on Parliament Hill, a day after winning one of the most stunning electoral victories in Canadian history.
Streisand was back in Canada in late August of the following year, wrapping up a nine-city North American concert tour at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. One of the many things she liked about Canada, she told the audience, was that “you can turn on the television and see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I relate to Justin because he is like every nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn—he went into his father’s business.” She also added, “You know I was a pretty big admirer of his father.” The audience responded with a knowing chuckle.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue with the headline, “Starstruck”, p. 76-79.